Carmel Borg (University of Malta) and Peter Mayo
LORENZO MILANI AND THE BARBIANA LEGACY
THE SCHOOL OF BARBIANA, in the Mugello region of Tuscany, represents one of the most radical educational initiatives of the twentieth century. It was founded by a radical priest, Don Lorenzo Milani, whose works continue to be read for their insights regarding social justice, pastoral renewal and a democratic education. The major text to emerge from this school, authored by Don Milanı and hıs students, is Lettera a una Professoressa (Letter to a Teacher)- Edoardo Maıtinelli is one of the eight boys who co-authored this text. He provided us with a lengthy interview in Italian which one of us (Peter Mayo) translated into English.(1)
What was your relationship with Don Lorenzo Milani and the School of Barbiana?
I got to know Lorenzo in the summer of 1964.
It so happened that, during their honeymoon trip, my sister Manta and my brother-in-law Luigi took me to the Mugello for a planned vısıt. The Prior asked me a lot of things during an exchange we had, and he particularly made me dwell at length on my family. My parents were farmers who, when necessary, could transform themselves ınto hawkers. This was customary with the inhabitants of the Lunigiana, an area situated in the extreme North of Tuscany. It was also the reason why we emigrated to the North. At first, my father constructed a hut beneath the walls surrounding Rho's sports ground, just like other immigrants, and later he was allocated perhaps the first house in the “Fanfani' social housing scheme.
I recall that Don Lorenzo was moved by my description of the space available in our house and my disclosure of the number of family members. We were 9 brothers and sisters, Then there were dad, mum and sometimes our grandına. We slept and studied as best we could. As I spoke he placed his head on mine and literally wept over me. I was taken aback and, I would dare say, was afraid. I did not remain there that day. His behaviour and the questions he posed made me reﬂect. He was so different from the other priests who frightened us with such questions as: “Impure acts? Alone? With others?”
When I got home, I relayed those questions to my mum and dad. This was the first time that I consciously engaged with the history of my family.
My mother was asharned of her communist origins; the party in upper Lunigiana was founded in the home of my grandmother Virginia. My uncle Edoardo, killed by a repubblichino, was a Commander of the Garibaldi Borrini Brigade, very active in the antifascist struggle that took place in the area. According to Don Peppino, my mother was very religious; being comınunist was tantamount to being a criminal. This attitude was diametrically opposed to that of the Prior, who, when he served as Parish Priest at San Donato, did away with the crucifix at the popular school to allow young cornmunists to participate in the school’s activities.
I had not understood this difference in attitude then, though I had sensed something.
Of course I recount the episode with the benefit of hindsight. Let's say it appeared as if something within me had suddenly opened up. I did not immediately want to go back; I brooded for almost an entire year, then the difﬁculties .I faced my having failed at school sent me back to the Giovi mountain.
Yes, I form part of that historical group connected with the letters, the letter to the judges and the letter to a teacher--the School of Barbiana's richest period, that which is commonly associated Wlth the “humble technique of collective writing and the failed Giannis—I Gianni bocciati”. Mine is the standpoint of one who has had the privilege to have been a pupil of Don Milani, not through birth but through choice, and to have accompanied him daily till the very end. At first, I had to face the Prior and Barbiana out of necessity. Only later did I become an integral part of a community that welcomed me and allowed me to grow. How can I explain this relationship?
The Prior seemed to live solely in terms of community, but then he would suddenly take you aside and place you in contact with your inner self. He listened and then touched chords that always produced sounds that did not need to be reﬂected in particular appearances.
For him, faith was a gift. It could not be transferred. This is why the school had to be secular. The task of the educator or priest—the two were in perfect harmony in him—was only that of removing the obstacles. In his view, conveying the word (dare la parola) meant the fostering of the predisposition in the student, rendering the student autonomous, active and participative in political and social life.
He derived his authority from serving as an instrument to search, discover and gain awareness. Nobody spoke at the wrong time. He allowed himself to be surrounded by exceptional collaborators.
First and foremost there was Adele but there were also Eda, Gina, Barbara, Professor Ammannati, Giorgio Pelagatti, Mario Rosi, Luana, Ferrero.
At Barbiana, one lived within a context characterised by an interaction of human sentiments and passions that sublimated and enabled one to transcend the mediocrity of the lives of many. Learning and the school not only conveyed a sense of autonomy but allowed one to perceive the real meaning of freedom—participation. I felt as though I no longer lacked anything.
The friendships among us were profound. There was strong bonding between me and the Blonde and Mauro and the other children. Whenever I think of Barbiana I still feel a gush of energy.
That world no longer exists. Many have left us, alas. The world of Barbiana is now part of our inner life and my imagination.
