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.
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