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The teachings of chemist and writer Primo Levi apply to higher technical institutes (ITS), too: how to blend technology and beauty  

“Weigh your words” with a passion for exactitude, as if a speech or a written page were a chemical compound; “Do not trust inaccurate words”, just as you wouldn’t randomly mix acids and bases, to avoid disaster; and finally, write about “technical things as seen through the eye of an author while tracing the letters as a technician would.” Quotes by Primo Levi, which the great linguist Gian Luigi Beccaria revived for an event scheduled as part of the Festival del Classico in Turin (as mentioned in la Repubblica, 26 November), and their message is really rather similar to the one preached by refined author Italo Calvino, likewise captivated by the exact nature of scientific culture: “Focus only on difficult things that have been perfectly accomplished; be wary of easy ways, laziness, slapdash attitudes. Focus on accuracy, both in language and in the things you do” (as also mentioned in our blog post from 18 October).

Chemistry and literature. The desire to accomplish things to perfection. The rigour and the beauty that searching for the right word and the correct chemical or mathematical formula entails – indeed, to Levi, “loving one’s work is what most fully and concretely constitutes happiness on earth”, as shown by the passion conveyed by his Il sistema periodico (The periodic table) and his fascination with Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements, and the same with his La chiave a stella (The wrench) and the eagerness he felt in building mechanical installations such as metal towers and cranes. Moreover, it’s further evidence of a focus on a “polytechnic culture” – typically Italian, fervently technological and poetically unique – blending humanities and sciences.

This is what we should reflect on when discussing culture, and so, by extension, also education, training, know-how (or “tell-how”, from a writer’s viewpoint): the relationship that exists between culture and enterprise, memory and innovation, history and future, techne and aesthetics, under the powerful banner of an “industrial humanism” that binds together competitiveness and environmental and social sustainability, productivity and solidarity.

These are strong values, which need to be learned at school, experienced not as ancillary to education, as inferior to productive work skills and processes, but as part of a concurrent and organised relationship between work skills and civil duties that also include initiative, freedom and responsibility. Rereading Primo Levi is useful, indeed, along with Sinisgalli, Vittorini, Sereni, Natta and all those scientists and authors who held an ample and inclusive notion of culture: poets-cum-engineers, engineers-cum-philosophers, writers with a passion for technology and science.

Hence, in order to discuss “merit” in education while also “entering into its merits”, ITS (higher technical institutes, also called ITS Academies, highlighting the high educational value they offer to upper secondary school graduates) must be part of the conversation, and we should seriously think about the possible content offered by their programmes. In fact, we should borrow from Levi and Calvino, in order to highlight how educational processes – even those most tailored to the world of work – need to integrate a multidisciplinary, a “polytechnic” dimension, blending humanities and sciences and paying particular attention not merely to skills but also to the complexity of knowledge systems and the invaluable nature of a “know-how” attitude, as well as to a special focus on the whys and hows of things, up to a concept of “learning to learn” in its deepest sense.

In Italy, only 21,000 students are enrolled in ITS, as compared to 800,000 in equivalent institutions in Germany – this is also due to the fact that fewer than two students out of ten are aware of them, according to a survey launched by Talents Venture Observatory among high-school students (Il Sole24Ore, 28 November), while a little over four (42%) students have only heard of them and the other four don’t even know that they exist. Yet, these institutes guarantee good employment opportunities at the end of their two-year programme (80% of graduates find work within 12 months, as compared to the average 70% of university graduates).

As such, to have them grow, we need extraordinary commitment from the public and private spheres, fast and targeted public investments (the PNRR, the Italian recovery and resilience plan, can provide €1.5 billion but 18 out of the 19 decrees required to authorise a first expense of €500 million have not yet been approved) and fiscal stimulus supporting those foundations that launch them in close cooperation with productive areas and enterprises based in industrial territories. According to Giovanni Brugnoli, vice president for Human Capital at territorial entrepreneurial institution Confindustria, we are also very much in need of “extensive training and guidance activities for families, students and teachers”. Human capital looking for value. Young generations more attentive than ever to anything that might rebuild a climate of hope and confidence in a better future.

Training, communication, guidance for companies. “New skills for new careers within the environmental and digital twin transition”, declares UniCredit Lombardia, refining initiatives aimed at tackling this mismatch, this discrepant gap between labour supply and demand (companies can’t find professionals, yet Italy has the highest unemployment rate among young people in Europe). And, especially in the most industrialised regions of the north of the country, companies’ productivity and competitiveness, as compared to international competitors, is not growing due to the lack of graduates (from ITS Academies, but also from standard technical institutes) and technologically advanced skills.

This, then, is the issue we need to urgently address: that of STEM education (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which should be reclassified and enhanced into STEAM by adding an ‘a’ for arts – the humanities, the sense of beauty – to attain a refined culture based on individuality and quality, just like the values of design, to mention a more illustrative example, which Italian enterprises with international ambitions have been nurturing for a long time now. A taste for exactitude and perfection – which the teachings of Primo Levi must continue to inspire in us.

