04. From mass schooling to mass protest: failures of the education system

Defining Education
A logical starting point for an analysis of the student movement is the 1962 education reform that established mass secondary schooling in Italy, and led to an expansion of the intake of the further education sector. However, some introduction of concepts is necessary to put the reform in proper analytic and historical perspective. To begin with, as Richard Johnson insists in his important work on the history of education in Britain, ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ need to be distinguished. The two terms tend to be treated as synonymous, thereby assuming that knowledge is primarily acquired within the four walls of an institution. This idea exists not only in the definitions given by teachers and policy makers, but in the common sense notions of everyday speech. The conflation of education with schooling seems to be a ‘natural’ fact, whereas it is the result of a historical process with important consequences for how society’s conceptions of knowledge are constructed. Richard Johnson writes that it has practical effects:

it tends to naturalise existing educational arrangements, and to marginalise and devalue less formal means of learning. It constructs a sharp divide between school (where we learn/ are educated) and life outside those institutional walls (where we work/play). It tends to enhance the role of the professional teacher and the organised curriculum over other sources of wisdom and more practical knowledges. Above all, it tends to hide from view a whole history of the construction of schooling or encourages the belief in some simple history of progress, a history with no costs, no struggles, no ambiguities.

Richard Johnson goes on to develop two other categories from British historical examples to describe the political strategies involved in the social construction of education and schooling.; They are the substitutionalist strategy, which conceives of education in non-institutional terms, and the statist strategy that focuses on schooling. Historically, the pursuit of substitutionalist ideas and practices of education arose with the popular movements of the first half of the nineteenth century. In them, learning was a group activity related to class and human emancipation. Knowledge was valued for its usefulness in changing the world, and education was thought of in the broadest sense as the acquisition of skills and learning through everyday experience as well as through books.

The statist strategy emerged at a later point when ‘capital had secured a , tighter control over the conditions of labour’, reducing the margins of autonomy and the resources of time and income necessary for the earlier experience of popular self-education. It was directed towards
increasing state educational provision and access to it for the working class. By contrast with substitutionalism, the statist approach tended to identify education with schooling, and to delegate power and responsibility to others, namely the public authorities and the teaching profession. Richard Johnson remarks that:

Most forms of statist strategy . . . deepen the separations which constitute the specifically educational forms of oppression. They deepen the divisions between adult and child, between education and the rest of living, and between professional educators and their curricula and the knowledge that is produced outside the academic institutions.

However, he is careful to stress that the strategies should not simply be counter-posed or oversimplified; the statist approach has not concentrated exclusively on the question of access, but has involved struggles over the control of institutions and the nature of the curriculum and of teaching. The very creation and extension of state provision makes certain forms of substitutionalism anachronistic, and substitutionalism has tended to become compensatory. However, Johnson insists that it is not therefore defunct as a strategy. Indeed it can be said that the student movements of the sixties put these questions back on the agenda. But before looking at this movement, it is necessary to outline the previous struggles over education in Italy, and at the reforms carried out by the Centre-Left government.

In an earlier period when the mass of the population was excluded from the vote on the grounds of illiteracy, and when educational provision was minimal, not the school, but the Socialist Party and other popular organizations in Italy were the people’s ‘educators’. An account of pre-1914 struggles for knowledge stresses its political dimension:

Socialism is a school because the leaders of the party are interested in enrolling the greatest number of voters . . . then, for the workers better to absorb the principles of socialism, it is necessary they acquire the habit of reading. Already among the working class itself new personalities are arising who live the same lives as the workers and yet because of their greater intellectual achievement, they become the pioneers.

In this practice of education, learning was collective and functional to the needs of the group rather than to individual self-advancement. It also contained an idea of learning through social practice, which as the aspect elaborated by Gramsci in his factory council writings when he counter-posed the real knowledge and control of the production process by the workers, to the intellectual bankruptcy of the capitalists.

This substitutionalist strategy, which concentrated on creating alternative educational organs such as newspapers, training militants and fostering a socialist culture, was dominant within the working-class movement when it was excluded from full citizenship. With the establishment of schooling for all and universal suffrage in 1945, substitutionalism became a secondary and to a large extent residual element of the strategy of the Left in the educational field. However, it was not entirely superseded. Christian Democrat control of the educational system, the deficiencies of state schooling and the implantation of the PCI as a mass party excluded from participation in government made it both feasible and desirable to sustain some elements of an alternative educational practice. In the 1960s there was a marked decline in the PCI’s activity in this sense, but groups of dissident intellectuals to its Left were active in reviving ideas of autonomous workers’ education.

