08. A lost opportunity? the education system after '68

The student movement’s impact on Italian society was considerable. It ‘showed the country a different image of itself and socialized knowledge of how that society worked’. But the effects were most deeply felt in the social groups and institutions with which students were in closest contact.It was not factory workers so much as teachers, the liberal professions, publishers and researchers who were directly challenged by the movement, and whose ranks were subsequently joined by ex-student activists. But first of all it was the education system which felt the impact of the student movement.

The student movement’s effects on the educational system can be judged by asking the questions: ‘Did it make education more democratic and egalitarian?’; ‘did the movement change who entered further educational institutions, what students did inside them, and what qualifi- cations they got on completing their studies?’. Finally, it will be asked whether the movement changed how the very concepts of education and schooling were understood. The effects will be considered, in other words, in relation to access to further education, the nature and control of the learning process, and to the forms of qualification obtained in the insti- tutions. The more general question about changing conceptions of intellectuality will be examined in chapter 10 in terms of the student movement’s impact on intellectual and cultural roles in society.

The student movement’s first important campaign was over access to the universities. It proclaimed everyone’s right to study and symbolically opened the gates of the faculties to all-comers, and welcomed workers to participate in seminars, discussions and meetings. Students demanded the establishment of the ‘mass university’, meaning a university open to the ‘masses’. In their campaign they won the propaganda war against a government which held out the promise of education as a right, but then reneged on it. The PCI and the unions were persuaded to oppose the Gui reforms, but ultimately the wave of student occupations made it impossible for the government to limit the numbers entering the univer- sities. However, the student victory was limited. Students exercised a veto in the name of a general principle, but they did not address some of the immediate and resolvable social and economic problems behind inequalities of access. Firstly, although the movement resisted increases in fees, it did not campaign systematically for student grants. The winning of a living grant would have allowed poorer students to study full-time without having to do other jobs, and would have allowed access to those whose families could not afford to support their children’s further education. In addition, financial independence could have released students from dependency on the family. However, the movement did not take up the issue seriously because, in its eyes, the demand smacked of a narrow economic corporativism (perhaps because the leading activists were mainly drawn from middle-class families they were less concerned about financial difficulties).

Secondly, the movement did not propose legislative reforms that would facilitate access to the universities. Its anti-reformism and anti- parliamentary politics precluded such a strategy. In other words, the movement rejected a statist orientation that was a necessary part of any moves to make what were state institutions more accessible. This rejection also had negative effects on the attempt to democratize the upper secondary school. A reform bill of 1967 which proposed to open these schools to everyone and to raise the school-leaving age to sixteen was brushed aside by the student movement.

The movement therefore managed to win tactical victories, but not to open up further education to the working class. Although the elite university was transformed into a mass university in that student numbers increased fivefold from 1965 to 1979, to reach nearly a million, the percentage of students from working-class backgrounds increased by only a small amount, and remained lower than in other industrialized countries with quota systems. Moreover, the privileged route to the university via the upper secondary school remained intact.

The impact of the student movement was more dramatic in relation to life inside the educational institutions. There was no return to a pre-1968 situation, either in the teaching and studying methods, or in the political relations between the students and authorities. Not that there were no attempts to put the clock back. A right-wing government in 1972 carried out a harsh law and order campaign; in an interview Giovanni Gozzer estimated that in a period of three months, 1,200 schools, institutes and universities had been occupied, and that the conflict resulted in ten thousand disciplinary proceedings, three hundred arrests and the resig- nation of thirty-eight headmasters. However, most of the demands for a new pedagogy made by the movement in the universities were conceded. Examinations were adapted to student needs rather than vice versa; written (as opposed to oral) examinations and certain subjects were no longer compulsory; attendance was no longer checked; seminars and collective study were introduced. The education process was liberalized to allow greater student participation. Similarly, students in the upper secondary schools as well as in the universities were conceded political rights. At first these were informal, but in 1974 they were written into a charter of rights, which created elected representative bodies in the schools.

The students’ successes in undermining traditional authority structures and in establishing grassroots democracy within the institutions were remarkable. They showed the power of a substitutionalist strategy in action. Students set up counter-courses involving collective and inter- disciplinary study, and then called for them to be recognized. They held meetings and opened the doors to outsiders without requesting permission from above. ln doing so they questioned the whole nature of the educational process as it was constituted within the institutions. The movement challenged divisions created or sanctioned by past statist educational practices, such as those which induced competitive relationships between students or those which separated schooling from other social and political activities. However, the movement`s substi- tutionalism also carried severe limitations.

Firstly, the enormous energy expended by the movement in encourag- ing educational ‘self-activity’ by students could not last indefinitely. It could not make up for the structural problems arising from overcrowding, lack of investment and absence of postgraduate research possibilities. If anything, these difficulties were aggravated by the increase of student numbers and the resistance to change on the pan of powerful vested interests. Secondly, the movement’s substitutionalism rapidly led to a narrow and instrumental politicization of educational processes. This was evident in the movement’s fascination with the ideas of the Chinese Cultural Revolution which drew sharp distinctions between bourgeois and proletarian culture. Luciano Aguzzi cites a case when subjects were divided into three categories according to political criteria. Greek and Latin were classed as ‘pre-bourgeois remnants’; History was ‘purely Ideological’; physics, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy were ‘indirectly ideological’. The abolition of history was proposed as it was of less importance than the study of the present. This is an example of especially crude thinking, but most analyses assumed that the educational institutions were functional to the capitalist system in some simple sense. Ideological certainties substituted empirical inquiry. Students fought a propaganda battle in which slogans substituted for study, or they left further education in search of ‘real knowledge’ learnt in general political struggles.

