Here is the lesson of a great teacher, Gianni Rodari: ‘It is difficult to do difficult things: / To talk to the deaf, show a rose to the blind. / Children, learn to do difficult things: / Take the blind by hand, sing for the deaf / Set free the slaves who think they are free.’
Rodari was a much-loved writer for generations of parents, who read his Telephone Tales and Il libro delle filastrocche (The Book of Nursery Rhymes) to thousands of children. They went on to become parents themselves and read them to their children to this day. Learning the ‘grammar of the imagination’ and ‘doing difficult things’ is the sign of those who do things well and undertake to change them from an early age.
That phrase about ‘doing difficult things,’ starting from the first years of school, came up several times during discussions at the Aspen Seminars for Leaders in Venice. This year, it was dedicated to discussing Italian identity in the European context, the importance of industry and the ‘new industrial triangle’ (Lombardy, Emilia and Veneto) to the digital revolution, the data-driven society, health, tourism and social inequalities, among other things. In different ways, all the discussions led to a specific focus on the issues of school and education, from the first years of primary school to the most sophisticated university masters. A school where you ‘learn to learn’ and have the necessary tools to cope with the evolution of science, culture, economic processes, society and politics throughout your life. A school that is aware of the ‘obsolescence of knowledge,’ accelerated by the frenetic evolution of the digital society, and therefore knows how to face the challenges of critical knowledge, the time for reflection and understanding, the need to provide useful people to the world of business and work, but also critical people, citizens aware of the complexity of culture and the need for well-informed, critical and responsible thought. General questions, as you can see. Questions about school as an essential tool for wider, more general choices: political, cultural, social and civil.
That is why we are thinking of Rodari’s lesson on ‘difficult things.’ It is essential not to give in to the trivialisation of knowledge, the degradation of language, the flattening of skills, to fall into vulgarity. Making popular, essential culture does not mean giving into sloppiness and vulgar behaviour at all. Rather, we should encourage the growing, widespread awareness of the need for simplicity instead of complexity. We need to understand the direction of change of change as much as possible, in order to try to govern and direct them.
We still have a school system that was built on the model of the industrial era; we study for 17 or 18 years (from primary school to university graduation), acquiring useful knowledge for the rest of our life, then go to work, almost always in the same place, making a career to get skills in the sector or, at very least, a more senior position.
In recent years, the digital economy, globalisation and the rapid progress of science and technology have radically changed the picture. Knowledge becomes redundant over the course of a few years, jobs are changed often. So? Experts say the training cycle must last a lifetime. This changes teaching and learning methods and styles, and also the physical places in which we study. No more traditional classrooms, good for lessons facing the front, but open and dynamic teaching spaces, conversation, interaction, as part of an admirable convergence of work and education, at least from the end of the university onwards. The key point is that education should above all be multi-disciplinary and all-encompassing. We have spoken several times, in this blog, of poets and philosophers, engineers and medical engineers. All are educational activities already in progress, where we keep going with scholastic innovation.
These summary considerations lead us to argue that a country’s major investments should be responsibly concentrated on schools and training, in search of how to build a better future for the next generations. But in Italy, it is over 1.2% of GDP, a pittance. The budget law being prepared by the Conte II cabinet makes no departure from the sloppiness of the past. We object to the anti-youth and anti-development measure that is ‘Quota 100’, which will send too many people into premature retirement and is unjust, costly and unproductive.
In short, there is little money to put into safety and efficiency in buildings, not much for training teachers or awarding for those who work harder, little for new educational technology, little for school and work relations. But without investing in training, no development takes place. Hardy anyone in government circles or most political parties deals with it or even cares.
We remain at the back of the queue among EU countries in terms of number of graduates. The data released a few days ago (La Stampa, 13 October) by the foundation Italia Education and in the Unioncamere-Anpal report show that from now until 2023 at least 165,000 graduates will not meet companies’ work requirements (rising to 182,000 in higher growth estimates).
Too few people graduate in Italy. Many graduate in sectors that do not have target markets. We are lacking mathematicians, engineers, doctors, economists, statisticians, philosophers who can work in the world of big data, and experts in the fields of energy and social and environmental sustainability. There is an abundance of graduates in literature and communication science.
A whole readjustment needs to be designed with intelligence and flexibility. A whole world needs to be restarted along the lines of the ‘polytechnic networks’ that innovate by combining knowledge and work, science, technology and humanities.
How? A government with a responsible policy, willing to prioritise building a better future, should take care of it. Unfortunately, those in parliament and the prime minister’s residence do not even seem to be aware of them. In fact, they would have no idea of how to ‘do difficult things.’