For the parties and trade unions of the Left a statist strategy prevailed over the substitutionalist. The realization of the demand for free, compulsory state education, even if inadequate and deformed, set the terms for an approach to education based on demands for its extension and reform as a public service. In the immediate postwar period, they lost the opportunity provided by extensive working class mobilization and presence in government to push through radical reforms; the primary objective was to make the existing system function. Lucio Lombardo Radice of the PCI wrote:

It is not a question of whether it is just or not that the best elements of the working classes are excluded de facto from secondary and further education, but of whether the Italian school, as it is organized today, is an efficient instrument for the reconstruction of the country.

This approach meant accepting ruthless selection and the fundamental division between training and education.

This failure to reform the educational system had long-term consequences. The tripartite division inherited from the Gentile reforms remained intact; five years of compulsory schooling for all, in which the post-elementary stage was divided into lower secondary and training. Further education was divided into the liceo and technical institutes, and then there was university for a privileged minority. The class character of the system was very marked, although it was entirely state controlled except for a few Church controlled schools and the nursery sector. In 1959-60, only 20 per cent of thirteen- to fourteen-year-old children got the lower secondary certificate, and at thirteen 49 per cent of children left school. In the fifties an estimated 18 per cent of the population used Italian rather than dialect as their main language; Italian-speakers were largely those who had passed through further education. The Idealist tradition, which drew a sharp distinction between a humanist education and technical training, and gave absolute priority of the mind over the body, had its economic rationale too. Demand was for cheap, unskilled labour, on the one hand, and for an educated minority for the liberal professions. Literary subjects (the classics, history, literature, were taught, though sociology and economics did not appear on the curriculum) were privileged over the sciences. The exercise of the body was not included within school activities; not even prestigious licei had sports facilities. There was no form of sex education, while the teaching of moral values owed much to the Church, which had reinforced its position in the postwar period. It exercised its influence through compulsory religious education, strict censorship of textbooks and interventions in policy-making in the Christian Democrat Party. This also contributed to the patriarchal regime in which the teacher stood in for the father (the vast majority of teachers in secondary schools were male), and ruled with iron discipline. The forms of control extended directly to the family, in that from elementary school onwards all marks on tests and on behaviour were taken back to the parents; this practice was inherited from the Fascist period.

The strategy of the Left parties in the early fifties was based on criticizing the ideological content at education, in particular its subjection to Church influence. In 1959 the PCI moved from a defensive position to the formulation of reform proposals for secondary schooling. It advocated a single compulsory school for all, the raising of the leaving age to fourteen, the abolition of compulsory Latin and the extension of science teaching. The idea of comprehensive education contained in the proposal, which was substantially made law in 1962, was advanced in comparison to other European school systems; Giorgio Ruffolo writes that the reform envisaged:

The introduction of a wide variety of subjects related to the lived culture of our time, the granting of a certain independence to departments, the establishment of extra schooling, and differentiated classes and special classes for pupils in difficulty.

In effect, the reform brought Italy into line with other industrial capitalist states by transforming an elitist into a mass secondary schooling system. The numbers attending secondary school increased from 1,150,000 to 1,982,000 between 1959 and 1969. Between 1966 and 1970 education moved from the fifth to the first most important item of government expenditure - 6 per cent of the Gross National Income, as compared with 5.6 per cent in Britain and 4 per cent in France, was spent on education.

The major shortcoming of the strategies of the PCI and PSI, which were the chief parties promoting educational reform, was their almost exclusive focus on ‘access’. For them the problem was to extend the benefits of secondary schooling to children who had previously been excluded from the system or restricted to training for skilled manual work. The quantitative demand for more schooling and more facilities prevailed over qualitative demands. The issue of control remained marginal, and was framed in terms of public versus private provision, which was significant only in relation to the nursery sector. The curriculum was modernized and made more relevant through the inclusion of more science teaching, but forms of pedagogy were not discussed. Under the rhetoric of egalitarianism that proclaimed education as a ‘right for all’, there was a strong current of meritocratic and technocratic thinking that clouded any perception of the emergence of new forms of discrimination and selection within the reformed secondary school. Moreover, analysis of the relation between the more qualified youth and the availability and types of work in the economy was scanty or utopian. The Project 580 government forecast, for example, projected a single education
system up to the age of sixteen for 80 per cent of youth on the assumption that there would be a massive expansion in demand for technically qualified manpower.

The limits of the reform were also manifested in the forms of action that the parties and unions adopted in campaigning for it. Mobilization tended to be external to the educational institutions themselves. The issue was raised at election times. For the unions, education was significant in that educational qualifications provided the basis for enlarging their definition of ‘skill’ as a bargaining counter with the employers. Otherwise, the unions delegated responsibility for education to the parties, which privileged parliamentary and legislative activity. It was the complex task of winning assent among the parties which shaped legislative decisions, rather than popular mobilization and debate. The strike wave of the 1960-63 period did not impinge directly on the education issue, though it provided the conditions for the formation of the Centre-Left government. The eclipse of substitutionalism as a popular form of educational practice, and hence the decline of a sense that there were alternatives, meant that critiques of the state system lost a popular and radical dimension. Reform was carried out over and above the heads of the mass of the population.

Moreover, the lack of a consistent pro reform current within the secondary schools themselves, and the weakness of unionization by the confederations in the educational institutions, meant that there was no effective alliance between progressive politicians and the profession.

In consequence, the implementation of the 1962 reform largely escaped the control of its political advocates. It was conditioned rather by the traditionalism of the authorities within the schools, by the rightward shift in government policies, and by the changes in the labour market. Contradictions arising from the perpetuation of practices inherited from Liberal and Fascist regimes combined with new ones to produce a long drawn-out crisis in the system.

The majority of teachers resisted the changes in order to defend privileges acquired when they were the prestigious representatives of the state in a largely illiterate rural society. The autonomous professional associations concentrated on representing their corporate interests and did not participate in constructing the reforms. Their relatively light teaching load, averaging fourteen hours a week, was not increased, but the additional work was done through the use of part-time and temporary teachers. The relationship between teachers and pupils in the secondary school kept many of its authoritarian features, which headmasters jealously guarded.

Government policies did little to alleviate or improve the situation. No comprehensive programme of teachers’ training was established, and investment in infrastructures to cope with the increased intake was inadequate. There were serious shortages of textbooks, and class-rooms; by the next decade 14 per cent of elementary schools worked a double shift system or rented rooms. The burden fell particularly on the working-class children, especially those of the south; in 1966-7 failures to get the elementary certificate included 15 per cent of children from secondary schooling. In 1971 three-quarters of Italians did not have a qualification higher than an elementary certificate; 14.7 per cent had a secondary school qualification.

The restriction of reform to the secondary school put great pressure on the upper secondary school (scuola media superiore) and the university. The upper secondary school had a structure which was a century old. In the upper secondary sector, the main division was between the liceo (of which were of two types - the Iiceo classico for the humanities and the liceo scientifico for the sciences), and the technical institutes. The former tended to have a predominance of students from middle-class families, with only 10 per cent of working-class background compared with over 30 per cent in the technical institutes. It was these institutions that had to deal with the influx of students from the reformed secondary schools, who were choosing to continue their studies rather than enter the job market. In 1960, 82,000 out of a total of 311,000 left school for work, whilst in 1968 only 91,700 out of 507,000 did so. The numbers going to the upper secondary school had doubled. The structures, however, were ill-adapted for such changes; a high degree of centralization prevented flexibility: teachers had little autonomy, syllabuses were set by the ministry of education, and heads were directly responsible to the ministry. The result was a fall in educational standards measured in terms of attendance and the ‘drop-out’ rate; a report of 1969 spoke of 10 per cent of liceo classico and 24 per cent of the instituto professionale students leaving at the end of the first year.

The universities also enormously expanded their intake; the number of students increased from 268,181 in 1960-61 to 404,938 in 1965-6. Legislation opened access to science faculties to students from the institutes in 1961, and in 1965 entrance by examination and the fixed quota (numero chiuso) were abolished. The number of students from the working class thereby increased from 14 per cent in 1960-1 to 21 per cent in 1967-8. However, the privileged point of entry into the university was through the liceo. The term ‘mass university’ was misleading when only one in sixteen went to university. The number of women students doubled between 1960 and 1968, but in 1968 accounted for just under one third of the intake.

Although the social base of the university had been broadened, a social and economic selection replaced one imposed by examination structures. The institution functioned as a sort of funnel that was wide at the point of entry and narrow at the exit. The drop-out rate, length of time for course completion and examination results showed up the disadvantages suffered by students of working-class origins. An average 14 per cent of students dropped out, though many fewer did so in the faculties of law and medicine which were predominantly middle class in composition. The problem of course completion was chronic, with two-thirds not finishing in the prescribed time. Examination results and future prospects related to class origin, with a higher success rate in the courses preparing students for the liberal professions. Guido Martinotti compares the Italian and English universities of the late sixties in terms of their social function:

In 1966 about 81 per cent of those with a secondary school certificate went to university, but only 44 per cent succeeded in getting a degree. A comparison between the two systems shows how the two results are virtually identical; whether the selection happens prevalently before or after university, a large part of the student population does not reach the end of the period of study. In the English system this takes place through an evaluation of merit (since the selection largely precedes the university due to a limitation on student numbers). Meanwhile, in the Italian case, selection is left to the game of chance, or, to put it more exactly, to the social factors that intervene to regulate it.

Since only 5 per cent of students received a grant, which was in itself at insufficient to cover the costs of maintenance and study, the poorer students were forced to work in order to study. An inquiry in 1965-6 in five universities found that 14 per cent of students were in this situation, whilst 66 per cent depended entirely on their parents for maintenance. The consequences were lived out in lower educational achievement and the abandonment of further study. Private means grew in importance as the quality of public provision declined. The staff-student ratio worsened to reach 1:60 in the early 1970s, and library facilities and building did not expand to meet the increased demand.

Corrosion and Landslides in the Educational System
The reform and expansion of the education system proved a bitter disappointment to the leading reformers themselves, who had hoped it would lead to the modernization of Italian society, They made up for the shortage of skilled manpower and technicians that had been identified as a bottleneck in the economy in the early 1960s. Yet, in the process, the supply increased well in excess of the demand. Although the reformed secondary school played its part in satisfying demand for young male workers who were better qualified and more versatile, the rise in educational expectations meant that the secondary school acted as a point of departure for further education rather than as a terminal point.

Although economic considerations were important in educational policy-making, these have to be placed in the context of the political calculations and cultural orientations of the politicians themselves. Above-all, education as an issue involved the winning of consent and the forging of alliances. When education was made more widely available it created expectations and hopes of betterment that were important elements in legitimating the system. The Christian Democrats were particularly conscious of such considerations. A humanist political culture was combined in the Christian Democratic Party with a sensitivity to the requirements of patronage. Everything was done to avoid damaging vested interests. After the concession of the 1962 reform, which was one of the conditions for Socialist Party’s participation in government, further changes were piecemeal compromises designed to keep alliances intact. The expansion of state employment (which absorbed 80 per cent of graduates) and of the tertiary sector have been interpreted as an aspect of a strategy of the ruling bloc to maintain its hegemony over the educationally qualified sectors, who were a potential source of social tension. This particular concern for winning over intellectuals has a long history in Italy. A remark by Gonella, minister of education in 1946, is telling:

the social order can be destroyed not only through the revolutionary agitation of the masses, but also through the slow corrosion and the consequent landslide that undermine the moral defences represented by the intellectual classes. If those defences fail, a society can tumble into disorder.

This phenomenon of corrosion and landslide took on crisis proportions in the late sixties, and, because of the education reforms, involved a much wider section of society than that represented by the privileged intelligentsia of which Gonella was thinking. The reforms created a whole series of new problems as well as leaving old ones unresolved. Since only the secondary school was changed, leaving the further education system unreformed, imbalance and bottlenecks developed. The universities could not cope efficiently with the massive increase in intake, and then produced graduates in excess of the requirement for qualified employees.

In the 1960s, it was more the problems within education than what happened afterwards that preoccupied students. There was considerable frustration over petty inequalities and officiousness; for example, students going to university from technical institutes could only study science subjects, whilst those from a liceo could study whatever they wished. But there was also a feeling that this, like the organization of exams, was symptomatic of the irrationalities of the education system. The aura of the university was tarnished in overcrowded lecture theatres where doubts were spread as to the intellectual merits of the professors. The committed students who read the latest publications (Asor Rosa’s Scrittori e popolo, for instance) found themselves better informed than some of the lecturers. The crisis in the institutions was also a crisis of cultural legitimacy; that is to say, of their claim to be society’s depository of knowledge.

To understand how this crisis came about it would be necessary to chart the changes within intellectual fields; to see how orthodoxies were being challenged from within a discipline, or how new sorts of knowledge were being championed. Some idea of what this involved can be seen in the case of sociology. The first faculty of sociology was set up in 1962 at the University of Trento on the initiative of progressive elements within the Christian Democratic Party. They wanted to ‘help Italy catch up with the other . advanced countries, creating a new means of managing a society whose complexity was beyond the comprehension of orthodox economic liberalism’. The model was American. The sociologists at the time looked for a ‘prince’ in the form of government policy-makers, and they defined themselves as ‘experts rather than committed participants of social action’. However, by the mid to late sixties, the founders’ project went very wrong. The faculty at Trento became the epicentre of student protest. Moreover, a second generation of sociologists, sharing in the growing disillusionment with the Centre-Left government, began to look for a new role for the discipline, as a force for social change from below rather than from above. There was increasing criticism of the functionalist school of Merton and Parsons, and a re-reading of the classics, Durkheim and Weber, and a new interest in developing a Marxist sociology. The discipline promoted to help understand and solve the problems produced by the economic miracle became a seedbed of dissident opinion.

However, the 1960s was a period when orthodoxies were widely under threat, and developments within the field of sociology are only one extreme example of this process, about which some general observations can be made. Firstly, in the Italian context there was considerable criticism of how appointments were made on the grounds of political affiliation rather than of merit. It seemed that culture was being debased (losing its essential qualities of autonomy and impartiality) in the political market-place. Secondly, the courses were criticised for being out-of-date. The age of academic staff became a metaphor in a conflict in which a younger generation sought to represent modernity and the future society-in-the-making. Thirdly, there was mounting discontent over what was seen as the remoteness of universities and further education from the rest of society. Their outdatedness was related to their self-containment, and their attachment to a mandarin ethos at a time when knowledge and culture were being opened up to previously excluded groups. These conflicts concerned the education process and some of the earliest forms of ‘contestation’ (for example counter-courses) focused on this. But they also became connected with broader political and social questions; the major mobilizations centred on education as a social and political right.

Student grievances accumulated over a multitude of issues, but it took opposition to the Gui bill to bring them into focus. This bill was designed to restrict entry to the universities by fixing quotas. Students denounced the objective as a betrayal of the ideals promoted by the new government itself. They led the first major opposition to the Centre-Left government. Ironically, it was in the field where it had achieved most that the government was challenged.

Educational reform, not economic policy, provoked a storm of moral outrage from the social group to which the PSI looked for support. To explain this, it is perhaps useful to think of de Tocqueville’s observation about how the French king’s attempts to alleviate his subjects’ sufferings made them more not less aware of the injustices. Educational reforms, by improving the chances of young working-class people going to university, drew attention to the fact that very few did. Students went to university with great expectations and found a tawdry reality. Guido Martinotti summed up the contradictions at the heart of the situation:

The clash is between the expectations created by social demand for education and by the egalitarian ideology implicit in the educational system, and today’s realities of social inequalities that deeply structure the university system. The university has been turned from being the means of substituting economic conflicts, into the site of some of the most violent conflicts in society.

Writing of the French situation in the late 1960s, Pierre Bourdieu gives an analysis of the relationship between the expansion of the student intake and the crisis of the value of educational qualifications which is equally applicable to Italy;

The increase in pupils and the concomitant devaluation of educational qualifications (or the educational position to which they provide access) have affected the whole of an age group, thus constituted as a relatively unified social generation through this common experience, creating a structural hiatus between the statutory expectations inherent in the positions and diplomas which in the previous state of the system really did offer corresponding opportunities - and the opportunities actually provided by these diplomas and positions in the moment in question

The crisis in the educational system was, therefore, part of a wider crisis, indeed it formed a meeting point for a range of social, political and cultural conflicts, which will be examined in the chapters that follow.