Available languages:
Carta di credito
Religion and Society

Good Intentions: so Easy and so Dangerous

Multiculturality as an ‘idea’ (or multiculturalism) has been placed in a state of crisis by multiculturality as a ‘fact.’ The result is schools pervaded by tensions and paralysis whereas it is specifically in classrooms that the real match of open dialogue and a shared journey will be played out.

For some people we are only a piece of paper, a residence permit, a card to be shown. But we are people like you’ (Franco, an Ecuadorian, aged twenty).[1]



In commenting on the data of research carried out on teachers in elementary schools, during a period when the presence of foreign pupils was still very low, I suggested they tended to create development situations in which their own educational values could be implemented – assessing realistically what was possible or impossible in given circumstances – in order to help all children, including those of foreign backgrounds, to construct their own personal identities and develop a life project that took into account the key elements both of the culture of origin and of the host society. For this reason, schools were then more welcoming than society,[2] and today the situation is from certain points of view explosive (table 1). It has become of crucial importance to understand if such is still the case.



Table 1 Non-Italian Pupils by Levels of Education, 1997/98 - 2007/2008






















































Level 1997/98 2001/02 2003/04 2005/06 2007/08
Infant 21.2 25.4 19.4 19.2 19,3
Primary 46.3 40.1 40.8 38.7 37,9
Lower secondary 22.3 22.7 23.9 22.7 22,0
Higher secondary 10.1 11.7 15.9 19.4 20,










































Source: Miur, alunni con cittadinanaza non italiana, various yaers



The increase has not only been quantitative: the extension from nursery schools to secondary schools and the increase in foreign pupils born in Italy are the most evident indicators of the fact that the immigrant population is no longer made up of individuals (boys or girls according to the work that has been carried out) but, to a growing extent, of families that have become the interface of structures and institutions. These last cannot confine themselves to seeing such families as users of services but, instead, they must take into account their general plans, which determine the dynamics of integration, in which educational institutions – schools but to a great extent professional training and ongoing training to recoup schooling, which have a proportionately higher number of foreigners – play a fundamental role. Foreign pupils and their families are to an increasing extent members of ethnic networks whose negative aspects we are often led to see but which are authentic protection networks. They allow, in addition to strong solidarity-based support, a strong group identification and the growth of an original sub-culture if they are helped to address in an autonomous way their own problems, with a dynamic that is typical of the principle of subsidiarity: in Italy the presence of a strong network of formal and informal associations, many of which are connected to the Catholic Church, strengthens this ‘agility’ of contact between immigrants and the host society, something which to a certain extent has reduced, at least so far, the risk of hostile opposition.



However, foreigners are often attributed an identity that is not real but perceived as the expression of their membership of an ethnic group, and as regards immigrants the stereotype of the poor person is widespread: precarious, marginal, clustered together in areas with a strong ethnic character which rapidly deteriorate and appear to be hostile. If, then, as has happened in Italy, the migratory flows are concentrated over a short period of time and are not regulated, closure spreads without any control and the immigrant becomes the diverse to the utmost. He or she reacts in his turn by developing attitudes of hostility and isolation in response to exclusion, attitudes that teachers have to know how to decode and prevent because schools, and in particular basic schools, are the settings where the bases are established for a capacity to accept the diverse, from which, indeed, can be born a shared culture.



Italian schools and society probably became aware of the problem rather later than other European countries because they saw themselves as substantially homogenous: only from the 1990s onwards was theoretical respect for diversified groups tested in a situation where the numerical presence of these same groups became consistent. It is thus necessary to distinguish between multiculturality as a factual reality, that is to say the presence within a society of separate cultures in the broadest sense of the term, which includes values, beliefs, rules, traditions and customs, and multiculturality as an idea, according to which a differentiated society is preferable to a homogenous one and ‘all differences are the same,’ inasmuch as the thought of the twentieth century, in its obsession for equality, ended up by seeing values as detached from truth and objectivity. One could perhaps say that the ‘idea of multiculturality’ or multiculturalism has entered into a major state of crisis because of ‘the fact of multiculturality,’ which has created many problems since – if the position of the defence of the diverse is an error – the idea of unconditional acceptance, as well, does not hold water.



Foreigners in the Classroom



In schools multiculturalism at times expresses itself in a rejection of any strong values, but in the educational field ‘weak’ values are not motivating and give rise to unfulfilled personalities or in the best of cases equally weak ones, with adults who are incapable both of transmitting traditional values to young people and of achieving a synthesis between the old and the new. If we place at the centre of things the identity of migrants (people and not pieces of paper, as the quotation at the beginning of this article puts it), the assimilatory logic of schools used as an instrument of integration to create a new identity that is not characterised in ethnic terms no longer works.



