School, merit and Gaber

“Bathing in the tub is on the right / Taking a shower on the other hand is on the left … A good soup is on the right / Minestrone is always on the left”… Giorgio Gaber continues at length, in his famous “right-left”, output in 1994, and today could perhaps add to the list the “merit”, which most commentators, since has been added to the name of the Ministry of Educationseems to consider right-wing, and therefore to be praised or vituperated regardless.

Given that calling a ministry “of the merits” seems to me a singular choice, which could be the prelude, I don’t know, to a ministry of transport and speed, it is also true that nomina sunt ominaor if you prefer, nomina sunt substantia rerum, and this new label is, or could be, not irrelevant as to the operational consequences.

The starting point is article 34 of the Constitution, which reads: “The capable and deserving, even if without means, have the right to reach the highest levels of studies”. This fundamentally denies the identification between “merit” and “family background”, because it affirms that there are “capable and deserving” people who come from a socially and culturally disadvantaged background: it would be foolish to argue that this disadvantage does not exist, since all surveys show a very strong correlation between socio-economic status and academic success, but the Constitution combines the right of children less favored by fate to access the “higher levels of education” with the duty of the State to ensure the use of this right.

This reciprocity between those who benefit from education and those who provide it is often removed: for example, “compulsory schooling” does not only mean that children are required to attend it, but also that the State is required to guarantee it: and the impressive figure of dispersion or functional illiteracy, from which it emerges that more or less one Italian out of three, in adulthood, does not understand relatively simple texts and does not know how to use written language autonomously, points out that the State has evaded this obligation a lot more than boys who leave school before completing it.

Basic education is the minimum condition for everyone – everyone – to be able to participate actively and responsibly in social life, but higher education is specifically intended for the “capable and deserving”: as a colleague from Genoa sarcastically said to students who they presented themselves to the exams with only a good dose of impertinence (cheekiness, for those who ask for a translation), the university does not pass the health insurance, but it should be attended by those who have the intellectual resources to do so. Then that some families can afford to keep even children who are not capable and deserving in higher education, this is another matter.

Talking about merit (and I repeat that I find it incomprehensible and even annoying to have it put on the header of the ministry) if it doesn’t want to be a mere slogan can be declined in many ways.

The first is that of reciprocity to which I mentioned: if merit is rewarded, it must be rewarded in the students, but also in the teachers (demerit by definition cannot be sanctioned even in the presence of obvious deficiencies, and this is a discussion that should be taken up again): the teachers ” capable and deserving” should be first of all recognized and then encouraged with economic or career rewards.

This introduces the second aspect not to be taken lightly, that of assessment: How is merit identified? Is it an absolute quality or an ability to improve? Who sets the goals or standards? Just to give an example, if the student is considered “capable” taking into account only the academic results, it is clear that the weight of socio-economic factors is particularly high. And again: is the standard absolute, or is it differentiated according to the directions, levels, geographical area, even personal aspirations?

It seems absurd to me to speak of merit in basic school, which has the aim of developing all the potential of the boys to the maximum, identifying aptitudes to be valorised in specific pathways: Guareschi’s story “Arrivals from the city” comes to mind, in which the little boy Gigino in eighth grade does very badly in school, where he has already repeated two years, and says “I don’t want to study anymore! I want to be a mechanic”, while his middle-class family wants to send him to boarding school. Gigino runs away, and Don Camillo finds him and takes him to Peppone’s workshop, where as an apprentice he proves he was “born to be a mechanic”. In this sense, “merit” is a relative concept: the real problem is that the Italian school does not know how to recognize it.

Lastly, a consideration linked to the fact that all the tests, from the Invalsi to the OECD, show serious shortcomings in basic skills both in children who attend school and in those who have left it, thus placing a heavy limit on development: I deduce that the problem of the Italian school, which should really be discussed, is not that of measuring or rewarding merit, but that of generating and supporting it.

But, as Gaber would say again, “The ideology, the ideology / Despite everything I still believe that there is / It is the passion, the obsession with your diversity / Which at the moment where it has gone is unknown… It is the continuation of affirming / A thought and its why / With the excuse of a contrast that does not exist”.

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School, merit and Gaber