The liberalization of studies within the universities and schools produced interesting experiments, especially where genuine cooperation was developed between students and teachers. In Milan, the architecture faculty of the Polytechnic was a good example of this, as was the political science faculty of the State University.7 However, the potential of alter- native courses and methods of study remained largely unrealized. An account by a teacher in Milan gives a dismal picture of developments in upper secondary schools:

the slogan we all shouted in ‘68 ‘Smash, don’t change the bourgeois school’ has done the student movement more harm than even the Christian Democrat Ministers of Education themselves.

Too often student demands concerning education served short-term laziness rather than radical objectives. Or rather, a refusal to be educated was interpreted simplistically as a radical political act in itself. An account from a student journal, Le Formiche Rosse (The Red Ants), celebrates this form of insubordination:

It’s when you prefer to go out and smoke a cigarette and talk about your problems that you discover that all the other students are there too .... Occasionally the headmaster passes and sends everyone back into the class- room .... Do you then have to follow the lesson? No. You only need to enter the room to see that only a few arse-lickers are paying attention and . . . that the rest are reading the paper or talking about sport.

The effect of this sort of action, according to Aguzzi, was to make the school an ‘empty box’ which served only to waste time in. Far from having radical political consequences, this student resistance reinforced social inequalities in the distribution of cultural capital.

Although different because of its political language, this attitude to school (and to the hard-working student) closely parallels the pupil resistance in British schools observed by Paul Willis. Similarly, the opposition of the students to mental work expresses a class antagonism and critique of relations of authority, which simultaneously reproduces relations of subordination. Willis writes:

Mental work demands too much, and encroaches . . . too much [on] those areas which are increasingly adopted as their own, as private and independent. ‘The lads’ have learned only too well the specific form of mental labour is an unfair ‘equivalent’ in an exchange about control of those parts of themselves which they want to be free .... Resistance to mental work becomes resistance to authority learnt in school. The specific conjunction in contemporary capitalism of class antagonism and the educational paradigm turns education into control, (social) class resistance into educational refusal and human difference into class division.

Aguzzi treats this educational refusal as an aberration resulting from ‘bad’ politics, but it needs also to be understood in Willis’ terms. It was a refusal which in the mid and late seventies connected up with a refusal of work and the development of a youth movement?

Finally the student movement’s effects on the educational system need to be related to the forms of qualification obtained in the institutions. Again, the movement’s successes were double-edged. In the upper secondary schools it played a major role in making it difficult for teachers to fail students. The struggle against selection processes ended in the virtual elimination of examinations, which became mere formalities. The failure rate dropped dramatically. This had the positive result of making it possible for more students to go on to university, but was negative in that no new forms of assessment were established to enable students and teachers to evaluate performance and aid learning without resorting to discrimination. In the universities, it also became easier for students to acquire a degree, but these steadily lost their value both in the eyes of employers and of the students themselves.

The overall impact of the student movement on the education system in Italy turned out to be negative in as far as the institutions showed themselves incapable of responding positively. On the surface it appeared more democratic and egalitarian due to the destruction of authoritarian forms of selection and social control, and the absence of a quota system. Yet the class inequalities survived. For example, only the children of the middle classes could afford the years of study needed to become a doctor or engineer. So far, attention has been drawn particularly to the short- comings of the movement itself in developing an adequate strategy for transforming education. Above all, it has been pointed out that its refusal to make demands and campaign for substantial reforms had debilitating consequences. It entailed isolating other social groups from participation in changing education and it enabled the government and educational authorities to avoid taking action, thereby protecting vested interests. The movement’s creative substitutionalism was defeated by the sheer weight of structural obstacles and because it did not connect up with wider educational transformations. However, to attribute responsibility to the student movement for not reforming the educational system would be to overlook the role played by those with the power to make such changes.

Giorgio Ruffolo writes that:

the Italian ruling classes’ response to the students’ revolt accorded with a time- honoured and happy-go-lucky tradition of making paltry concessions rather than genuine changes; instead of building more schools and extending partici- pation, the government offered some more grants and easier examinations.

The concession of the 150-Hours Scheme, which facilitated paid study leave for workers lacking in basic educational qualifications, was perhaps a partial exception; it was the most innovative reform in the education field of the l970s. It demonstrated what possibilities for change were open if the intelligence and organization of social movements were given space, time and money to develop. The scheme promised to release educational practices from their imprisonment in the formal schooling system, and to create an alternative to the either/or between statist and substitutionalist options. The roles of student and teacher too were put in question. However, the scheme also served less idealistic purposes. It was designed to make up for the inadequacies of the schooling system, and this was a way of doing it cheaply (especially via employment of part- time teachers). Furthermore, the scheme was isolated and marginalized rather than used as a spring-board for changing the educational system. Otherwise, during the 1970s the schools and universities were mainly left to rot.

Attempts at reform were swallowed up in the quick-sands of corporate interests. The impasse of the political system was paralleled in the place- seeking and time-serving of academia. The average student in the universities rarely attended courses, and the notion that further education was a ‘parking-area’ for the future unemployed signalled a cynical awareness of the devaluation of qualifications on the labour market. The student movement of 1968 perhaps created a unique opportunity to carry out systematic reforms against the interests of university barons, backward- looking headmasters and teaching staff, and a hundred-and-one petty feudalities. Its defeat meant that the situation which generated the social conflicts in the 1960s got worse. The figure of the unemployed, casually employed or unemployable student became emblematic of the political and cultural crisis of the late 1970s.