This model has entered a state of crisis for two reasons: the growth of a defensive attitude by ‘indigenous’ citizens who see the new arrivals as a threat, unfair competitors in the distribution of increasingly reduced resources, and a fall in the wish to assimilate on the part of the new arrivals which is expressed in attitudes of a fundamentalist kind at a political level but also through exterior stances (clothes, music…) whose meaning is ‘I do not want to become the same as other people.’ Studies on the second generations (Ambrosini, Molina, 2004; Queirolo Palmas, 2006; Ravecca, 2009) show that increasingly often, beginning with countries such as France and England, there are many young people who are well integrated into their schools but discriminated against in society, citizens to the full except as regards the sharing of values. Young people reject their new status and adopt forms of religious, cultural or political fundamentalism. Difference is upheld or continues or is recreated, generating an attachment to ascribed, ethnic or religious factors and this phenomenon is particularly evident in the urban context where the presence of foreigners is especially felt, with the generation of forms of alternative culture.



In relation to cultures that are different from the prevalent culture, schools can adopt various reactions other than assimilation and integration: the encouragement of multiculturality, which in being based upon the idea of human rights argues that all cultures have the same dignity and thus the right to be present in schools; the development of separate cultures, which sees the transmission of cultural identity as a value and thus considers dialogue useless, thereby undermining at the roots the possibility of a cohesive society; and, lastly, majority pluralism, where the state neither encourages nor discourages the multiculturality that is present in the social fabric (even though it can do so through legislation of varying degrees of limitation) but confines itself to taking notice of it and developing schools that are marked by its values but modified and integrated with the values of significant minorities.[3]



Whatever the prevalent pedagogic culture may be, if the fragmentation increases it will be necessary to imagine educational policies that pass from declarations of a theoretical kind to the production of models that respect the needs for solidarity or tolerance in order to avoid the risk of unproductive opposition. The approach that should be promoted is that of dismantling the identification of ‘diverse’ with ‘unequal’ and promoting behaviour of coexistence where, beginning with shared rules, each party legitimately affirms his or her special features. It is the task of teachers to identify the concrete ways of actuating this coexistence and its consequences for curricula. The risk is that the good will of teachers will generate what is currently called ‘the conspiracy of good intentions,’[4] that is to say initiatives animated by a sincere wish to do good but which, because of this, are no less approximate or are even counterproductive.



The problem at the starting point of the curricula that are chosen is, however, certainly that of the construction of identity, which does not concern only migrants (even though they more than others are at the centre of different and opposing pressures) between the need to uphold the personal or family identity of origin and that of appropriating Italian culture, which is an important part of the new identity, or is even the internally dominant culture of a young person who is only formally foreign: these are two and at times irreconcilable worlds, experience of which is translated into a constant uncertainty about the outcomes of action and an incapacity to make plans beyond the short term. The identity of the migrant is ‘homeless’ because it is connected to a condition of being uprooted and provisional and at times to authentic wandering, or anyway to the search for a more welcoming situation.



In these children the feeling that ‘they are part of something’ is absent and the risk is that to fill this gap solidarity of a fundamentalist kind is developed, whose appeal lies in a capacity to react to the threat of a loss of identity, to rebuild the roots of something stable. Education is a fundamental moment in searching to heal the contradiction between the past and the present. The goal of intercultural education is neither to annul differences nor to create hierarchies or – even worse – false uniformities, but to set in motion procedures for interaction and dialogue, combating prejudices and avoiding mechanisms of self-exclusion and deviance.



Looking for Identity



The school system thus finds itself responsible for the problem of diversity in a rather complex context, in which it emerges clearly that integration is not and cannot be the task of a single agent but, rather, must be approached from the perspective of cooperation between the various social agents and subjects. The role of schools, and more in general of educational agents, is however crucial in the process of the construction of the modal identity of global and plural societies, a recomposed identity that has been defined as hybrid (Gomarasca, 2009)[5] and which has an evident relational connotation because it is created by incorporating relationships and can function as a bridge, as a connection between here and elsewhere, before and afterwards, the self and others. As Simmel said, the foreigner forces others to become aware of themselves; he or she should not be seen solely as a threat but, rather, as an opportunity. Foreignness is not an element that should be removed – it is a part of his or her current identity, as is the identity of those who enter into a relationship with him or her, and it is in dialoguing with a foreigner than I become what I am, unceasingly changing my initial identity.



As a result of didactic autonomy, which envisages the possibility of modifying the educational pathways and developing a more individualised programme in order to meet a diversified demand, schools can do a great deal to promote this conscious harmonisation, even though it is undeniable that the numerical increase in pupils with a foreign background which also expresses itself as a growth in differentiation can create conflict between personal values or the values of the institution and teaching practice. For that matter, the majority of teachers take into account the fact that each child is the bearer of a life project that is the result and outcome of an individual history, which is influenced by experiences, by the expectations of families and above all by peer groups. The reduction of cultural conflict and the creation of a shared system of fundamental values require, however, the uncommon capacity to read the context and to engage in mediation which mean for teachers a higher level of professionalism and in a certain sense a ‘specialist’ professionalism which is not envisaged at the training stage and which schools are not able to develop because they have lost their specific normative role linked to the sharing of values and goals.



