The challenge of relationships with the other, those who belong to another culture or another religion, affects the whole of the educational process which begins in schools but goes well beyond them. Italy, which does not have strong ethnic or ideological paradigms, can meet this challenge better than other countries. 

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:42:45

The immediate sensation that one has when faced with the term ‘to educate’ – even before the reality to which it refers which, indeed, is confused and uncertain as regards protagonists and modalities – is that of a kind of time disparity: the very excited rhythm of modernity might induce us to prefer words such as ‘to instruct,’ if not ‘to inform,’ ‘to train’ or ‘to exercise’...implicitly revealing to us the fragmentary/contents-defined character, on the one hand, and the pragmatic/utilitarian character, on the other, of the processes of communication specific to our epoch. Transmitting notions and teaching practices are certainly components of education, above all of the structured stage of schooling, but they are far from cover its profound nature of being a constant and long-term process. The very fact that one educates people from different linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds in a no longer homogenous context brings out with greater weight the latent contradictions specific to a system which, whatever the case, has to address this challenge which one grasps with greater clarity specifically because of these new presences. Another aspect that characterises the reality we are experiencing is the increasing role played by educational agencies that are unprecedented when such traditional agencies as the family, schools and parishes in the education of young people are taken into account. The mass media, peer groups, and society as a whole with its models and its fashions increasingly influence malleable personalities that are still being formed and with an efficacy that is directly proportionate to the large investments and sophisticated technologies that mark out these sectors. It is thus easy for families, which have varying degrees of awareness and a low ability as regards discernment, to delegate to television, to DVDs and to video games the task of entertaining their children who are otherwise difficult to manage in the stressed daily ménage, and for schools and parishes, with some difficulty, to pursue the use of these instruments – and the kinds of relationships that they involve – for the purposes that are specific to them, for example instruction and catechesis. Although, on the one hand, it is inevitable that this will take place, for things to be reduced to this is more problematic, involving almost a surrender in the face of the phenomenon of breaking down into sections and specialisation that has been described above: educating, therefore, is said to be no longer possible because of a shortage of time and one ends up by resigning oneself to a no more greatly specified ‘learning’ which is described by an Italian songwriter and singer in a song dedicated to his daughter as the ‘easy turning of oneself into useless learning software’ (‘un facile farsi un inutile software di scienza’) compared to the much more arduous and ‘confused problem of using one’s own experience’ (‘confuso problema d’adoprare la propria esperienza’). Immigrants, who usually come from countries where the traditional structures of the wider family continue with their implicit forms of hierarchies and priorities both as regards the sexes and the generations, often run the risk of being assimilated more than integrated into the processes described above: fathers are absorbed in their work and thus not very present as is at times the case with mothers (one may think for example of South American mothers who are no longer ‘relegated’ to domestic roles, as, instead, is the case with Arab mothers) and delegation to schools and spontaneous youth groups becomes almost total. The language barrier that is created between parents (with few skills in Italian) and their children (who are born and grow up in Italy) fosters a kind of double standard as regards the home environment and the outside world, and the same is true of behaviour which can remain formally in line with traditional models within the home but change radically outside the home, with various forms of compromise of which those involving assimilation are not always necessarily better than those of a conservative character. Carrying in one’s bag clothes into which one changes as soon as one is out of sight of one’s father can be a prelude to outcomes worse than a veil automatically worn out of belief or in order to please one’s parents. Indeed, in this case having to face the by no means few reservations of one’s contemporaries and one’s environment during a delicate age when the group spirit prevails, together with an uncritical joining of the latest fashion, can even produce positive effects on the formation of an independent character more than any mini-skirt worn with a false ease or with authentic unawareness. The courage to be different, to be really different and for this reason perhaps to be made fun of, to accept that one belongs to an (ethnic, linguistic or religious…) minority is no light matter: dyeing one’s hair green, having piercing who knows where or having a tattoo like an Aborigine is in basic terms very simple. Closures and Banalisations It is unfortunately true that some of those who have newly arrived, using the pretext of their