This type of teaching can still be strongly felt even though I often ask myself, “How could a modern day youth live in such a coherent manner? A young person, who wishes to remain faithful to such teaching, would be isolated and unemployed to boot. . .” Today we have lobbies and they have, in fact, negatively substituted the old parochial or lay communities with a logic of control, belonging to the right and also the left.
And yet there is a growing desire among young people to adopt Milani as a model. Many maintain that in his way of life and his ideas one discovers the cultural and ethical bases for survival.
I wonder whether he could be the catalyst for a new movement—a return to the land, to the old peasant culture, one that is sober and not permissive. These values are no longer transmitted by the consumer society. But I am here wandering off the point, because it is as though I am speaking about the relationship that we pupils at Barbiana continue to have with him. . .because the issues he raised continue to stir within us.
What radical and credible alternative did the School of Barbiana offer to the kind of education provided through compulsory schooling in Italy during the 50s and 60s?
The schooling of that period—I would dare say that the same could well apply to contemporary schooling—was based on the strict transmission of ministerial programmes. These programmes were carried out ‘to the letter’, with the teacher being allowed little autonomy. Everything Was planned to the extent that we students (there were several of us around, with different backgrounds) could anticipate the events, the questions and the title of the subjects to be tackled. We hardly came across anything that was unexpected and there were no situations that led to the adoption of pedagogical strategies that automatically connected with our interests, motivations and environments. The agenda was the same year in, year out. I recall that I struggled to cope at school and I hated almost every subject.
I could not perceive, at the time, the connection between learning and life. When I arrived at Barbiana, everything was different. The point of reference for the group’ s learning was life itself and this entailed an active research process. The learning setting itself was dynamic.
When I arrived for the ﬁrst time, the children were analyzing two skeletons whose parts were rearranged on a table. The Prior explained to us that it was possible to determine whether they were male or female from the size of the hips, while the size of the head could indicate the period to which they belonged. He told us to bring the tape measure and the gauge. Some pupils grouped together and moved silently towards the office. Shouts were rare. I immediately realized that there existed strict and shared rules. We educators know that autonomy and liberty are not bourgeois elements. The Prior only allowed interruptions that served to enhance learning. Truth was objective and we had to search for it together without any competition among ourselves. He later explained to us that truth is historic and perhaps unattainable. He often asked: “Do you agree with what I said yesterday, what I am saying today and what I shall say tomorrow?”
The immediate motive, the key point of departure for his pedagogical activity, was provided by the fact that the ﬂoor of the society, which stood adjacent to the church, had caved in. Bones were discovered as a result. The more profound and long tenn motive, as he explained in the letter to the judges, with reference to his pedagogical practice, was to avail himself of this particular event to capture the pupils’ interest and thus gradually lead them, once they had become so motivated, to tackle the core areas of the disciplines. A few bones were sufficient to enable one to learn how to use vocabulary and texts dealing with anatomy and physiology. These subjects were non-existent in the middle schools of the period. This is how we learnt to read, write and count.
The Prior had a Platonic concept of time. One attains knowledge by moving slowly and carefully. The immediate point of departure for learning was reality, life, or better still, the everyday issues confronting the world of the poor. This constituted the immediate motive of the moment. The longer term purpose was that of enabling the pupil to acquire a baggage of knowledge that was necessary for him or her to grow and become capable of participating in social and political life. One had to be well equipped to attain such a level.
Let me provide an example. A few days ago I read that a bomb shook an old Sumerian library causing damage to a few carved slabs. This would have prompted him, that day, to start an interesting lesson on the ancient fishing civilisations. He would have posed connections between the wars of the time and those of today. He would have referred to past and present hierarchical and pyramidal social structures. He would have provided us with and forced us to search for the necessary elements to be able to engage in the country’s debates. He would have made us construct conceptual charts and maps to attach to the school walls. They had to be intelligently done. Their impact had to be that of a bomb which lands, because of the absurdity of the war, in the right place. Such metaphors helped to explain things. The Prior frequently used metaphors. And this is where the real secret of Barbiana lay.
Alas, Barbiana is nowadays a museum. This is how the caretaker explained the charts attached to the wall: “We had so little money that we had to create our own material”—a terrible blow to the legacy of the Prior and a terrible form of mystification. It would have signified the ultimate defeat for an educator like Don Milani, whose primary goal was to demystify history, to find himself placed on an altar and witness such a distortion of his thought. Even worse, none other than the Hon. Fausto Bertinottiz was among those touched by these words. Amazingly, the explanation was provided by one of L0renzo’s ﬁrst pupils, Michele Gesualdi. Luckily, we can still draw on the texts written by Lorenzo himself. They cannot be modiﬁed.
One could spend hours discussing the refined methods and techniques which Lorenzo Milani adopted. And yet, he responded to anyone who inquired about his pedagogical techniques and methods with the following words: “Don’t ask me about methods and techniques but rather ask me how an educator should be to be able to teach.”
As he directed the educational process around the table he prepared every day, he drew our attention to the formal aspects of life, to the Idea, the Archetype, the Essence of things, the Divinity and Etymology since the words spoken at Barbiana were living words. The Word, which constituted the primary vehicle for learning, was given great importance, not to indoctrinate or to inculcate ideologies, since his was not a school for isolated avant-garde thinking, but to open channels that had hitherto been closed. The whole process was intended to give voice to a culture that had remained silent. The goal was not to enable us to become socially mobile, according to the class logic that prevailed throughout society. On the contrary, he dreamt of a liberated farmer content with living a sober life.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, he hated the neoliberal society that he regarded as consumerist and a slave to fashion. He detected, in this society, the love of power, a sense of exclusion and negation of God.
This explains his extreme views concerning social class: “to treat unequal beings equally is the ultimate injustice.” He made us regard our sharing of resources as a form of co-participation in a common life with a view to creating a genuine community. The poor people of Barbiana loved their Prior so much that they remained with him till the very end. They woke up two hours earlier to arrive for work in Florence by 8 a.m. They spent four hours commuting to enable their children to attend his school. It was enough to stay awake during winter nights and chat with the older members of the community to gain an idea of their admiration and respect for him. Their eyes shone bright and their face lit up when they expressed these feelings. Less than a year after Lorenzo’s death, the population of Barbiana decreased considerably.
The Prior was perceptive enough to realize, during the 60s boom, that one’ s needs had to be contained. He used to tell us: “There will be no end to the needs that this society will continue to manufacture.” He was terriﬁed by the emerging materialism. He noted the lack of persons who were sensitive to the real ‘pleasures’ of life. One had to learn the etymology of the word ‘divertimento’ (enjoyment) in the same way that one had to learn the multiplication tables! He used to tell us that it
signiﬁed tuming a corner, doing different things and, most importantly, he would tell us that we had to enjoy ourselves (in this sense) all our life- He took efficiency for granted regarding it as a feature of life: “There will always be someone who will transform sea water into a cormnodity.” If we read the letter to Pipetta, we will notice his state of grace in this “wet and smelly small house.” We will also notice his ultimate vocation about which he never speaks—an impregnable faith that directly derived its inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount. ’ His was a total refusal of any form of consumerist-materialism He did not live his sober life as a fonn of penance, abstinence. Or simply Christian living, but as a way of embracing the Values and pleasures that can be satisﬁed and learnt only through poverty.
It has often been said that the School of Barbiana came to an end with Lorenzo Milani’s death at 43. Where can the spirit of this school be found these days?
Well, the spirit of that school can be found wherever there is a community composed of people who do not express avant-garde statements but whose hands are hardened by the effort of building their future together. Barbiana is not to be identiﬁed with living in discomfort. Many are grossly mistaken in identifying it with this situation. Barbiana represents the coming into consciousness. In this respect, it represents that collective us that one associates with Freire.
I repeat: Lorenzo Milani did not want to liberate the farmer from his work but, on the contrary, he wanted to help create a liberated farmer, one who is participative.
Barbiana is not an exclusionary place, as some intellectuals would have us believe. Barbiana is a place that is characterised by inclusion, where poverty is a matter of choice and takes on the form of a sober life because resources are limited. A genuine education for peace is at the core of this simple and Franciscan concept. The spirit of the Prior, which makes one struggle for life, is present everywhere, in nature and among children. We only have to unearth it. It is inside us. It is a gift from God: “...there is a law which is written well enough in their (people's) hearts. A large part of the human race calls it a law of God; the others call it a law of Conscience.”³
Real love in place of the love of power!
Can you provide us with a portrait of Don Milani, since you lived close to the Prior until his death?
Everyone found the Prior striking because of his great intelligence. You would immediately notice, when he engaged in reﬂection, that he was not convinced a priori about the object of contemplation. Despite his enormous cultural baggage, he was devoid of any vain petite bourgeois or intellectual aspiration. While he adopted a very aggressive attitude towards the rich, he was full of tenderness for those who suffered abuse of power.
His sarcasm and sense of irony were unique. I vividly recall an episode that occurred in the room where he was to die two weeks later. We were all justifying Israel’s involvement in the 6-Day-War. And yet, with one eye open and the other closed, he uttered in a faint voice: “It’ s the others who are the poor ones.” This was greeted with an immediatesilence—a reﬂection that deﬁed the logic of the arguments produced thus far.
He was not concerned with who was militarily justified, but continued to foreground the problem of social inequalities, the real cause of every conﬂict!
The pupil-master relations occurred within an initially ‘neutral’ space. I would not like to be Inisunderstood. There was obviously nothing really neutral about Don Milani. He believed in a committed educator, one who takes sides: “Better a fascist than indifferent!” He however felt the need to ‘shufﬂe the cards’, so to speak. He often said: “Let’s stretch the concept to its extremes to understand it better!”
l’d like to brieﬂy relate an anecdote evoking the sounds and noises of his school to give you an idea of how pleasant and amusing it could be. He once gave us an interesting lesson on sexuality. After having dwelt on genetics and the chromosomes, he told us “Today, children, we will give birth to a man.” He used, for this purpose, the technique of the small sheet of paper, quite common in those days. Each one of us was to write down an attribute to be accorded to the yet unborn person. Some wanted the person to be fair, others dark. Others wanted the person to be tall, others short. There were those who wanted the person to be a man; others opted for a woman, etc. As a result, we had
small mounds each with papers selected according to the logical connections. He chose a small sheet from each mound and drew the ‘newly born’ on a large sheet of paper.
A teacher who happened to be present was startled and asked; “Father, how many hours do you dedicate to sexual education?” This led to a moment of silence. Strangers were not allowed to interrupt a lesson. Usually anyone who behaved that way was thrown out rather brusquely. On that occasion, however, the Prior, with a lovely smile, explained the criteria by which the time allowed for every single subject was established: “First we measured a man, then we measured his penis and then we established the necessary proportions.”
If I were to draw the Prior’s portrait by means of a few brush strokes, I would say that he was a mystic betrayed by passion. The contemplative life was not permissible in an epoch characterized by social injustice, when the cries of anguish called for concrete commitments and action. Let’s not forget where he came from: born during the fascist period, suffered moral subjugation and racist laws...“I was thirteen at the time; it seems as if it were today. I jumped with joy for the empire.”(4)
I recall that when a very good friend, Clara Urquhart, came to Barbiana for the first time and recounted her experiences in Labaréne (Gabon) with Dr. Schweitzer, there was a heated exchange: “The Africans are not inferior beings,” he shouted, “we only need to give them the instruments by which they can express themselves.” These were times in which the west, through its strategies, annihilated, one by one and even physically, the various leaders of the anti-colonial liberation movements, thus thwarting the birth of real nations having strong identities.
Yes, he had the gift of foresight. We pupils rediscover the value of his teachings precisely because of the truthfulness of whatever he taught us. Bin Laden is, in fact, the product of this colonial mindset and interference. It’s a logic of rejection, domination and violence, very much the case with the rich west in its relations with the poor. Bush and Bin Laden constitute the two faces of the same coin. The text of ‘Università e pecore’ (University and Sheep), one of the letters written to a friend, the Magistrate Meucci, enables one to gain some insight into the internal drama lived by Lorenzo. This autobiographical text reveals the personality of our teacher. This piece of reading would liberate young people from an exclusively virtual conception of the world.
Which pastoral and life experiences, as well as authors, influenced Don Milani’s pedagogical thinking?
He certainly referred to the ancient thinkers, for example, Socrates, but he never cited the sources. He would never have started a lesson by saying: “Today let’s tackle Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics.” And yet they were at the heart of his teaching, conditioning its formal, material and effective structure. Everything was, however, couched in the language of the mountain people of the Mugello and in a marmer that abetted their process of emancipation. It seemed as though there was some providential design... Individuality and respect for the single person constituted a feature of the collective us at Barbiana. All his characters had names: Mauro, Gianni, Pierino...they were not impersonal. I find it difficult to identify inﬂuences... Certainly Camus, Sairit-Exupéry, Plato... if one goes by the readings tackled with the pupils.
The Constitution and the Gospels were pivotal to his pedagogical strategy. However, the newspaper and everyday news served as the integrating background sources for his school. The Saitta and Smith (5) were of value when they were confronted with each other to produce a dialectical learning experience and not because of their individual interpretation of history. I specifically cite these texts because they were among the sources used when the self-defence strategy in court was drawn up. They were read in a synoptic manner.
The mediations served to sublimate the personal factors. He taught us to respect diversity. He made us understand the importance of the DC/PC (6) dialectic. At the same time, he warned: “It would be terrible if one or the other should obtain a landslide victory.”
Jesus and Gandhi were the real models but were not cited all too often. We, however, read their original texts. ‘The Letter of the Hiroshima Pilot,’ ‘The Scourge of the Swastika’ and Gramscis ‘Letters from Prison’ were also compulsory reading. He had a deep love for those he hailed as the ‘lay saints.’
