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The usefulness of the classics in science and business: re-reading and discussing Gramsci in “Il Sole24Ore”

“In defence of the classic lyceum”, writes humanist Nicola Gardini and Guido Tonelli, physicist at Cern, Geneva and professor at Pisa University, entrusting their thoughts to the insert of Sunday’s “Il Sole 24Ore” (28 August), a newspaper that is traditionally sympathetic to discussing prominent cultural issues, business culture included. “The study of history, Ancient Greek and Latin,” Gardini explains, “teaches us to speak, write and think. But above it, it teaches us to interpret, compare, contrast, to relativise, to understand freedom, beauty, and unity.” Tonelli gives an account of a recent encounter with Michael Hugo Leiters, German executive at Ferrari, in which they compared the work of a scientist with that of a corporate manager, in terms of innovative content.  On one particular point, both were animatedly in agreement: their shared education in the humanities. Such a grounding is crucial, they said, for scientists and corporate executives.  Humanism and science. This kind of study provides a rich and multifaceted education which is especially useful these days, insomuch as science and economics have become such dominant force in modern life (“genome, bionic and robotic studies are on the cusp of triggering an evolutionary leap in our species that will be more than just physical empowerment. It may even affect our consciousness,” L’Espresso warned on 28 August.) Understanding, in order to do. A meeting of philosophy and science. Just as the Ancient Greeks told us. Greece, a  civilisation that pioneered “classic” culture, the pinnacle of all that was held to be contemporary at the time.

The contributions of Gardini and Tonelli enrich the fascinating debate that has been gathering steam online since July, namely the utility of an education in the classics and the key questions of the quality and utility of education in general, the relationship between work and school, and the development of critical consciousness.  They start with a reading from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, a passage which makes a general and extraordinarily contemporary point.

Gramsci wrote,  “One doesn’t learn Latin and Greek in order to speak them, to become a waiter, or an interpreter, or whatever. One learns them in order to know the civilisations of Greece and Rome, whose existence is posited as a foundation of world culture. Latin or Greek is learned by way of grammar, somewhat mechanically; but the charges of mechanistic  aridity are greatly exaggerated. The issue concerns children; they should be made to acquire certain habits of diligence, precision, physical composure, mental concentration on particular objects. Would a thirty or forty-year-old scholar be able to sit at a desk for sixteen hours on end if, as a child, he had not acquired “compulsorily”, through “mechanical coercion”, the appropriate psychophysical habits? This is where one has to start if one also wants to bring up scholars, and pressure must be applied across the board in order to produce those thousands, or hundreds, or just dozens of first-rate scholars that every civilization requires.”

Gramsci continued,  One does not study Latin in order to learn Latin; it is studied in order to accustom children to studying, to analyzing a body of history that can be treated as a cadaver but returns continually to life.  Naturally, I do not believe that Greek and Latin have intrinsic thaumaturgical qualities; I am saying that in a given milieu, in a given culture with a given tradition, studying along these lines produced these particular results. Latin and Greek can be replaced, and they will be replaced, but one must be able to deploy the new subject or set of subjects didactically, in such a way as to obtain equivalent results in the general education of the individual from his childhood years to the time he is old enough to choose a career.  During this span of time, the course of study, or most of it, must be disinterested; in other words, it must not have immediate or much too immediate practical purposes: it must be formative while being “instructive”, that is, rich in concrete information. Gramsci presents an interesting opening, here, to other subjects of study, in addition to Latin and Greek, as part of a child’s general education. It may be a useful point to emphasize a very current issue: the importance of a far-reaching scientific education, something which is lacking in Italian schools despite being critical, not just as a means of economic development, but more importantly, in terms of civil consciousness, responsible citizenship (scientific, bioethic and environmental etc. issues which affect our daily life.) In other words, an education built on “polytechnic culture”. The same goal as Gramsci’s lesson.  Besides, Greek, it should be remembered, is not just the language of philosophers, poets and dramatists; it is also the tongue of scientists, mathematicians and astronomers, of a scientific culture underpinning all modern knowledge. The knowledge of a “polytechnic” – our key word again –  civilisation.

The pages of Gramsci’s Notebooks make a very specific point about the usefulness of study. The essays were written in the 1930s, a different time, of different politics and ideals (Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, PCI, had been imprisoned by the Fascist Regime and was also heavily criticised by members of his own party who sympathised with more orthodox Soviet Communism.) Nevertheless, confined to his cell, he still had a very clear idea of the historical lessons to be learned from Italian culture and the need to lay the foundations, for a time after Fascism, of a new popular and participatory democracy. Something which schools, clearly, should be part of: “In the present school, the profound crisis in the traditional culture and its conception of life and of man has resulted in a progressive degeneration. Schools of the vocational type, i.e. those designed to satisfy immediate, practical interests, are beginning to predominate over the formative school, which is not immediately “interested”. The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school appears and is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences. This social character is determined by the fact that each social group has its own type of school, intended to perpetuate a specific traditional function, ruling or subordinate. If one wishes to break this pattern one needs, instead of multiplying and grading different types of vocational school, to create a single type of formative school (primary-secondary) which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying, and ruling – or controlling those who rule. The multiplication of types of vocational school thus perpetuate traditional social differences; but since, within these differences, it tends to encourage internal diversification, it gives the impression of being democratic in tendency. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every “citizen” can “govern” and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Fundamental concepts. Another leading Italian scholar, Piero Calamandrei, a liberal and one of the “fathers of the Italian Constitution” returned to these same issues a few years later, discussing them in a fine book, “Per la scuola”, republished in 2008 by Sellerio (“There can be no real democracy when access to education is not equally guaranteed for all.”)

To study is, therefore, a right. And in contemporary society, also a duty. Gramsci notes,  “Studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship – involving muscles and nerves as well as intellect. It is a process of adaptation, a habit acquired with effort, tedium and even suffering. Wider participation in secondary education brings with it a tendency to ease off the discipline of studies, and to ask for “relaxations”. Many even think that the difficulties of learning are artificial, since they are accustomed to think only of manual work as sweat and toil.  The question is a complex one. Undoubtedly the child of a traditionally intellectual family acquires this psycho-physical adaptation more easily. Before he ever enters the class-room he has numerous advantages over his comrades, and is already in possession of attitudes learned from his family environment. Similarly, the son of a city worker suffers less when he goes to work in a factory than does a peasant’s child or a young peasant already formed by country life. This is why many people think that the difficulty of study conceals some “trick” which handicaps them; they see the gentleman complete, speedily and with apparent ease, work which costs their sons tears and blood, and they think there is a “trick”. In the future, these questions may become extremely acute and it will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted. If our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals, including those capable of the highest degree of specialisation, from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome .”