Socialists and Education: Men or Machines?
Avanti!, 24 December 1916
The brief discussion which was held at the last council meeting between our comrades and some representatives of the majority, on the subject of vocational education programmes, deserves some comment, however brief and succinct. (1) Comrade Zini's observations (“There is still a conflict between the humanistic and vocational currents over the issue of popular education: we must endeavour to reconcile these currents, without forgetting that a worker is above all a man, who should not be denied the possibility of exploring the widest realms of the spirit, by being enslaved from his earliest youth to the machine.”) and Councillor Sincero's attacks against philosophy (philosophy finds people opposed to it especially when it states truths that strike at vested interests) are not just isolated polemical episodes: they are necessary clashes between people representing fundamentally opposed interests.
1. Our party has still not settled on a concrete education programme that is in any way different from traditional ones. Until now we have been content to support the general principle of the need for culture, whether it be at an elementary, or secondary-technical or higher level, and we have campaigned in favour of this principle and propagated it with vigour and energy. We can state that the reduction in illiteracy in Italy is due not so much to the law on compulsory education, as to the intellectual awakening, the awareness of certain spiritual needs that socialist propaganda has succeeded in arousing amongst the ranks of the proletariat in Italy. But we have gone no further than that. Education in Italy is still a rigidly bourgeois affair, in the worst sense of the word. Grammar schools and higher education, which are State-run and hence financed from State revenues, i.e. by the direct taxes paid by the proletariat, can only be attended by the children of the bourgeoisie, who alone enjoy the economic independence needed for uninterrupted study. A proletarian, no matter how intelligent he may be, no matter how fit to become a man of culture, is forced either to squander his qualities on some other activity, or else to become a rebel and autodidact - i.e. (apart from some notable exceptions) a mediocrity, a man who cannot give all he could have given had he been completed and strengthened by the discipline of school. Culture is a privilege. Education is a privilege. And we do not want it to be so. All young people should be equal before culture. Using the funds of all citizens, the State should not be financing the education of the children of wealthy parents no matter how mediocre or deficient they may be, while it excludes even the most intelligent and capable children of proletarians. Grammar-school and higher education should be open only to those who can demonstrate that they are worthy of it. And if it is in the public interest that such forms of education should exist, preferably supported and regulated by the State, then it is also in the public interest that they should be open to all intelligent children, regardless of their economic potential. Collective sacrifice is justified only when it benefits those who are most deserving. Therefore, this collective sacrifice should serve especially to give the most deserving children that economic independence they need if they are to devote their time to serious study.
2. Members of the proletariat, who are excluded from grammar schools and higher education as a result of the present social conditions - conditions which ensure that the division of labour between men is unnatural (not being based on different capacities) and so retards and is inimical to production - have to fall back upon the parallel educational system: the technical and vocational colleges. As a result of the anti-democratic restrictions imposed by the State budget, the technical colleges, which were set up along democratic lines by the Casati ministry, have undergone a transformation that has largely destroyed their nature. In most cases they have become mere superfetations of the classical schools, and an innocent outlet for the petty-bourgeois mania for finding a secure job. The continually rising entrance fees, and the particular prospects they open up in practical life, have turned these schools too into a privilege. Anyway, the overwhelming majority of the proletariat is automatically excluded from them on account of the uncertain and precarious life which the wage-earner is forced to lead - the sort of life which is certainly not the most propitious for fruitfully following a course of study.
3. What the proletariat needs is an educational system that is open to all. A system in which the child is allowed to develop and mature and acquire those general features that serve to develop character. In a word, a humanistic school, as conceived by the ancients, and more recently by the men of the Renaissance. A school which does not mortgage the child's future, a school that does not force the child's will, his intelligence and growing awareness to run along tracks to a pre- determined station. A school of freedom and free initiative, not a school of slavery and mechanical precision. The children of proletarians too should have all possibilities open to them; they should be able to develop their own individuality in the optimal way, and hence in the most productive way for both themselves and society. Technical schools should not be allowed to become incubators of little monsters aridly trained for a job, with no general ideas, no general culture, no intellectual stimulation, but only an infallible eye and a firm hand. Technical education too helps a child to blossom into a man - so long as it is educative and not simply informative, simply passing on manual techniques. Councillor Sincero, who is an industrialist, is being too meanly bourgeois when he protests against philosophy.
Of course, meanly bourgeois industrialists might prefer to have workers who were more machines than men. But the sacrifices which everyone in society willingly makes in order to foster improvements and nourish the best and most perfect men who will improve it still more - these sacrifices must bring benefits to the whole of society, not just to one category of people or one class.
It is a problem of right and of force. The proletariat must stay alert, to prevent another abuse being added to the many it has already suffered.
(1) This discussion on the Turin municipal council was just one episode in a wide-ranging debate on education in the first decades of this century, in which the existing Italian system based on the 1859 Casati Act in Piedmont came under fire both from socialists and from powerful sectors of bourgeois opinion. The most notable critics of the existing system were Benedetto Croce – later Minister of Education under Giolitti in 1921 – and Giovanni Gentile, who as Mussolini's first Minister of Education in 1923 put through a large-scale educational reform.