What motivated your parents to send you to another school (the one at Barbiana) after you were flunked by the compulsory public school and what motivated you to withstand the several hours of‘full time’ schooling at Barbiana? Is it because “school will always be better than cow shit”?
Our parents were initially solely concerned that we ﬁnally obtained the diploma. It was only much later that they, and not all of them, understood the .1Il1p01‘tallC6 of schooling. The youngsters who were born there certainly preferred going to school to working in the fields. So for what reason did someone like me, who came from the city, remain there? I’ll explain.
‘Full time schooling’ is today a false objective. Some functionaries, such as Raffaele Iosa, recormnended it as a solution during the time of Minister Luigi Berlinguer’s term of ofﬁce. They come out with this idea. Simply because they do not have, any longer, a concrete relationship with the pupil or, better still, awareness of the new dynamics characterizing the ‘gruppo/classe’ (class/group). Politicians run the risk of being alienated from everyday life because they belong to a type of profession. There are those who rightly consider our society a “controlling society.”
I do not deny the importance of full time schooling. However, I would nowadays prefer to talk about ‘attention-time’ or else ‘motivation-time.’ I am not interested in how many hours are spent at school.
Lorenzo worked at a time when there was neither free time nor the possibility to study. The children of the poor used to start work at 15, after their third year of middle school. One must remember that Barbiana was very much an emergency school. Having established this premise, I ought to remark that one often comes across misconceptions regarding the Barbiana School and misinterpretations of such accounts as the Lettera a una Professoressa (Letter to a Teacher). It is true that our school was open 365 days a year; however, the best students spent months either abroad or engaging in life experiences that complemented schooling. Nowadays, in Italy, if you hold a job and cannot attend an educational institution, you would have no access to university—just to give you an example. We have gradually created more class differentiation than was the case in the past. I take the opportunity to talk about the time spent at school, in its broadest sense, in all its sequence and not just its chronological sequence. I recognise that I will have to repeat myself here.
For Plato—there seems to be an affinity between his ideas and Lorenzo Milani’s—knowing signified looking at the past and proceeding slowly and carefully. In keeping with this logic, the process of teaching/learning involved leads us to a concept of time that is quite different from that which conditions the way we teach today. In the ‘Letter to the Judges,’ Lorenzo states: “So we took down our history books (simple textbooks at middle school level, not the monographs of specialists) and searched across the span of one hundred years of Italian history in search of a ‘just war’.”(7)
Let’s consider the fact that the entire teaching activity taking place at Barbiana at the time was conditioned by one event—-the communication by the military chaplains which we learnt about from the regional news, not even from the background article in La Nazione. This communication was brought to Barbiana by Professor Ammannati and some pupils from San Donato who were scandalized by the statement “...an insult to the fatherland and to its Fallen, as something alien to the Christian commandment of love. . .”(8) The priests, who made this statement, were referring to the conscientious objectors. It is true that one noticed an already tense situation in the Florentine ecclesiastical world because of the trial of Fr. Ernesto Balducci(9) and the removal of the Seminary’s director. The Prior and Don Bruno Borghi had, however, already made their position on this matter known in a letter to all the priests in the Florentine diocese, priests who were wary of taking sides. Don Milani cut a lonely figure in the church of his time! One need only be reminded of the call to unconditional obedience issued by the poor Bishop of Florence, Ermenegildo Florit.
In this particular case, however, the pupil’s indignation was accorded priority by Don Milani and triggered a genuine educational process centering around the issue of conscientious objection.
Those of us involved in the teaching profession would regard this indignation as a source of motivation.
It is the motivation we had which led us to learn and not the other way round. This situation is captured by Lorenzo in the following statement: “One can call oneself a teacher when one has no cultural interest just for one’s own sake.”
Let’s return to the issue of the ‘time spent at school’ or rather, to the level of attention, perception and emotional engagement involved. Let’s focus on the time allowed for reﬂection, a time that passes by rather slowly. And this is where Barbiana differs from the traditional school where there is not much time for thinking, as if thinking is confined to the four walls of the classroom and does not extend to the period spent afterwards discussing among friends or with parents at home.
At secondary level, we waste time providing children, who are manning into adulthood, with amplifications of subjects that had been tackled at primary level (on the pretext, suggesting some kind of dementia, that there are dichotomies between the humanities and the sciences). This occurs to the detriment of one’s acquisition of essential logical patterns, strategies and instruments that are indispensable for one’s learning and ‘learning how to learn.’ Few are those who find the time or consider it necessary to help develop the class/group and cultivate its dynamics. This is considered a waste of time and a distraction from one’s engagement in the ‘real activities.’
It is clear that the Barbiana approach necessitates a slowing down of activities resulting from the need for learners to acquire a methodology, instruments of learning and a scheme of work. We should not worry unduly, however, since the attention span in a process of ‘banking education’ is so short that it effectively reduces the actual learning time spent at school to 25%. I would like to underscore a paradoxical situation brought to my attention by Rosanna Rota, a teacher from Verona. She finds merit in slowing down the learning process: “I realized that, doing away with our fetish of time on task, our work in the classroom actually develops faster. This is because human relations matter when it comes to learning. It also diminishes the children’s anxiety about their performance. Also, when children are allowed more time to go deep into a topic, they develop a greater interest. And the children feel that, this way, they are valued more...I do not know clearly why, but it works!”
A real school reform can be predicated on the idea, adopted at Barbiana, that time devoted to learning should be continuous and prolonged. And by relating our reﬂections to everyday life, we liberated schooling from the kind of abstractions and isolation (living for itself) that characterized the Italian public school.
Let’s return to the old masters so dear to the Prior’s heart. Let’s rediscover the vitality of the word when seen in its original meaning. Plato would remind us that while Aion is the time of being which cannot be split since it encompasses past, present and future, Chronos signifies the time allotted to what is to come, a period of time that can be calculated. Finally Schole, from where all that pertains to the school derives, is the time one spends without any pressure whatsoever, not subject to the anxiety caused by the necessities of everyday life. This connotes taking one’s time and moving slowly.
How have the Giannis, from the Barbiana School, been actively engaged in the Italian political and social fields, confronting the power of the Pierini?
l’d say, tongue in cheek, that I quite miss the Pierino of old. Today, everything has degenerated to the level of ‘Gianni’: “oggi tutto é ingiannato.” Gone are the days referred to by Brecht in his proclamation: “Knowledge is Power.” Today all one needs is functional knowledge. How else could one explain the lowering of standards among today’s politicians? Politics does not stress the need to educate. On the contrary it places emphasis on interpreting and this is made possible through surveys, as would be the case to win a contest. The ancients (Aristotle) used to consider acting on behalf of the poor as democratic, and they were mentally and emotionally far removed from the fascist concept of the 51%. Recall the armed tank in the Lettera a una Professoressa. We used to refer to it with a smile. It was a time when the culture of the downtrodden was very strong in theWest and was reﬂected in adequately organized structures: the unions and not the corporatist ones of today, let’s be clear. Well, the economy with its linguistic autonomy—goods, exchange, profit, demand, property—created independent roots that embrace the entire world, including the world of the rich and the world of the poor. Its power, analysts tell us, is an intemalized one and its ideas govern the world. We have confined the God of History and divinity, with all his manifestations, to a little corner, replacing him with Mammon.
Resistance can be put up only through learning, starting from below, because we have now understood that both the Pierinos and the Giannis are in the same boat. Only intelligence can enable us to overcome the danger of bloodshed that results from the struggle for the possession of wealth rather than for the attainment of a just and equitable way of life governed by ‘poverty.’
We have derided the Arabs for cleaning their bums with water but now that a billion Chinese persons want to use toilet paper just like us, werealize that all the trees of the earth would not sufﬁce to satisfy this need.Not only is our poor and vendor culture non-exportable but it places life itself at risk. At issue is no longer the need to confront power but the needto engage in a new way of living, producing and consuming.
In your opinion, did Esperienze Pastorali have any significant impact on Catholics, especially after Vatican Council II, despitethe negative reaction it provoked among the upper echelons of the clergy when it was first published?
There are priests around, counsellors to Silvio Berlusconi, who believe no longer in a Universal Church but in a small cultural and geographical church. In this regard, Lorenzo Milani was and remains a man of faith and not religion, one steeped in the tradition. He never manipulated or was only a mediator of that which was sacred. He helped create the community in antithesis to the system that prevailed, taking Christianity back to its origins. It is often argued that Lorenzo resolved the problem of divergences through obedience at the expense of participating in and adhering” to the Vatican Council II reform projects.
Like other worthy Catholics, La Pira, Facibeni, Bensi, Mazzolari, etc., the Prior sought to undermine the integralist project of Ottaviani, Lombardi and Gedda.“ Let’s say that the climate later-after Lorenzo’s time—allowed greater freedom of expression and the accusation,” in itself, was a liberating moment with regard to the internal conﬂict that occurred over the primacy of one’s conscience. I would say that the pastoral ideas of the San Donato parish priest reverberated throughout the entire Vatican Council II and he himself was aware of this before he died. It gave him great pleasure.
What is so amazing today is the prophetic nature of his message, one that transcends contexts and times. Yes, his was a prophetic dissent and not one of political contestation. It is for this reason that, as a teacher, he strove for ﬁeedom of thought, and not for those formal freedoms he defined as “petit bourgeois.”
Developing one’s ability to think was the kernel of his apgstglate He felt that this would provoke the ‘turmoil’ necessary for people to become Christian or sovereign citizens.
Given his critical interpretation of history, evident in the letters to the judges and military chaplains, what would Don Milani tell us about imperialist wars in this period characterized by the infamous wars in Iraq?
He would only alter his use of words, using those that provide the key to our reading of today’s world, words such as limit, expand, survive, etc. As a matter of fact: If the great migrations lead us to cultural expansion, pollution and the impoverishment of the earth compel us to limit consumption and production in order to survive.
War has brought about incoherence and lawlessness. Few make the effort to understand the conspiracies, motives and webs of the oil magnates in the so-called democratic front (Bush) and the terrorist front (Bin Laden). This is where Lorenzo, the educator, would place the emphasis. He would go about this task in the manner he went about the task then, invoking the sad violent historical experiences of the previous century, demystifying situations and reducing them to their bare essentials. He would remind us of the answer provided to an interviewer by Stangl, the commander of the extermination camp in Treblinka, Poland, where around 20, 000 people were gassed and burnt in 24 hrs. “We needed the Jews’ money...do you have any idea of what sum we are talking about? That’s how steel was bought in Sweden.”
A rereading of this interview sends shivers down one’s spine, since one feels that one is listening to the same kind of talk overheard in bars during the time of the bombardments in Afghanistan and Iraq when everything was bombarded with “intelligence,” including women and children——a situation marked by the insensibility of the opulent west. Everything was legal and continues to be so, provided that it serves to reduce the cost of our holidays spent driving around. I must remind you that all this boils down to profit and not passion or ideals—let’s be clear.
There have been various attempts of late, mainly at the institutional level. The March of Barbiana is one of the latest. The Minister of Education was present for the last march that took place last May; our participation as pupils (former pupils) in this event is increasingly becoming passive. Three ministers succeeded each other in taking part: during Romano Prodi’s first tenure of office as Prime Minister, during his second term of office and during the period of right wing govermnent when it was Letizia Moratti 13 who participated. They all expressed themselves by focusing their attention on the School of´Barbiana and on its Master. And yet, during these years, what changes have been made to the practice of teaching? None.
There is no grassroots movement, because the left has always clamped down on movements. The only movement which made its presence felt, using the famous ‘questionnaire,’ was the teachers’ movement that, however, only availed itself of the young people’ s drive to block the cycles’ reform, a positive aspect of the Berlmguer“ reform. I would dare say that the Prior of Barbiana never responded by declaring black as opposed to white and vice versa. What I mean to say is that not all that Berlinguer proposed, during his time, was to be dismissed.
Schools need to be regenerated. There is too much corporatism but it is the more capable teachers who remain silent. In truth one understands why, since they continue to inhabit their own small world of good practice.
There is also a small group that goes to Barbiana every year, shouts “viva don Milani” and then returns home. Some are moved, others exploit these manifestations for their own political gain and games of power, but then who is really concerned about teaching? Who really wants to apply the method of Barbiana in a concrete manner?
Once an enlightened school leader asked me to try out the technique of collective writing in a third year elementary classroom The technique is meant to subvert the logic of the established didactical approach. It does not entail writing together and producing collages of writings by children, as unfortunately was the case with the Competition at Vicchio managed by political functionaries who were incompetent in matters of schooling and superficial. It entails a process whereby through active research, the pupil is led towards the core of the subject. When we worked on the communication by the military chaplains and the interpretation of history from the standpoint of the Mugello mountain dweller, we amassed lots of parallel passages, resulting from interviews with parents, synoptic readings of Saitta and Smith, research in the State archives, consultations with historians and judges. The process of transition from the opportunity that presents itself—the ‘motive of the moment’(15)—to the razor edge(16) process by which the master leads the pupil is a very complex one.
Now back to my story. I entered the classroom and immediately noticed that the children were not used to talking among themselves and to listening for a long time. I soon experienced some difficulty.
Fortunately, I spotted a medieval castle, when looking out of the window. I immediately seized the opportunity, having found my Barbianesque picklock.
The children were very excited by this lesson that entailed their looking out of the window. There were those who disclosed that they had snacks in the square in front of the castle; there were others who knew little fragments of truth. Slowly an active research project concerning the castle and the medieval period began to emerge. Just when the children started working seriously on the project, a teacher approached me and whispered into my ear: “The programme on the Middle Ages is scheduled for next year.” I need not go into details to recount the amount of time spent convincing the janitors to buy red color to design a time-line on the classroom walls. We had already carried out our measurements and identiﬁed the point, 1000 A.D., where to place the castle.
At the state school one learns without dirtying one’s hand or rendering one’s clothes sweaty. There are inexplicable bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of realizing the Prior’s ideas. In this age of consumption, a reform which costs nothing is of little interest to anyone, let alone the corporate school.
The reform that Lorenzo Milani would propose would transform our consciousness, our way of approaching life. In short, it would make us rethink the role of the educator who would be a director of learning and provider of the instruments for learning.(17) Placing the accent on quality as opposed to quantity, we would look critically at our competencies as educators, the amount of effort we put into teaching and the time in which learning is expected to take place.
Nature would call for a slow-moving, snail-paced pedagogy. Would it be possible to reduce stadium expenditure to provide better funding for schools ? 30 pupils per classroom is too much. So, what are we going to do about it ?
THE SCHOOL FROM WHERE GROUP WRITING BEGAN
Text taken from:
Gesualdi, Francuccio/Corzo Toral José Luis (2003):Don Milani.Group Writing.Vicchio: Centro Formazione e Ricerca Don Lorenzo Milani e Scuola di Barbiana.
‘Group Writing’ is above all, a moment of self—education and no boy is excluded from this process. It's true that in all groups there are those more active than others, those who are ahead and those who are behind.
3“THE ART OF WRITING”
’Group Writing’ has a precise technique.
The first rule when writing: "Have something important to say which is useful to everyone or to many people."
Possibly, it should regard true-life experience or anyway a truthful thing, which means to say that it's been reflected upon, debated upon and is authentic. This requires seriousness and a great effort made in the research of material on the writer's behalf.
The second rule is to know to whom one writes.
This direction is given thinking about the underprivileged. Many books have been written about their condition of life and their problems. But they, the protagonists, aren't able to read the books because they have been written in a language only understood by intellectuals. In a letter to Giorgio Chiaffarino of 11th of December 1958, Don Lorenzo wrote:
The third rule is to never give a time limit nor become fond of one's text.
On the basis of this recommendation there's a deep respect for the readers, that is to say he who writes must forget his sacrifice and fatigue and put himself continuously in the reader's position. He has to continue to work until he is certain to have composed a text which can be read and easily understood with pleasure.
The text which has been proofed and re-proofed and seems ready for the final drafting, is to be read over and over again, in order to find "words to be taken out, excess adjectives, repetitions, difficult words, sentences that are too long and two ideas in one single sentence». The Prior maintained that whoever followed these rules could write a work of art. In one of his last letters he writes of the wish to die...
".....with joy that someone has understood that to write, one doesn't have to be a genius or a personality because there are objective rules which are always of value to everyone and writing becomes more of an art the more one follows them, truthfulness being the goal. in this way the worker class will be able to write better than the middle class. It is to this end that l have spent my life, so as not to be over-praised by the middle class as being one of them."
"It is an Art which is the very opposite to laziness."
Laziness can only be overcome if one is kindled by a strong and true motivation born through suffering. This we found out during the drafting of "Letter to a Teacher" after which we were able to write:
Correspondence between Don Lorenzo and teacher Mario Lodi
(Don Milani explains the work process for the letter from the Barbiana pupils to Mario Lodi’s pupils of Vho di Piadena)
an entire afternoon (5 hours) spent on composing a letter to you with the title of "Why I go to school:"
another afternoon reading aloud the work and jotting down all ideas, sentences and particular happy expressions.
a morning spent re-arranging these papers on a large table and putting them into a logical order. After which we are able to establish a work scheme as follows:
Now our weakness'
an entire afternoon spent (5 hours), each of us on our own, redoing the letter, using the work scheme as was agreed beforehand all together.
morning and evening. Everyone together, each reading aloud his solution concerning the first point of the work scheme. After which we decide on a communal text composed of the best quotations taken from each of us. The remaining points, of our work scheme, we deal with in the same way. This text is composed of 1.128 words.
The text is dictated so that each of us can have a copy in front of him.
Seventh day & Eighth day:
Proposition by proposition,
Here below is reproduced the complete letter that was prepared & composed by the pupils of Barbiana, according to the steps, rules and grades that Lorenzo has above well described.
Letter from the boys at Barbiana to the boys at Piadena
Barbiana is on the north side of the Mount Giovi, 470 metres above sea level.
2. Our school
Our school is a private school.
3. Why we ever came to school in the very beginning
Before coming here neither we nor our parents knew exactly what this school was at Barbiana.
We didn't all come here for the same motives.