Let’s close down the schools

Giovanni Papini was one of Italy’s most peculiar, polemical and complex twentieth-century writers. A self-taught philosopher and inventor of the genre of the metaphysical novella, he spent the first half of his life railing against the clergy and the second half as one of the country’s most virulently reactionary Catholic intellectuals. The essay below was published in 1914, in the earlier of the two periods, at the time of Papini’s brief association with the futurist movement. It is not an uncomplicated text, and my translating it certainly does not constitute an endorsement. Perhaps we could liken it to the rant of a present-day libertarian blogger, and we can certainly glimpse in its particular brand of anti-intellectualism and cult of the free spirit elements of the fascist ideology that Papini would eventually embrace. And yet its insight on how schools operated – like prisons, hospitals, churches – as disciplinary institutions is of a quite different nature. Critics of the neoliberal school, with its national standards, its league tables and its teaching to the test, may also find that some of Papini’s charges are becoming newly relevant and applicable.

More than anything else, I am drawn to Papini’s view of the school primarily as an architecture. Could the project for a more democratic school begin from that – from the idea perhaps of a school without walls?

Let’s close down the schools

By Giovanni Papini

1 June 1914

We should beware of large tenements where multitudes of people choose or are made to withdraw. Prison, churches, hospitals, parliaments, barracks, ministries, convents. These public architectures are a bad omen: irrefutable signs of a general disease. Defence against crimes – against death – against the stranger – against disorder – against loneliness – against everything that scares a man when he is left to himself: the eternal coward who makes laws and societies to serve like bastions and trenches to his fearfulness.

There are sinister warehouses of bad men – in cities and in the country and on the shores of the sea – that you cannot walk past without dread.

There are condemned to darkness, to hunger, to suicide, to stillness, to degradation, to madness, thousands and millions of men who took some riches away from their richer brothers or abruptly diminished the number of that non regrettable humanity. I’m not moved to pity by these men but it saddens me to think too much about their lives – and about the quality and legitimacy of their judges and gaolers. However for these people at least there is the excuse of defending ourselves against future injuries.

But what have boys and girls and adolescents done that from the age of six to the age of ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-four you shut them for so many hours a day in your white-walled jails to sap their bodies and dull their brains? Those others you can call criminals with the authority of your statutes, but these are, even to you, as pure and innocent as they were when they came out of the uteruses of your wives and daughters. With what treacherous excuses do you dare to reduce their pleasure and their freedom in the most wonderful age of life, and prejudice forever the brightness and vigour of their intelligence?

Don’t respond with the heavy artillery of progressive rhetoric: the reasons of civility, the education of the spirit, the advance of knowledge… We know with absolute certainty that civilisation did not originate in schools and that schools weaken the spirit instead of fortifying it and that the most important discoveries of science were not the product of public teaching but of the solitary, disinterested and perhaps even mad research of men who had never been to school and who weren’t teachers.

We also know, and with the same degree of certainty, that the school, being by necessity a formal and traditionalist institution, succeeds very often in petrifying knowledge and places stubborn obstructions on the path of the most urgent intellectual reforms and revolutions.

Only by chance and mere coincidence – it houses so many people! – the school can occasionally become a laboratory for new truths.

The school is not, by its intrinsic nature, a creation, a spiritual work, but a simple practical organism and tool. It does not produce knowledge but is proud of transmitting it. And it does not even accomplish this last task, for it transmits it badly or more often than not in transmitting it prevents, by desiccating and deforming the receiving brains, the creation of new and better forms of knowledge.

Schools, therefore, are nothing but prisons for minors, whom they raise in order to fulfil purely practical and bourgeois needs.

What needs?

For the parents, in the early years, they are the most respectable means of ridding the house of the children who are a nuisance. The motivation of helping them achieve a ‘position’ and a ‘career’ comes into play later.

For the teachers above all there is the purpose of earning money for bread, meat and clothes in a profession that is considered ‘dignified’, with the added benefit of three months’ holidays every year and the occasional chance to tend to one’s vanity. Let’s add to this the sadistic delight of being allowed to bore, frighten and torment with impunity a few thousand children or young people by the time one has retired.

The State supports schools because family men demand them and because it, the State, seeing as every year it needs a few battalions of office clerks, would rather bring them up according to its own methods and pick them on the basis of the certificates it has issued without the added bother of more tiring selections.

Add to this that schools line the pockets of inspectors, directors, caretakers, trainers, assistants, publishers, booksellers, stationers and you’ll get the full texture of the interests woven around our municipal and royal and state-recognized penitentiaries.

Nobody – except in speeches – gives any thought to the betterment of the nation or to the development of thought, much less to what should be the paramount consideration: the good of the children.

