Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My country is the world

My country is the world;
My flag, of stars impearled
Fills all the skies.

This is a book of primary school readings produced in 1967. It originally belonged to my sister. The poem is by Robert Whitaker, an American clergyman and verse writer (1885-1969) who didn’t greatly trouble the encyclopaedists and literary historians. The Italian title of the book – Il mondo è la mia patria – is the translation of the title of the poem, which is reproduced in its entirety on the last page, at the end of the readings.

This being a schoolbook, my mum covered it, in a rough sort of plastic that is pleasant to touch.

‘My country is the world’ is a reassuringly edifying idea, suited to the post-war myth of a world without conflict – our long, uninterrupted, prosperous peacetime. It also picks up on an image that had been painted to great effect by Edmondo De Amicis in his enormously successful 1886 book Cuore (‘Heart’), whose second chapter is a prolonged and impassioned metaphor of the world's school as an army of children poised to defeat the forces of ignorance and want. Cuore was no longer popular when I was growing up, but it continued to be read in China and the Soviet Union far longer than it did in Italy, likely because of that very message, that a democratic system of education holds the key to a radical refounding of society. So, too, the first verse of Whitaker’s poem can be found in the socialist song America.

However, a key characteristic of De Amicis’ message is that he was profoundly anticlerical. This was perfectly acceptable at the time he wrote the book, when the unification of Italy had finally been completed by defeating the Papal army in Rome, and ideas of progress were inextricably linked among our intellectuals with limiting the power and influence of the Church. It was Pope Pius IX, after all, who had railed in a letter to the newly installed King against ‘the scourge of public education’. But this was before Fascism, before the Concordat between Mussolini and the Pope, before the forty-year hegemony of the Christian Democratic Party, which sought legitimacy from religion and the Church authorities in a manner that differed only by degrees to the rulers of medieval Europe.

And so in the opening of my sister’s book, next to the story of a Sumerian schoolchild of 4,000 years ago – leading into a homily about how all the children on this earth are brothers and sisters – is a Christian prayer. One that grounds that ideal into a very specific culture and tradition, binding universal kinship within a precise subset of beliefs.

The book is so dense with parables and Bible stories, mixed with tales from exotic peoples, little moralities and scraps of general knowledge, that I had to repeatedly reassure myself before writing this post that it wasn’t some sort of Sunday school aid, but an actual text for state school instruction.

Above: The man who discovered penicillin. Below: Let's give thanks to the Lord

I started primary school – the same primary school – nine years later, in the mid-seventies, but those few years were sufficient for Jesus to disappear from the textbooks, along with the more crassly racist depictions of some of the foreign peoples we were supposed to resemble.

'The Redskins'

Also toned down in my reading books were the aggressive attempts to enforce gender norms. Overleaf from that opening prayer was this pair of stories: ‘Mother’s work’ and ‘Tonight your dad is proud of you’. The pictures and titles make translating the content quite superfluous.

There is something uniquely unpleasant about propaganda aimed at children. My parents grew up during Fascism, and so their schoolbooks were immeasurably worse – they taught actual hatred. But even the relatively benign prescriptions of ‘My country is the world’ seem suffocating if one considers how many pupils at our school would have had access to few other reading materials. For them, those primers and reading books, like the Boys’ and Girls’ Annuals of the British Empire, might have been exactly what they aspired to be, that is to say book-worlds, self-contained little guides to realities far beyond the confines of a child’s everyday experience. Although I grew up surrounded by nothing but books, I also felt – I think – that those texts carried a special authority, by virtue of their being endorsed by the school system which I was so eager to fit into.

In thinking how much these books have changed, along with our ideas about education, I turn to the inside back cover. This invites the child to write a list of important addresses. Not their own, but the police, the fire service, the nearest hospital, the parish priest.
Fill this page with care. Write the exact contact details, in good penmanship: they could be useful to you especially if you happen to witness an accident, or if someone needs help; in these cases, you will do your duty of little citizen by alerting the competent authorities.
I try to picture a child of 8 or 9 coming home from school and witnessing an incident that requires summoning the nearest priest. No, this has nothing to do with the ostensible practical advice: it’s all about writing out, in good penmanship, the adult institutions charged with ensuring order, safety and physical and spiritual health. It’s a final, implicit lesson in citizenship, or rather a projection of the model citizen that the book constructs. One whose country isn’t the world – it’s the suburb, the parish. Far too small a world for a child.

The response to my subscription drive of sorts last week went far beyond my expectations, and for that I must thank you all. It was a big help, as well as teaching me something about the value that people are willing to place in a place such as this. We'll continue to think of ways to support our independent media and writers, but in the meantime all I have to say is thanks. 

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