Opinions differ on whether it is possible or not to achieve an overall culture and, if it is possible, whether it is a recomposing of differences, the co-existence of diversity, or, instead, their denial: a homogenisation which is prefigured in the models of mass culture and in particular in customs. Those who give a negative answer argue that the creation of a unitary culture (Besozzi, Colombo, Santagati, 2009) based on norms that are applied as a ‘moral obligation’ for all citizens or at least for the majority of them is made impossible by the decline of the perception of a common destiny which is absent in a society with strong migratory presences and which has been strongly weakened even in the most homogenous societies. The heritage of values that we are used to seeing as being common to humanity in a de-sacralised society is no longer shared and can be seen as the imposition of Western culture on other cultures: it is not possible to establish a system of norms that is able to produce integration, on the one hand, and respect for values, on the other, because the rules, if they do not derive from a participated-in and shared system of values, are pure conventions.



A positive dialogue, paradoxically, is much more probable not when groups abandon their own subjectivity but when they are able to maintain it or reconstruct it, helped by schools that know how to respond to the wish for identity, for friendship and for truth that is felt by all young people and in all ages. The aggressive migrant teenager can adopt a negative identity because a negative identity is better than no identity, and the ‘vision of adults’ – of removal, of alarm and of partial acknowledgement – is forced to look in this direction; it can no longer not look. The word ‘suffering’ often recurs in the conversations of deviant young people, and without deresponsibilising those who adopt deviant forms of behaviour perhaps it would be important to understand that many of these young people, if not all of them, if they had alternative pathways by which to silence suffering would follow them. The principal problem of multiethnic schools is not only, or primarily, the technical problem of not functioning well but that of helping young people to recognise – in the process of the construction of their own identities – that a shared pathway is possible.



Bibliographical References



Maurizio Ambrosini and Stefano Molina (eds.), Seconde generazioni. Un’introduzione al futuro dell’immigrazione in Italia (Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Torino, 2004).



Elena Besozzi, Maddalena Colombo and Mariagrazia Santagati, Giovani stranieri, nuovi cittadini. Le strategie di una generazione ponte (Franco Angeli, Milano, 2009).



Paolo Gomarasca, Meticciato: convivenza o confusione? (Marcianum Press, Venezia, 2009).



Luca Queirolo Palmas, Prove di seconde generazioni. Giovani di origine immigrata tra scuole e spazi urbani (Franco Angeli, Milano, 2006).



Andrea Ravecca, Studiare nonostante. Capitale sociale e successo scolastico degli studenti di origine immigrata nella scuola superiore (Franco Angeli, Milano, 2009).



Texts in English:



Bruce Fuller, Emily Hannum (eds.), Schooling and social Capital in Diverse Cultures (JAI, Amsterdam/London, 2002).



David Gillborn and Gloria Ladson-Billings (eds.), The Routledge- Falmer Reader in Multicultural Education (Routledge Falmer, London-New York, 2004).



Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, Legacies. The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (University of California Press, Russel Sage Foundation, Berkeley/ London/New York, 2001)



Antony H. Halsey, Hugh Lauder, Phillip Brown and Amy Stuart Wells (eds.) Education. Culture, Economy and Society (Oxford University Press, London/New York, 1997).





[1] Luca Queirolo Palmas (ed.), Dentro le gang. Giovani, migranti e nuovi spazi pubblici (Ombre Corte, Verona, 2009) p. 59.



[2] This hypothesis clearly emerged from the title chosen by the editor: Graziella Giovannini (ed.), Allievi in classe, stranieri in città [Pupils in the classroom, foreigners in the city] (Franco Angeli, Milano, 1998).


[3] The concept of ‘minority,’ however paradoxical this might appear, is also determined culturally: indeed many weak groups (women, the poor) are in reality majorities in numerical terms.



[4] Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. America’s Textbook Fiasco (Council for Basic Education, Washington D.C., 1988).



[5] The concept of the ‘mestizaje of civilisations,’ which has been broadly developed by the Patriarch of Venice Angelo Scola, completes a process involving the appreciation of the term (understood as the mixing of civilisations that produces a positive outcome that is in part unforeseen along the lines of the nascent state of Weber): it would be interesting to understand the evolution of the original negative meaning of the English ‘half-caste’ to the less negative Spanish mestizo and on to the very recent ‘mixed- blood prince’ of the Harry Potter series.


Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal