The world’s school

The story of my country is the story of its school system. ‘We made Italy. Now we must make the Italian people,’ said Massimo D’Azeglio, one of the foremost intellectuals of our Risorgimento. The role of compulsory public education for children under the age of 12 – instituted in 1877 – was to be also, if not primarily, this: to forge a unified people with a sense of belonging to a unified nation. For this and other reasons the Catholic Church opposed the institution from the beginning; Pope Pius IX calling it ‘a scourge’ in a private letter to the King, but failed in his efforts to dissuade the government. The people would be educated yet.

The cover of an early German edition of Cuore


The new school featured prominently in two of the most successful books of this period: Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and Edmondo De Amicis’ Cuore. Not surprisingly, the anarchist Collodi had rather ambivalent feelings concerning the institution, albeit far less so than for the police and the courts, but on balance the novel suggests that going to school is probably a good thing. By contrast the immensely popular Cuore (‘Heart’) harboured no misgivings of any kind: the entire book is an open celebration of public education in its civilising, secular, disciplining and nation-building role.

Cuore was published in 1886 and takes the form of the diary of Enrico Bottini, a 12-year-old boy from a well-to-do Piedmontese family who goes to school with children of all social classes and regional origins, so that his class becomes a largely idealised microcosm of the nation. The most obvious and direct comparison is the invective by Giovanni Papini that I translated for this blog earlier this year, and that – three decades on – reflected in turn the growing sense amongst intellectuals that the school was failing in its almost impossibly ambitious mission. Later still, the school would become an instrument of indoctrination at the service of a quite different idea of the nation and of society, but at this earlier stage it could still be viewed with optimism by conservatives and socialists alike. (De Amicis belonged to the latter, although not quite formally yet at the time of writing Cuore.)

If you can get past the sentimentalism typical of the genre at this time, and that Collodi was a superb satirist of, Cuore is still a very enjoyable read. While there are a number of perfectly serviceable translations in the public domain, I have produced one of my own for the passage below. It is a letter by Enrico’s father to his son – yes, parents wrote letters to their children in those days, it seems – in which he exhorts him to love school more. The reason for my posting it is that it builds up to the rather arresting image of schoolchildren everywhere as an army of learners poised to take over the world.

It strikes me that there is no ideology or political movement that could produce such an image nowadays. It would require recapturing far too much innocence, as well as an entire outdated vocabulary for describing people who live elsewhere and the meaning of their lives.

The chapter is the entry for October 28 and is entitled simply ‘School’.

Yes, dear Enrico, study comes hard to you, like your mother says. You don’t go to school with the resolute heart and the cheerful expression that I would like to see. You are still reluctant. But listen: try to think what a miserable, despicable ordeal your day would be of you didn’t go to school! By the end of the week you would beg us with clasped hands to let you go back, worn out by boredom and shame, disgusted by your pastimes and your existence. Everyone studies these days, my dear Enrico. Everyone. Think of the factory workers who go to school in the evening after a hard day’s work, of the women, of the girls of the lower classes who go to school on Sundays, after working all week, of the soldiers who take out their reading books and their exercise books when they return exhausted from their drills. Think of the dumb youths and the blind youths, who still study, and even of the prisoners, who also learn to read and write. Think, in the morning, when you leave the house, that at that very moment, in your very town, thirty thousand boys like you shut themselves up in a room for three hours and study. But that’s nothing. Think of the innumerable boys who at nearly this precise hour go to school in every country, behold them in your imagination, watch them walking down the narrow streets of quiet villages, or the busy streets of crowded cities, along the shores of seas and lakes, under a burning sun or in the chilling fog, on boats in countries criss-crossed by canals, on horseback across great plains, in sleds on the snow, through valleys and hills, across forests and rivers, up lonely mountain pats, alone, in pairs, in groups, in long lines, all of them with books under their arms, dressed in a thousand different ways, speaking a thousand different tongues, from the remotest schools of Russia all but lost amidst the ice to the remotest schools of Arabia shaded by palm-trees, millions upon millions, all learning in a hundred different ways the same things. Imagine this swarming, teeming throng of boys of a hundred races, this immense movement of which you are a part, and consider this: – If this movement were to cease, humanity would be plunged back into barbarism. This movement is the progress, the hope, the glory of the world. – Be brave, then, little soldier of this immense army. Your books are your weapons, your class is your squadron, the field of battle is the whole world, and victory is human civilisation. Don’t be a cowardly soldier, my dear Enrico.


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. But it also suggests an optimism that’s entirely lacking today. ‘This movement is the progress, the hope, the glory of the world.’
    No-one — certainly not anyone on the Left — talks about progress in that respect, probably because hardly anyone has any hope.

    1. but isn’t it also that nobody talks about ‘progress’ in that sense anymore because it has been subject to scrutiny and criticism for some very good reasons?

      1. Hmm. Maybe. I mean, yes, there’s a bad history of such notions but don’t you think there’s been an element of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Today, it’s not simply that we’ve abandoned the notion of inevitable progress, it’s also that we’ve abandoned any sense that progress is possible or even desirable, that there’s any future that’s worth achieving.

        1. I keep banging on about education in these posts because it’s an area in which you can readily test the capacity of a society to imagine a better future. If you can’t even have progressive ideas about education, how could you have progressive ideas about anything else?

        2. I think that’s a bit overstated. Demoralisation and loss of belief in an alternative overlaps with but not exactly same thing as those experiences that have now disarmed belief in unfolding linear progress.

