Tuesday, January 23, 2018

National standards

This one is straightforward: it’s a collection of my mother’s primary school reports, or rather of the four out of five that survived. But it still comes with questions. Above all, this: when is a school not a school? What are the criteria to assess the value of state education, and what distinguishes it from its opposite – indoctrination?

My mother turned six in February of 1937. Her formal education began therefore when Mussolini’s reform of the school system was well and truly complete. Two disciplines in particular – “General knowledge and fascist culture” (grades 1 to 3) and “History and fascist culture” (grade 4 and above) – had been introduced in the 1932-33 school year. Alongside existing ones such as “Hygiene and personal care” and “Manual and female work”, they give us more than a mere glimpse of the model student that the Fascist school sought to produce.

To make this totalitarian project even more overt, the school reports from this period are elaborate affairs with very high production value and obvious propaganda intent. This is the cover of the first report that Mum took home, in June of 1938.

Note that the name of the Ministry of National Education is smaller than Gioventù Italiana del Littorio – the Fascist youth organisation in which all pupils were signed up upon enrolment – and the acronym of the National Fascist Party (PNF). As for the picture, it features the M of Mussolini over a stylised axe, above a rifle resting over a book – the latter symbolising the motto “book and musket make the perfect Fascist”.

At the back, the year is given according to the fascist notation (year XVI of the Fascist Era, ie 1937), above a reminder that of the advent of the “Second Empire”.

This is the far-less-remarkable inside, resembling pre-Fascist reports in most respects.

At the end of her second year of primary school, in June of 1939, my mother took home this report.

We’re at the eve of the Second World War, and the book is gone, to be replaced by a wholly martial imagery. The Fascist year notation is now to be found on the front cover, and there is no back cover.

The report from June of 1940 is the most remarkable of our small family collection, and a lesson in military history and geography. The scarlet M of Mussolini links Libya with Ethiopia, which the regime had brutally invaded in 1935.

At the back, the Italian colonies are shown in greater detail, within the silhouette of those still-resisting countries. For them, it’s apparently Year One of life under Italian rule.

The report from Mum’s fourth year at school has gone missing. Her final one dates June 1942, one year and one month before Mussolini was to be deposed. Italy has joined the war by now. An unusually winged and armoured allegory of Italy, her shield decorated with an imperial eagle and the M of the still-boastful Duce, is seated above the word VINCERE (“To victory”). Reader: we were about to lose.

At the back, a gun rests on a stylised Axe, below the standard of the Fascist Youth.

I cannot really imagine what Mum’s school was like, nor what it was like to grow up in a small village in a totalitarian country. I know that she was a good student, which is why the reports were kept in the first place. And I know that one of the books she loved (and that was not part of the syllabus) was a collection of the Greek myths that form the prologue to the Iliad, adapted for a young audience by Laura Orvieto: a Jewish writer that in those years was hiding first from persecution, then from deportation. Those stories, I think, were the spark that ignited her love for a culture that had other things to offer than a virile ideal of colonial conquest, and helped her forge a path towards secondary education and eventually a life outside the small village, in a country that strived in complicated and sometimes ambiguous fashion to leave Fascism behind.

But that’s another story. These are just documents, relics of a time when children were taught not what they should love, but whom they should hate.