Schools exist, are a convenience, lead to some people earning money: let’s cram boys and girls in there and be done with it.

Man, in the three crucial half-dozen years of life (from six to twelve, from twelve to eighteen, from eighteen to twenty-four), needs his freedom.

The freedom to strengthen his body and preserve his health, that is to say the freedom to live outside: inside the schools he spoils his eyes, his lungs, his nerves (think how many short-sighted people, anemics and neurotics can rightly curse schools and who invented them!).

The freedom to develop his personality in a life open to a myriad possibilities, instead of the artificial and constrained life of the classroom and the boarding school.

The freedom to truly learn something, because you never learn anything important from a lecture, but only from great books and personal contact with reality, in which everyone finds their own place and chooses what is most congenial to them instead of being subjected to that uniform and dulling manipulation that goes under the name of teaching.

In schools, instead, we have the daily incarceration in dusty rooms full of breaths – in the most unnatural physical immobility – the immobility of the spirit forced to repeat instead of searching – the ruinous effort to learn with moronic methods a multitude of useless things – and the systematic drowning of personality, originality and initiative in the black sea of standardised programmes. Until six years of age man is prisoner of parents, nannies and tutors; from six to twenty-four he is the subordinate of parents and teachers; from the age of twenty-four he is a slave of the office, of the supervisor, of the public and of his wife; between forty and fifty he is mechanized and ossified by his habits (which are worse than any master) and servant, slave, prisoner, convict and puppet he remains until death.

Leave us at least childhood and youth to enjoy some moments of healthy anarchy!

The only excuse (but it’s hardly sufficient) for such a very long period of scholastic incarceration is its recognised usefulness to future men. But on this point there is sufficient agreement amongst the most enlightened minds that school does much greater harm than good to the developing brain.

It teaches umpteen useless things, which you then have to unlearn in order to learn as many other things by yourself.

It teaches umpteen false or debatable things which it takes quite some effort to get rid of – and not everyone manages.

It accustoms men to the belief that the entire stock of wisdom of the world resides inside of printed books.

It almost never teaches a man what he’s actually going to have to do in life, which then requires a strenuous and lengthy self-taught apprenticeship.

It teaches (claims to teach) what nobody will ever be able to teach: painting in the academies; taste in the schools of letters; thought in the schools of philosophy; pedagogy in the training schools; music in the conservatories.

It teaches badly because it teaches everyone the same things in the same way and in the same quantity, without taking into account the infinite diversity of intelligence, race, social background, age, needs, etc.

You cannot teach to more than one. You cannot learn from others except in a one-to-one conversation, where the person who teaches adapts to the nature of the other, re-explains, exemplifies, asks, debate and does not dispense truth from above.

Almost all men who have done something new in the world either never went to school or escaped it early or were ‘bad’ students. (The mediocre ones who manage to go on to honourable and regular careers and perhaps achieve a certain fame are often the ‘best’ in their class).

Schools fail to teach what you need the most: so that as soon as you’re done with your exams and have received your diplomas you need to throw up everything you were made to gobble in those forced banquets and start from scratch.

I would like our doctors of law, for whom the school is the temple of the new generations and the approved manuals are the sacred gospels of the pedant’s religion, to read at least once the essay by Hazlitt on the ignorance of the learned, that begins like this: ‘The description of persons who have the fewest ideas of all others are mere authors and readers. It is better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else.’

And further: ‘Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.’

I think that very few people – if they were able to judge themselves – could rightly claim to have made such an escape. And all you need to do is look around for a moment and consider the average intelligence of our clerks, managers, professionals and rulers to realise that Hazlitt is right. If there is still some intelligence left in the world, it will be found amongst the autodidacts and the illiterates.

School is so deeply hostile to genius that it doesn’t stultify just the pupils but also the teachers. Forced to repeat the same things year after year, they become more moronic and less malleable than they were to begin with – which is no small feat.

Poor embittered, bored, stiff-jointed, drained, bullied, demoralised tormentors who move their official and governmental limbs only when it’s time to demand a few more liras in their monthly paycheques!

You will hear about schools imparting moral teachings. The only product of the cohabitation of teachers and students is this: seeming subservience and hypocrisy of the latter towards the former, and reciprocal corruption between the students.

The only truthful text in a school is the wall of the toilet.

We must close down the schools – all of them. From first to last. Nursery schools and kindergartens; boarding schools; primary schools and secondary schools; grammar schools and licei; technical schools and technical institutes; universities and academies; commerce schools and war schools; colleges and military institutes; polytechnics and training schools. Every place in which a man claims to teach other men must be closed down. Let’s not be swayed by the parents in a pickle or the unemployed teachers or the booksellers faced with bankruptcy. Everything will settled down and quieten down over time. We’ll find a way to learn (and to learn better and in less time) without the need to sacrifice the best years of our lives behind the desks of our governmental quasi-prisons.

