Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2011  



Storytelling And Social Action: Italian Teacher-Writers


by Fabio De Propris


English translation by Peter Byrne





[ed. This is a translated excerpt from a paper read by Fabio De Propris at the National Convention of Italian Literary Scholars Association at the University of Turin in September 2011. The entire original Italian version can be read online at iger.org.


(Swans - October 24, 2011)   We are going to focus here on Italian writers who are also teachers and who in one or more of their books write about school. The two-fold role of any such writer-teacher places him in a strange position. Think of a mirror that reflects another mirror in a room empty but for the two mirrors face-to-face. An axiom tells us that every literary text, from an essay to the most trivial anecdote, also embodies a second intention. The writer who wishes to speak of his experience as a teacher also wishes to tell a story. But the endeavor will leave him staring at something he can't make sense of, nothing less than himself. Drawing a moral from an attempt to transmit a moral is all but impossible to recount. The writer will have to look to the forms of storytelling to relate his teaching experience. He can, for instance, use the schema of "rebirth" or else that of "from rags to riches." However, putting his experience into a story that is often halfway to an essay will be costly. His daily grind at school, perhaps thirty years of it, will become quite unknowable, something like Kant's noumenon.

The two story-schemas mentioned can shape tales with a happy ending. But they can also go the way of irony or speak of defeat. In Italian literature of the last forty years the latter has tended to prevail. We see this throughout the 20th century and even earlier, which goes to show that school before 1968, as lived by the writer-teacher, was not very different from the school that followed it.

For the writer-teachers of the last two generations, teaching and the failure of teaching are generally seen as two facets of the same exercise. To recount the impossibility of "rebirth" has its reason in the very act of recounting. There can be no account of the unsayable and to have tried to give one must fail. A second reason springs from the very nature of teaching, a long-term process whose results can only be seen years afterwards and not always by the teacher. They may only be evident on the student's ultimate day of life, because learning only ends with death. All this is mixed up with our human condition, our basic insufficiency, "the crooked timber of humanity." Here, happy endings are ruled out by nature.

Historical and national factors also have to be reckoned with. The Constituent Assembly of the Italian Republic, 1946-7, took up a noble challenge. It called for a school "open to all" for "eight years" both "free and obligatory." (The Italian Constitution, article 34.) By the 1960s the result was middle schools "of the masses." Classes filled up with pupils some judged "without capacity or merit." The number of teachers in the new Italian Republic had of course increased and all of them were not without flaws. The subject of education could no longer be contained in the words of the Constitution, of laws, decrees, and government circulars. The need arose to tell the other side of the story, the harsh quotidian of a school system that failed for want of a solid family culture and inadequate government funding. The distance was unbridgeable between good intentions and what happened on the ground, between rival state and private schools, religious or lay, and in general between how the world should be and how it actually was.

Lettera a una professoressa ("Letter To A Teacher"), 1967, originating from the Barbiana School, is a book that ignores these considerations. No surprise that it has become basic to the history of the school system and, we can say, to the history of Italy as well. Here the rags-to-riches schema is undermined by the students turned away by the school. With heroic effort and the help of the Don Milani they appropriate a culture whose contents they themselves determine basing it upon the peasant and worker civilization to which they belong. The amazing story of the Barbiana youngsters, authentic in its details and epic in its structure, inclines toward noble dreaming, identification with the hero, and grandiose hopes of evangelical-like redemption. But no teacher is central to the story, the professoressa of the title being only a figure against whom the argument is directed. Don Milani is the real maestro and stands behind the voice of the young people, children of peasants, giving them strength and merging with them in a collective subject. The story, however, is not his. Our hero is Gianni, a poor boy whose opposite is Pierino, "the doctor's son," a middle-class student favored by society in every way, even beyond his merits and capacity. Pierino is practically a twentieth century version of the Marchesino Eufemio immortalized by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli in one of his Italian sonnets of 1843. Pierino might even be a portrait of Don Milani himself. (Such is the opinion of Sandra Gesualdi in her 2007 presentation of the book, page XI.)

The time may have come to consider Lettera a une professoressa to be basic to Italian literature as well to the country's educational system. For it has left its mark on our country precisely in virtue of its power as storytelling. The pedagogue Jerome Brunner has given us a description of "narration" that philosophers and political scientists have taken on board. The initiative of the Barbiana School can be said to have changed the history of Italy. It managed to "narrate" or tell a story to a public that was thereby moved to action in the limits of its power and determination. This public may have consisted of pupils like Pierino that dreamt of being Gianni, but that only goes to demonstrate the strength of the storytelling. Think of the millions of kids, readers of the Harry Potter books and in J. R. Rowling's terms nothing but Muggles, who dreamt of possessing Harry's magical powers.

The confidence of the final words of Lettera hasn't been shared by subsequent authors. From 1967 to the present, the tone of writer-teachers has in the main been one of a painful defeat, self-mocking, and bitterly comic. The enchanting storytelling of Lettera a una professoressa hasn't been repeated. Here, from pages 139-40, is a letter from the Barbiana pupils.

Now we are here waiting for a reply. There must be someone in a teachers college who will write us:

"Dear boys and girls,

Not all teachers are like that professoressa. And you are not racists either.

Even if I'm not in agreement with everything you say, I know that our schools aren't up to scratch. Only a perfect school could take it upon itself to refuse new people and different cultures. But a perfect school doesn't exist. Neither my nor your school is perfect.

In any case, those of you who want to be teachers should come down here and take the exams. I have several colleagues who will close their eyes for you.

In pedagogy we will only ask you about Gianni. In Italian you will tell us how you managed to write your fine letter. In Latin you can give us some of your grandfather's old sayings. In history tell us why the mountain people came down to the plain. In science you can explain how to use the trimmings of the vineyard and name the tree that gives us cherries."

We're waiting for this reply. We know it will come.

Our address is the Barbiana School, Vicchio Mugello (Florence).


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 24, 2011