“Weigh your words” with a passion for exactitude, as if a speech or a written page were a chemical compound; “Do not trust inaccurate words”, just as you wouldn’t randomly mix acids and bases, to avoid disaster; and finally, write about “technical things as seen through the eye of an author while tracing the letters as a technician would.” Quotes by Primo Levi, which the great linguist Gian Luigi Beccaria revived for an event scheduled as part of the Festival del Classico in Turin (as mentioned in la Repubblica, 26 November), and their message is really rather similar to the one preached by refined author Italo Calvino, likewise captivated by the exact nature of scientific culture: “Focus only on difficult things that have been perfectly accomplished; be wary of easy ways, laziness, slapdash attitudes. Focus on accuracy, both in language and in the things you do” (as also mentioned in our blog post from 18 October).

Chemistry and literature. The desire to accomplish things to perfection. The rigour and the beauty that searching for the right word and the correct chemical or mathematical formula entails – indeed, to Levi, “loving one’s work is what most fully and concretely constitutes happiness on earth”, as shown by the passion conveyed by his Il sistema periodico (The periodic table) and his fascination with Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements, and the same with his La chiave a stella (The wrench) and the eagerness he felt in building mechanical installations such as metal towers and cranes. Moreover, it’s further evidence of a focus on a “polytechnic culture” – typically Italian, fervently technological and poetically unique – blending humanities and sciences.

This is what we should reflect on when discussing culture, and so, by extension, also education, training, know-how (or “tell-how”, from a writer’s viewpoint): the relationship that exists between culture and enterprise, memory and innovation, history and future, techne and aesthetics, under the powerful banner of an “industrial humanism” that binds together competitiveness and environmental and social sustainability, productivity and solidarity.

These are strong values, which need to be learned at school, experienced not as ancillary to education, as inferior to productive work skills and processes, but as part of a concurrent and organised relationship between work skills and civil duties that also include initiative, freedom and responsibility. Rereading Primo Levi is useful, indeed, along with Sinisgalli, Vittorini, Sereni, Natta and all those scientists and authors who held an ample and inclusive notion of culture: poets-cum-engineers, engineers-cum-philosophers, writers with a passion for technology and science.

Hence, in order to discuss “merit” in education while also “entering into its merits”, ITS (higher technical institutes, also called ITS Academies, highlighting the high educational value they offer to upper secondary school graduates) must be part of the conversation, and we should seriously think about the possible content offered by their programmes. In fact, we should borrow from Levi and Calvino, in order to highlight how educational processes – even those most tailored to the world of work – need to integrate a multidisciplinary, a “polytechnic” dimension, blending humanities and sciences and paying particular attention not merely to skills but also to the complexity of knowledge systems and the invaluable nature of a “know-how” attitude, as well as to a special focus on the whys and hows of things, up to a concept of “learning to learn” in its deepest sense.

In Italy, only 21,000 students are enrolled in ITS, as compared to 800,000 in equivalent institutions in Germany – this is also due to the fact that fewer than two students out of ten are aware of them, according to a survey launched by Talents Venture Observatory among high-school students (Il Sole24Ore, 28 November), while a little over four (42%) students have only heard of them and the other four don’t even know that they exist. Yet, these institutes guarantee good employment opportunities at the end of their two-year programme (80% of graduates find work within 12 months, as compared to the average 70% of university graduates).

As such, to have them grow, we need extraordinary commitment from the public and private spheres, fast and targeted public investments (the PNRR, the Italian recovery and resilience plan, can provide €1.5 billion but 18 out of the 19 decrees required to authorise a first expense of €500 million have not yet been approved) and fiscal stimulus supporting those foundations that launch them in close cooperation with productive areas and enterprises based in industrial territories. According to Giovanni Brugnoli, vice president for Human Capital at territorial entrepreneurial institution Confindustria, we are also very much in need of “extensive training and guidance activities for families, students and teachers”. Human capital looking for value. Young generations more attentive than ever to anything that might rebuild a climate of hope and confidence in a better future.

Training, communication, guidance for companies. “New skills for new careers within the environmental and digital twin transition”, declares UniCredit Lombardia, refining initiatives aimed at tackling this mismatch, this discrepant gap between labour supply and demand (companies can’t find professionals, yet Italy has the highest unemployment rate among young people in Europe). And, especially in the most industrialised regions of the north of the country, companies’ productivity and competitiveness, as compared to international competitors, is not growing due to the lack of graduates (from ITS Academies, but also from standard technical institutes) and technologically advanced skills.

This, then, is the issue we need to urgently address: that of STEM education (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which should be reclassified and enhanced into STEAM by adding an ‘a’ for arts – the humanities, the sense of beauty – to attain a refined culture based on individuality and quality, just like the values of design, to mention a more illustrative example, which Italian enterprises with international ambitions have been nurturing for a long time now. A taste for exactitude and perfection – which the teachings of Primo Levi must continue to inspire in us.