There will be more intelligent men and more men of genius; life and science will progress, and better; everyone will manage and civilization won’t slow down even by one second. There will be more freedom, more health and more joy.

The human soul above all. It is the most precious thing we all have. We must protect it at the very time when it is about to grow its wings. We shall give life annuities to all the teachers, tutors, prefects, directors, professors and caretakers, so long as they let young people out of their privileged factories for state-sponsored cretins. We have had enough after so many centuries.

Those who oppose freedom and youth work on behalf of idiocy and death.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. ‘The only truthful text in a school is the wall of the toilet.’
    Good line!
    The stuff about the architecture of schools reminds me of the comparison in Mark Ames’ book on rage massacres about the similarities between the institutional architecture of mass produced education and similar fittings in prisons and workplaces.
    At the same time, when reading it, I felt (as you mentioned in the intro) the basis of a subsequent Hitchens-style renegacy. Just thinking aloud but I wonder if there is a kind of rhetorical excess in a certain style of polemic that makes the transition from the far left to the far right much easier.

  2. My favourite line is the one about producing state-sponsored cretins. And you’re right, this ia a particular style of bombast that lent itself to sudden and diametrical political shits. The young Mussolini who thundered against war in the socialist daily Avanti! springs most readily to mind.

  3. What sort of reception or hearing did the article get at the time, I wonder? How was Papini characterised (or not) by the institution (and institutions) he criticises? School as problem and not solution is never new: just how different to Freire and Enzenberger is Papini, going on the text of the polemic only? Rhetorical flourish makes for good propaganda, but rarely changes anything. Still, a great article to read. Thanks.

    1. I don’t know that the essay got much of a reception, I think Papini had a bit of reputation as a oddball already by then, and had certainly cultivated a number of literary breakups by that young age. However the polemic would have found echoes in some of the things the futurists were saying against academia. Later the Fascist school, which was certainly not an anti-institution, did its level best to teach what would be most useful in life, ie how to be a good Fascist citizen. There would be so much to say and write about that still. The documents of that time – beginning with the State-promulgated primer – are simply wonderful.

    2. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, of course: “In Praise of Illiteracy”; and his famous statement to the effect of “if you want to exploit someone, you have to educate them first”.

  4. Really interesting post. Another archaeological excavation.
    There’s a lot of incisive questioning beneath Papini’s rhetorical excesses, about which Jeff makes a great point. Schools as prisons is still a useful metaphor and Papini’s description of them show how little has changed in a century. It’s always been of great interest to me that the Left’s commentary on the schooling of children has pretty much vanished. Papini is describing schooling as a site of contention.
    There’s not much contention these days.
    And oddly enough I once gave a paper called ‘The preschool without walls’, the children’s space as a place of an anti-fascist demos. Sounds weird now, anachronistic, almost nostalgic.

    1. I am a little conflicted about this. Of my own school, certainly architecturally and partly in the way it operated, I could say that yes, it was a prison of sorts, and in some important ways it hadn’t changed greatly from Papini’s times. Another three decades have gone past and I don’t know what schools back home have got up to. Of the New Zealand public school I can say that it has both a degree of emphasis on delivering socially equitable outcomes (with the lamentable and notable exception of special needs education), and a progressive curriculum. Both of these things are under attack, and it’s a fight worth fighting – Papini’s path to destruction is not an acceptable answer there. But as the current issue of Neoliberalism Monthly shows, not even an education system that strives to be democratic and socially conscious is ultimately immune to being graded and thus perverted according to the logic of privatisation.

      On this note, a local school principal was telling me that in the United States Montessori primary schools are now seen as a good thing to have on your CV when you start interviewing for top private colleges, so naturally the wealthy are making sure their children go there. Thus a system developed to be child-centred and in most ways the opposite of the school described by Papini becomes the walled, privileged domain of the elites.

  5. A very interesting read, by an author I had not even heard of (perhaps an example of school failure, in and of itself?).

    Your comment on architecture is interesting, Giovanni, and it brought to mind the debate about the open space office in management. Sadly, though, the promised increase on communication and sociam equality that the proponents foresaw turned out to be elusive, replaced by the Dilbertian dystopias we all know.

  6. Giovanni, thank you for the post. Maybe the purpose of Papini’s polemic needed more elaboration to make it interesting. Needless to say, Papini seemed to have a robust indifference to empirical evidence.

    For challenging the current school “reform” movement, a counter focus on deinstitutionalising is obviously abstract and probably unhelpful, even though property relationships and agency needed to be examined to explain the purpose of mass schooling. The New Left 1970s critiques of schooling are a great starting point for this examination.

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