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The pandemic has brought the school back on the spot, highlighting problems that have existed for a long time: chicken coop classes, spaces that are not always adequate, devices that are essential for innovative teaching. These problems have been accompanied by numerous criticisms of a teaching focused on content and on a method of transmission. Certainly, interesting teaching methods have been proposed and tested. That is why my topic may seem a little out of fashion, because I would like to try to rehabilitate the much-mistreated content. I have been wondering for a long time whether one of the reasons for the students’ lack of interest in many school disciplines is in fact an inadequacy of the contents themselves.

We are in 2021 and in the last fifty/sixty years the world has changed dramatically. They have been very important years whose historical and cultural analysis is indispensable to try to understand the present. But what happens in our schools? Most of the teachers of Italian Literature, History, Philosophy, Art History stop the development of their programs to the Second World War. Nothing has changed since I was the student, but it’s been a long time and history has gone ineluctably forward!

School is the mirror of society and the society in which we live today seems to float in an eternal present seemingly very fast but that actually moves from one present to another in what we might call a “false movement”; a time that seems to have lost any connection with the past and that, consequently, fails to plan a possible future. Why should our students be interested in what happened a hundred or five hundred years ago if the wires got broken and the school doesn’t give them the tools to tie them up again? How can our kids understand what is happening in Afghanistan if we have not told them anything about Vietnam or the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict or postcolonialism? How can they become passionate about the enormous migratory event that textbooks continue to call “barbaric invasions” if they do not start from what is happening today in our Mediterranean Sea and in Eastern Europe? It is impossible to understand the phenomenon of migration if the historical, economic, climatic and political causes that provoke it are not analysed, perhaps taking a look at the reality of our country that in the last century saw millions of people emigrate.

We could make our students read, just to give an example, a book by Abdulrazak Gurnah, fresh from the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to him “For his passionate and resolute narration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees between cultures and continents” instead of spending months and months on the Divine Comedy and the Betrothed as if nothing more valid had been written after.

We could face the Italian Risorgimento starting from the analysis of the present situation and all the problems of an Italy that continues to be divided in two.

Not to mention the philosophy programs, with the thought of Nietzche, Bergson, Freud (considered a philosopher!), but without Heidegger and his declared Nazism. Nothing about the philosophical thinking of the last few decades! Nothing about the scientific discoveries about the human psyche that totally refuted Freud and his idea of a naturally perverse unconscious!

Perhaps the cause of the tear lies in the difficulty of the teachers to propose a clear and valid reading of the decades that are behind us. Undoubtedly a complex task that requires study and application, but teaching means never ceasing to study.

I suspect that some teachers do not want to spend much time and energy on research. They prefer to repeat endlessly what they know because it’s easier. They prefer to update themselves on the latest state-of-the-art teaching method (sometimes proposed by those who have never entered a classroom!) in front of which it is not necessary to ask complex questions, of content in fact.

One of the most important issues to be resolved to try to understand the present and reintegrate it over time is the passage of the sixties and what has been achieved. We should ask ourselves what the legacy of those years was, certainly the conquest of civil rights and greater democracy in the institutions, as well as important improvements in the world of work (the first Workers’ Statute in Italy was issued in 1970). More difficult is to trace its cultural heritage. “Forbidden to prohibit”, “freedom in power” were the slogans shouted in all the squares. For Wilhelm Reich, David Cooper, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Paul Sartre, some of the theorists of the “repressive society”, the only way to human realization would be that of liberation from all repression.

I apology for the coarse summary on a subject that would require many pages of reflection, but I want to focus on the only idea that survived those years that is in the word “freedom”: everyone today is free to think and do what they want independently of the theoretical, historical, scientific and human validity of their thought. Free the no-vaxes from risking their own lives and the lives of others. Free others to say that immigrants steal our jobs, even if without them we would not have our beautiful salad on our plate; free to say that they rape our women, even if the vast majority of crimes against them is carried out by husbands, boyfriends, lovers, all very Italian.

This is the result of having praised freedom without thinking that there could be no freedom in the absence of a valid content of thought, founded on a theoretical, historical, scientific and human truth. A beautiful word that, however, can only be an elegant dress that can hide a deformed body.

We cannot let our students stop and contemplate the beautiful dress, they have every right to discover the shapes of that body and what blood is flowing inside. I think that we teachers should start by questioning the present, by listening to the questions that students ask about it and reconnect with them the threads that have been torn. We could discover the fascination of human history that, as someone has said, is the only great object of desire that no one can ever take from us.

It reminds me of when, sitting at my desk, I listened enchanted to the words of a substitute teacher of Philosophy class who “transmitted content” so fascinating that I fell in love with the skills of human thought, even though that professor was only in my class for a fortnight.

I leave this question to my colleagues: are we really sure that the transmission of content is not didactic? Perhaps the educational validity depends on the quality of the content we transmit, on how much girls and boys feel it indispensable to understand their history and to build their future.

Mariantonietta Rufini

Thanks to Chiara Fanasca for the translation of this article


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