Thursday, October 30, 2008

Oh, what a lucky man (I was)!

I studied approximately 20 years in Canada. Of these 20 years, 8 were spent in two different universities (Manitoba and Queen’s). I got two degrees from these two fine universities. I also studied (albeit via distance learning) 5 years at the University of Leicester, UK (and from this university I got a second master’s degree).

Those first 12 years were obviously spent in elementary, junior high and eventually high school (in Winnipeg). That I still recall, not ONCE was there a strike in any of my schools, including university. Not ONCE did we protest in the streets of Winnipeg (or Kingston). Not ONCE were my teachers and professors absent (except naturally if they were sick, and that was rare too!). Not ONCE did I have to take my lessons outdoors (!!!). And not ONCE did I get whacked on the head by the city cops because I was protesting the government’s stand on Canadian education.

The story, as I’m presently writing, in Italy is QUITE different: as of October 30th, 2008, a massive general school strike (including teachers) is going on in Italy against school reform as proposed by the 35 year-old minister of education, Mariastella Gelmini, who is under Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government. So bad is the situation that even the October 18th issue of The Economist has reported on the sad state of Italian education (with a title which is play on words by an old Alice Cooper song, “Schools out”).

According to The Economist, Ms. Gelmini wants to “shake up” Italian education by introducing two education bills, which have naturally irked the (left-wing) opposition. As usual, the teachers’ union’s main complaint is a programme of cuts aimed at saving almost $11 billion (US). Ironically, in all this utter chaos surrounding Italian education something does shine in its educational system: international studies find that primary schools in Italy are the only part of Italy’s education that does well. Where Italy though seems to fail is in secondary education, according to international comparisons. According to one expert, the north of Italy is around the OECD average, but the south is on a par with Uruguay and Thailand.

Universities aren’t well off either. First of all, many fine young students, especially researchers, flee the country (in what many always call the “brain drain”) to foreign countries who not only offer more money for their research programmes but who are also void of a lot of nepotism and “ass-licking”: one faculty at the University of Bari was discovered with 9 members of the SAME faculty all working together (they naturally got in because they were all good). In many other cases, given the mighty power of the university “barons” (old-time professors who never retire and who wield incredible power), many young researchers who come up with a marvellous discovery in Italian university labs have to sign-off on their wonderful discoveries NOT with their names, but with the name of their lab directors.

The general situation in Italy is slowly declining. Just yesterday (Oct. 29th) in Rome at Piazza Navona, which is just a few metres away from the Italian senate, left-wing and right-wing students clashed with the usual guerrilla war-like scenes in Italy which are reminiscent of the 1968 period and also the (in)famous G8 Summit event in 2001 in Genoa (some scenes are also quite comical, as the two students and one parent who got dressed up as the Three Wise Kings and delivered to Ms. Gelmini a petition with 15,000 protest signatures!). And just last week in Milan, cops squared off against angry students who wanted to occupy a university building. My blurb on outdoor lessons? Again, the situation is quite comical because university professors, in a sign of protest, are holding throughout Italy many of their lessons outdoors, in town squares and streets (one lesson the other day was held right in front of Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, the seat of the government). The profs also bring along their blackboards, chalk, books, etc. The scenes are rather reminiscent of old Greek philosophers who used to teach outdoors, but in this era of modern-day buildings it is quite comical to see physics profs discussing Einstein’s theories as scooters, pigeons, buses, cars and pedestrians are whizzing by (not to mention foreign tourists who probably can’t quite figure what’s going on)!

My suspicion, unfortunately, is as soon as a rather nervous and trigger-happy cop is going to shoot off his gun (even by accident), not only will the usual “martyr” come out of the affair, but the old (or new) Red Brigades will once again raise their ugly heads and take advantage of the political and social turmoil (some experts believe that the R.B. have never totally disappeared as just a few years ago some political figures were assassinated by the so-called “new” R.B.).

The title of my posting this time? From an old Emerson, Lake and Palmer song (Lucky Man). The reason for it? Because I am SO lucky that I studied in Canada (and the UK) and NOT in Italy. I’ve sustained one thing in 19 years that I’ve been living in Italy that North American students are not necessarily MORE intelligent than Italians—some American students probably think that Seneca is a new Cuban baseball player with the NY Yankees!—but I will sustain one thing: that perhaps in North America, and in the UK, we’re much MORE prepared than Italian students because we don’t spend so much of our time striking and sitting in bars and caf├ęs drinking coffee and beer (that was the scene I saw today as I was walking around the centre of Udine. Many students just took advantage of the strike as an excuse to not study).

An example? Some 25+ years ago, when I’d come home after a long day of lessons at the U. of Manitoba, I’d take a break, eat dinner and then in order to get some work done (in peace and quiet without having to hear the dogs barking or the tv), I’d hop into my car and go to the library of the U. of Winnipeg (which was also closer to my place). I’d get there at about 8 pm and I could (peacefully) study for up to 4 hours, without anyone bugging me. Let’s now fast-forward to 2008 (almost 2009 actually) and the University of Udine. I recently taught English to Phd students there. The lessons would go form 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm. Once the lessons were over, in order to exist the building, I’d have to wait for a student and his electronic pass in order to get out. As I’d exit the building, I would notice the opening/closing hours: 7 pm with the sign saying: “closed on Saturdays and Sundays”. I’d ask myself the following: “But if students can’t for one reason or another study at home, where do they go study”? The study facilities (from my own modest observations) in North America come second-to-none. Ditto for university sports facilities (the sports complex for example at the U. of M, in my time, was practically BIGGER than the entire town of Udine (pop. 95,000 souls). And as we all know, some of the world’s greatest athletes have come out of North American university sports facilities (one in particular? Michael Jordan from the U. of North Carolina. Ditto for Mia Hamm, once deemed the world’s most popular female soccer player).