E se non fosse la buona battaglia? Sul futuro dell’istruzione umanistica

Claudio Giunta
Bologna, Mulino, 2017, pp. 306
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Very often we come across articles that present the study of the humanities as a bulwark of ancient moral values, which our society – inexorably moving towards a barbarization of civil customs and ideals – opposes on several fronts with malice aforethought. Or rather, with wicked indifference. Because this field battle is not conducted with the disruptive force of attack, but rather with the weapons of silence, detachment and placid abandonment. And yet, even without bloodshed, the count of the wounded is numerous and alarming. You would think that the vanquished are the ancient texts, the classics, nineteenth-century novels or poems of the last century, but you don’t need to be a biologist to know that books don’t bleed, nor the memories of those who no longer exist. The wounded are among us: they are the missing readers, those who have never received the right stimulus from the education system to cultivate the knowledge conveyed by literature or poetry. But even the readers who have abandoned their early passion for reading after their schooling period and are now beginning to thicken the ranks of returning illiterates (a category that historically has no precedent, and is characteristic of the times in which we live). So all of us are bleeding metaphorically, being the children of this time, who have convinced us that “this nonsense” is useless and that knowledge that is not immediately expendable has no sense of being cultivated.

It is easy and consolatory to believe that the blame for this blatant defeat lies in government choices, in deviation from past ideals or in the disinterest of young people in school teaching; while it is much more difficult, especially for the figure of the humanities teacher or professor to accept co-responsibility for this bleak scenario.

Rethinking humanistic education: an examination of conscience

Giunta’s book (2017) abandons all easy consolation and arrives at questioning, despite of being an “insider”, the entire system of education, admitting from the introduction that “it is not easy to take a position against the system that has formed us, also because this means to some extent taking a position against oneself, questioning the choices one has made, the books one has read, and in short […] one’s entire existence” (58).

Giunta’s hope is that traditional humanistic education will continue to exist in the future world but, at the same time, the italian professor is really aware that this form of education could go on with “an ever more marked loss of meaning, and with an ever more evident disconnection from the world as it is” (Giunta 2017, 59). Giunta attempts to respond to this situation, presenting convincing and innovative arguments to the numerous doubts that those who have dedicated their entire lives to the study of the humanities find themselves facing.

The crucial question: «what if it is not the good fight?»

The text, structurally bipartite, focuses its attention on these subjects, outlining a historical profile of their teaching. The book starts with an analysis of the italiana school, then focuses on universities and finally questions the validity of the last level of specialization, the PhD. Giunta demonstrates, with arguments expressed with lightness of writing and expositive clarity, how the changed social-historical conditions make it inevitable to take a critical attitude when faced with the real possibility that the humanities find their congenial dimension in a panorama hostile to them. The question that gives the book its title and that, with its invisible gravity, hangs over the reader for the whole length of the text is: what if it is not the good fight?

The author addresses this question to himself and, secondly, to the readers. Everyone, after reading the text, will find his answer. Only in the end he proposes a solution, revealing the true purpose of the essays collected in his book: to facilitate the conditions in which culture can develop today, in schools and universities.  To try to identify these conditions Giunta starts from the first, and fundamental, question: “what is the purpose of education?”. (Giunta 2017, 63).

Aware that “the lament of the man of letters struggling with a world which is not made to measure for the man of letters is a timeless genre” (Giunta 2017, 64) , Giunta realizes the difficulty of answering this question in the face of the peculiarity of the times in which we live in, that are revolutionized by the advent of science and technology. The author, without mincing words, admits that:

Life, in western societies, has become so complex that it increasingly calls for the skills not of intellectuals capable of interpreting the world (historians, philosophers), but of sectorial experts capable of making it work (economists, jurists, doctors).

Claudio GiuntaE se non fosse la buona battaglia? Sul futuro dell’istruzione umanistica, Bologna, Mulino, 2017, p. 65

Therefore, school teaching must adapt to change, because it is necessary to train “people who live their time well, not misfits” (Giunta 2017, 71). But how to do this? Is it perhaps correct to reduce the hours of lessons of the humanities in order to leave room for the teaching of skills considered essential today, such as English and informatics?

Ideally, it would be right that every discipline – the history of cinema, theatre, art and, equally, economics and jurisprudence – should find its place in the school curriculum. However, everything cannot be taught, both because time is short and because “a single head could not contain so many and so many different notions” (Giunta 2017, 72). On the other hand, one cannot even be content to repeat what we have been taught, with the same identical modalities, because “in the last decades there have been too many changes, and the school cannot fail to take note of them” (72).

It is therefore risky, difficult, but even necessary, to propose and adhere to new solutions which – without distorting teaching methods – are able to adapt the training and education of the new generations of students to the changing needs of society. Giunta ventures out for innovative and innovative solutions, highlighting the limits of the current school system.

He doesn’t hold the position of those who are “speaking from within the strong besieged” (Giunta 2017, 57), and that indulge in easy consolation and spend themselves in sterile criticism against “a society that does not show the right reverence for its great cultural tradition” (57). On the contrary, he describes himself as a university professor who analyses and investigates the defects of a system that is revealing its own insufficiency, and tries to pose different solutions, in the face of a reality that is difficult to accept, but to which one must adapt, in order not to succumb.

The book presents itself with a bleak and raw frankness, which does not comfort but saddens. Above all, the second section, focused on university teaching, bears witness to a critical situation, in which the teaching of the humanities seems to be poisoned by a system which ends up accelerating its own death. The tones of the first part are gloomy, highlighting all the limits of a system that – due to a tendency towards simplification – makes the humanities faculties accessible to anyone, thus ending up not fully exploiting the potential of the most deserving students and not subjecting other students to a real obstacle to be overcome. However, the second part of the text seems strong and convincing, proposing numerous solutions, often uncomfortable to adopt – especially for universities – but which seem necessary to guarantee a future for the students of these faculties.

To the question – which now seems to be inflated, but which is always current – whether humanistic education still makes sense, Giunta also tries to give an answer, taking up the splendid lesson of Guido Calogero:

Precisely because the time in which one will simply live will be longer than the time in which one will produce, education in the wisdom of living must always prevail over training in the technique of producing.

Guido CalogeroScuola sotto inchiesta, Turin, Einaudi, 1957, p. 288

And perhaps it is precisely the dramatic moments we are experiencing, closed in our homes and isolated from our affections and friends, that teach us that this lesson is very current.

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