Education and research in the Bel Paese

The phrase Bel Paese, which stands for Italy, evokes many beautiful images. This is probably why it is so widely used. It reminds us of the splendor of our past, rich in notable artists, musicians, poets, architects, philosophers, scientists, and Nobel Laureates. While it is true that Italian scholars and artists have always been praised for their work and study, it is also true that the environment in which they were born and where they have been educated is paved with labyrinthine paths which often require knowing the right person in the right place.

This is an account of a person who was born, grew up, was educated, and graduated in Italy. It describes my own experience in the system – with its ups and downs.

I was born in a small town in Southern Italy, and in this same place graduated from school. Like in many towns in Southern Italy, dialect in my hometown is the main linguistic system in use for everyday life, with a great presence in the school system, local literature, theater plays, and radio stations. Dialect is so rooted in our lives that even the Mayor, who also happens to be a parliamentary in the Italian Parliament, is often mocked for his poor Italian and seems confused about how to correct himself when trying to speak proper Italian. What I have just said is by no means a critic to the use of dialect, of which I am a fierce defender, but just a matter of fact, which needs to be stated in order to understand the social and linguistic background in which schools in Southern Italy operate. To many readers the role of dialects in Italy might seem pretty confusing, and needs to be – even if shortly – explained. To do this, we must jump into XIXth Century Italy, and quickly look at how it was administered and ultimately ruled.


As a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire, Italy slowly fragmented in many, small states. At the dawn of the Unification, which was completed in 1871, the most important states of the Italian peninsula were the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, with Naples as capital city, the Papal States, with Rome as capital, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with Florence as capital, the Kingdom of Sardinia, with Turin as capital, and the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, with Venice as its last capital. Regardless of disputes regarding the legitimacy of the Unification, the linguistic and cultural differences existing between and inside these states were mostly left uncared of. The abandon in which Southern Italy was left after the Unification lead, in the 70s of the XIXth Century, to the migration of masses of people to other Countries of Europe, to the Americas, and to Australia. Little has changed since then, and the economic gap between South and North is still tangible and greatly influences the education system.

Speaking of education, little has done to integrate in the school system those who only speak dialect. With the great wave of immigration that reached Italy in the last decades, scholars and teachers have put their efforts into rethinking our schools in the light of multilingualism and multiculturalism, having to provide education to pupils with Arabic, Chinese, Romani, Romanian and Albanian (among the others) as mother tongue.

But what about the dialect-only speakers? While it is true that Italian is the language of education, press, and television, it is also true that, for many reasons, still many people do not acquire an active competence in the Italian language. I have seen many students drop out of school because of this stigma that dialect speakers still carry. In the light of these assumptions, teachers at school must get rid of this dialect-bashing policy that originated in the Fascist Ventennio, and approach dialect speaking students in order to make them part of the school system, in order to avoid school dropouts, which are very frequent in dialect-only speakers and only harm their participation in the job market and outside the area where their dialect is spoken.

But what about education funding?

Mine was a very old-style school, there were only two scarcely equipped laboratories, no activities, and a ‘book-only’ kind of didactics. Teachers copiously assigned paged to study for the next day, whose study had to be verified through an oral test, interrogazione, or a written test. Grades were rarely high and teachers always expected us to read every single word on the book, and to remind every date or historical event. We were taught to read, understand and translate Latin, and we used to have intense readings of main literary works, with a great focus on the Divina Commedia. We were required to skillfully converse on philosophical topics and to be able to  recognize and describe historical pieces of art, and to learn by heart every bone’s name in our body.

Is all this studying and reading bad? Sure, it gives the student a great cultural background and the ability to pick the subject that most fits them and to prepare them for the copious quantity of readings that students at the University are given. But then it stops there. The path for researchers and scholars is confused and poorly paid. Many Italian graduates are obliged to flee their own country in search of a system that is able to reward all these years that they spent studying. University fees are based on income – I paid nothing for my University education and got a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree for as much as 14 € of fees each year, went to study for a semester in German for free, went to the Netherlands as a visiting student  to do research on my thesis for free, but now? Now I am just one of the many graduates who must know how to navigate unemployment, and the Ivory Tower that Italian Academia is. Poor wages, non-renewable contracts, in a system were the average age for tenure track is 50-60 years, where are young Italian scholars going to go? Abroad, of course. And if they try to come back, they’ll find all doors slammed in their faces. For those who speak Italian, there is a video that summarizes the situation.