country where truth-telling
and plain-speaking are traditionally considered to be inadvisable
and even perilous'
give Italy Jesus Christ and you get the Roman Catholic Church.
Everything you give Italy becomes a parody.'
mentality rules in Italian universities
Montanelli tells Domenico Pacitti that history is the key to
understanding the Italian academic mentality
tireless education minister, Luigi Berlinguer, is seeking to introduce
widespread reforms into the country's university system.
He has an unenviable task, according to Indro Montanelli, 88, founder-editor of
two national quality dailies, winner of Spain's 1996 Principe de Asturias prize
for excellence in journalism, and Italy's most brilliant and controversial
social observer and critic.
Montanelli sees Professor Berlinguer as essentially capable and
well-intentioned, but lacking the resources to be able to attempt any real
reforms: "He lacks the men. And when you lack the men, how can you change
an entire education system? To whom do you entrust your good intentions? Our
education system is nothing short of a complete disaster."
In a country where truth-telling and plain-speaking are traditionally considered
to be inadvisable and even perilous, Montanelli's intellectual independence and
flouting of taboos are a continuing source of embarrassment to many.
He readily acknowledges a striking parallel with Bertrand Russell as one of
spirit rather than substance, even though Russell's statement at the age of 90,
"Like Cassandra, I am doomed to prophecy evil and not be believed",
appears to be equally applicable to Montanelli himself.
He identifies shameless conformity to a deep-rooted mafioso-style clan
mentality, weakness of character and lack of moral and social conscience as the
keys to understanding the scandal of Italy's universities.
"Our universities have always suffered from that malformation that is
fundamental to Italian culture," he explains. "It is an academic
culture, but one that came into being at the table of the prince's palace and
has remained so ever since. Lay or religious prince - it made no difference. Our
culture catered not for the public, who were illiterate as a result of the
Counter-Reformation, but for those princes who could read, and thus emerged in a
climate of absolute servility.
"In place of princes we now have political parties and economic power, but
the principle is still the same. Italian culture does not and never has served
the public. Our universities are made for professors, who address other
professors, never the common herd. It is forbidden to step outside the academic
fortress. The very language of our teachers is mafia language, cosca clan
language, because culture in Italy is literally a mafia-style cosca clan."
Access to teaching posts is via a complex public exam system that has little to
do with merit and much to do with recommendations and favours. "Servility
is the chief quality required to enter the system. Carrying some important
professor's case for years. The best way to get on is to marry the daughter of a
barone," he says.
"All of this has nothing to do with true culture or merit but rather with
career. That is how careers get under way in Italy. As if this were not enough,
these people then convince themselves they got in through merit."
Once inside the system one has to abide by the rules of Italian academia, as it
can be extremely dangerous to rebel: "Potential rebels and foreigners are
at some point simply sucked into the system - or else they become outcasts
destined to solitude. The rebel is the arch-enemy who must be isolated and
"I detest Italian culture precisely because it is academic in this negative
sense. My first experience as a student at Florence University led to an acute
crisis of rejection. I found the university had betrayed its mission of
spreading true culture. If it does not do this, I thought, what does it do?
Professors appear to have no scruples about axing deserving candidtates for
Despite discussion of reform, Montanelli remains sceptical: "Students and
academics can forget an Italian palingenesis through new laws and regulations. I
am told that England has 6,000 or 7,000 laws: Italy has well over 200,000, which
means a veritable legal jungle. The truth is that while the British produce men,
we go on producing laws."
He feels that the inability to make real university reforms has to be seen as
part of a more general, Italian inability to effect transformations. "I
have seen too many transformations in this country that ended up transforming
"Fascism, for example, began as a form of totalitarianism - Italian and
therefore negotiable, like everything else in Italy. History shows that Italy
always corrupts everything it does in the name of myths and sacred things. You
give Italy Jesus Christ and you get the Roman Catholic Church. Everything you
give Italy becomes a parody. This means there is something in our blood."
The cream of Italy's students and academics are therefore to be found abroad,
forced to emigrate in order to be judged on merit. "Italians lack the
character to be revolutionaries," Montanelli says. "Although I should
be advising them to stay on and fight the system, it would not be honest of me
to do so as I do not believe they can succeed. Even so, I find they should still
somehow be encouraged to rebel in some way. But I exclude violence, which is why
in 1968 I found myself reluctantly having to defend the professors. Students
have many methods of expressing contempt and indifference towards a professor's
lessons without resorting to violence."
Putting the entire national academic staff of 60,000 on early retirement and
electing non-Italian commissions to appoint replacement staff for the
foreseeable future is, he feels, a logical but not a viable proposition.
"I find no sense in hoping that things will change because I do not believe
they will. I have nothing positive whatsoever to say about Italian social or
academic culture. How do you solve Italy's university scandal? By eliminating
300 years of history."
This article was published by JUST Response on June 6 2002. It first
appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement (London)
on January 9 1998.
See also: The
Domenico Pacitti Archive
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