  2. De Amicis’ optic is fascinating: he uses a bourgeois child as the lens through which to observe what he clearly regarded as an egalitarian project, and much of the book’s paternalism derives from that single choice. Nevertheless you can already spot the cracks in the edifice, discern how the maladjusted boy, Franti, is a much more emblematic and sympathetic character than his saccharine counterpart, Garrone, and it’s through him that one understands how school always already wasn’t for everyone. (Umberto Eco took this further in an essay ‘in praise of Franti’, claiming that Enrico, the narrator, was the type of the conformist that would naturally acquiesce to Fascism, if not produce it altogether.)

    That optimism, though, as you note, is a thing to marvel at in and of itself. And perhaps it explains the near century-long fortunes of the book in Germany, the Eastern Bloc, Israel, China. Cuore really was something of a world’s book for remarkably a long time.

  3. I might have mentioned this before on this blog but I used to work with a very old man who, as a Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied Poland had escaped to the Soviet Union and then become a war correspondent for the Soviets. Anyway, I remember him telling me (sometime in the early phase of the W. Bush years) about how perplexing he found the rise in relgiousity in the US and around the world. He said that, when he was a kid, only old people were religious — and all the young people wanted to be engineers.
    Obviously, there’s an element of Promethean Stalinism in that but still …

    1. One of the most noticeable things for a modern reader of De Amicis is that there is no religion in it. None. This was a political statement rather than a reflection of how society operated at the time – it was a fervent Garibaldinian intellectual sticking it to the Church – and attracted to the book its harshest critics at the time, but to read a novel that deploys all the codes and tropes for imparting religious teachings at the service of a secular idea of the state has quite an estranging effect. Later socialist and communist writers developed a distinct rhetoric – De Amicis was something of a bridge.

      1. I also am wondering about the Italian Left’s consideration of school as a kind of progressive enterprise. I’m thinking of the schools of Reggio Emilia that after WW2 said that they wanted to build a new kind of school that produced children who would be unable to be turned into fascists. I believe the Vatican’s objected to the professional training of teachers of young children on the grounds that the only appropriate teachers for them were virginal country girls.
        I agree with Jeff, and commented on this a few posts ago, that the Left has lost all its hope, and is mired in something more toxic. And I wonder too, about a link between that loss and the Left’s complete abandonment of any engagement with the politics of schooling, which are now completely dominated by right-wing ideas – despite the Right’s strident assertions that schools are breeding grounds of leftist iniquity and airy-fairy teaching methods.

        1. My mother was an intermediate school teacher and during my childhood she taught 150-hour courses for adults who hadn’t completed their compulsory education, mostly factory workers. It was a decade of ferments around education, of ideas on how to bust the system and turn it into a democratic thing. I think that idealism survives still. High school and universities students still routinely occupy, as they did when I was a student, still try to rethink those spaces, or take education outside, elsewhere. And it’s still relatively easy to think of the school as a self-contained socialist institution, if not quite a utopia. Possible, at any rate. The obvious issue is what happens when you finish school. In De Amicis’ day the necessity and utility to build the human capital was incontrovertible. We had – and continued to have through to Fascism – one of the worst records of adult illiteracy in Europe. The economy would have no difficulty absorbing the few high school graduates and even fewer university graduates that the new system produced. Now you have countries in Europe were unemployment for people under 25 years of age has topped 50%. I can’t imagine that it’s much lower than that in Italy. Where does your utopia go then?

          1. Thinking about passing of Hobsbawm and his generation of socialist intellectuals recently was reminded that people like Williams and Thompson came out the of army in WWII (both in tank units) and worked in workers’ education prior to their university careers. This was very important to development of Williams’s ideas eg. in turning away from elite culture to the notion of a ‘whole way of life.’ In a sense the experience of workers’ education nourished development of important socialist ideas.

  4. My 6 year old recently changed schools – from outer east, to inner west. I spent a morning in his classroom a few months ago and left oddly – unexpectedly – optimistic. There are kids in his class from Africa, Asia, and the America’s – some from single parent families, some with two same sex parents. I found myself wondering – if all classrooms were like this, how is it even possible adults turn out the way they do. I want to know happens outside of the public school sphere, and also when the gates close for the day.

    1. The primary school across the fence from our house is very much like that, and I must register that there is a certain amount of idealism still amongst the defenders of the public education model in New Zealand. (Also, Labour here hasn’t capitulated to national standards, league tables and performance pay, so there is something of a common language and goals between the parliamentary Left and the organizations that struggle against neoliberal reform in the sector.)

  5. For a world-centred politics a world school is needed, and here we are struggling badly with the notion of an Australian Curriculum. What sort of school that world school might be and the sort of learning it might entail becomes the burning issue, particularly when considering the salutary lessons of this post.

    1. P.S. The military metaphor to conclude the Cuore piece is disappointing, but historically prescient, as always. School was perceived as a manly business, obviously, where after those little foot soldiers were to be dispatched into the world like a lot of little Napoleon’s (not Garibaldi’s, alas!).

      1. Lots of martial fervour in the book, as is fairly inevitable given that the country had been unified by the military and following a series of insurrections. That’s one of the interesting aspects of this little chapter, though, for me, since it put that metaphor to a supranational, as opposed to nationalistic, use. I could be wrong but I think that this is a very unusual piece of writing for its time, not just for ours.

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