Enrolments in high schools for classical studies have dropped sharply (from the 10.2% of 2007 to the 6.1% of this year, a national average with strong regional imbalances, as shown by the 4% in Lombardy and the 9.7% in Lazio and the 8.6% in Sicily). More young people want to attend a politecnico. Good news? Some are celebrating in the corporate world: there’s a move towards awareness of education of greater use for finding a job and an educational gap is beginning to be bridged between Italy and the other great industrial countries in the OECD zone. Italy has a decent humanities culture but a poor scientific one. This is a vital issue for discussion, without rigid patterns however or injudicious utilitarian tendencies.
Let’s start with some figures, for example the Pisa (program for international student assessment) score, from a standardised maths and science test given to fifteen-year-olds from 70 countries to reveal the quality of teaching and education in maths and science (two key elements of innovation). The scores in Italy are 483 for maths and 489 for science, very low compared to the 513 and 520 in Germany. China with Shanghai, top in the ranking, has 600 for maths and 575 for science, Finland is second with 541 and 554. In Europe Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia, Poland, Ireland and Belgium score better than Italy and only Spain and Greece do worse. To sum up, Italian students have a limited and inadequate familiarity with a scientific culture which affects the competitiveness of the country as a system and also other key dimensions of civilian life. We live in a world where scientific skills are necessary in order to have a barely well-informed opinion on subjects which impact on health, personal and social equilibrium, the future, such as the environment and energy, and the more innovative medicine and biotechnologies. The fact of not having the tools for critical judgement and understanding conditions day-to-day living and the actual quality of democracy, therefore more science is required in education and for balanced economic and social development.
Young people and their families appear to be aware of this, as demonstrated by the 9,500 applications for the tests for admission to engineering at the Milan Politecnico (they were less than 6,000 in the autumn of 2010), in addition to the 3,000 applications for architecture and 2,500 for design. In engineering the places available are just over 5,000. Students who take up that course know that they will almost definitely find, immediately after graduation, a good job. The Excelsior-UnionCamere survey shows that companies have difficulty in covering 12% of the positions required, starting above all with engineers.
Useful degrees, therefore, and a good step forwards (albeit accompanied by a cautious) revaluation of vocational training and technical colleges). However can we be satisfied at the increasing abandonment of classics as a subject? Not at all, as from the actual standpoint of a good corporate culture, alongside technicians with a strong scientific training, entrepreneurs and managers are needed with a cultural training able to tackle intelligently and flexibly the challenges set by modern complexity, concerning the use and effects of technologies, the environmental impact of production processes, the market trends and management of the work force (people and not numbers, above all when the first factor of competitiveness is linked to the quality of the human capital). The ideal would be an engineer with a solid education in the classics, who has read and understood Plato and Pascal, Descartes and Kant, Weber and Berlin, who demonstrates mastery of literature and drama and constructs and manages original cultural patterns. One example is Corrado Passera, good economics training at the Bocconi university and a successful career in industry, finance and, recently, politics: “Greek, Latin, literature, philosophy and history help to develop a critical attitude, increasingly necessary given the enormous quantity of opposite viewpoints and information which bombard us, and teach how to handle complexity”. A sophisticated and solid corporate culture in fact.