cultural diversity, seek not only to continue to live as if they were in their village of birth but even engage in polemics about things that in their homeland they would have accepted without any discussion. Some fathers refuse to speak with teachers who are women, they relegate their wives to performing tasks and they stop them from going out and learning the local language which would help them to deal with the upbringing and health of their children in a better way, without remaining confined to a purely affective role which progressively diminishes their function in the eyes of their boys who are thus initiated into an overbearing and frightened male chauvinism, and in the eyes of their girls who cannot fail to encounter in the example of their mothers a failed model. But fortunately these are sporadic cases that belong to a much wider and more complex phenomenon. To speak about a ‘school emergency’ caused by ‘too many foreigners in the classroom’ or even of an ‘invasion’ which is said to begin with classrooms, intercepts a widespread alarm and an understandable malaise that does not have anything to do with racism but is connected, rather, with a healthy realism on the part of those who already see an institution overburdened with problems have added to its already numerous burdens that of being in the front line as regards a phenomenon that is profoundly transforming our society without anyone having clear ideas about how to deal with it. But this cry of alarm fosters more the spread of a kind of generalised tendency of ‘everyone for himself’ than an effective reasonable intervention upon the substance of things. After the hangover caused by alternative teaching methods and an awareness of failings in the transmission of basic knowledge by schools, there is a risk that we will return to seeing pupils as ‘well filled’ heads rather than ‘well made’ ones. Along similar lines, I believe that it is important to adopt a series of approaches that lead us not to become the victims of this situation, not to become scapegoats or the poor Cyrenes of the moment who have a cross placed on their backs. If this phenomenon is to be managed and not merely endured everybody should play their part. Schools, which are settings for a great deal of complaints, should do what they should do with enthusiasm and ambition, otherwise their many problems, joined to those that are typical of immigration, will condemn them even more to a destiny of marginalisation which other worrying signs seem to already indicate. Lastly, it should be proclaimed that those who do not places themselves at the service of such an approach and prefer to propagate a sense of sterile and counterproductive alarm act against the logic of a true democracy. Indeed, a true democracy is based on the encouragement of good practices and finds its denial in the professionals of emergency who gain support and positions of gain thanks to a lack of solutions to problems and their chronic deterioration. Italy certainly has advantages over other European countries: without strong ethnic or ideological paradigms, it nevertheless runs the risk of being satisfied with not being racist, which appears to me to be substantially true, but this also seems to me, frankly, to be too little. Resisting these logics and proposing alternatives to them is the wisest and most useful thing that one can do. This is a typically educational task, made up of far-sightedness and tenacity, stubbornness if you like, but not stubbornness that is stolid, directed towards inertia, but one which testifies to a rooting in the real, which rejects representations of reality that are to varying degrees self-interested or a matter of fantasy: people are the raw material and the ultimate end of the work of education, something valuable and delicate to which our loyalty should be renewed, obstinately, paying no attention to fashions and to that going off the rails that often is produced. Each one of us knows this by direct experience before his or her professional expertise: even in the smallest and indispensable things of daily life, each one of us works in this way, taking care of those who are entrusted to him or her, keeping his or her home in a dignified and decent way, keeping his or her clothes clean and tidy, and keeping his or her place of work welcoming and health...Who would expect good results from study, from professional activity or from a sport practised only as a hobby without hard work, commitment and dedication? We do not calculate how much we will earn, the time and energy that will be requested of us, the certainty of immediate, guaranteed and exciting results, but, rather, we continue to ask questions about ourselves, we are never convinced that we have done enough, we are afraid that we have been inadequate, and we are fearful about harvesting even the most timid fruits of our impassioned dedication – as is the case with friendship, with love and with the deepest of affections. A radical consonance between the law that governs the universe and our small love stories makes us feel stronger, makes us able to give without wanting anything in exchange, not as the outcome of reasoning or even less of a cost-benefits calculation, but only because we could not do otherwise inasmuch as we know that this is right, that this is our pathway, that there is no equally credible, reasonable and authentic alternative and thus one that is equally suitable, effective and redemptive. And specifically because we must not allow ourselves to be defeated by dismay or give way to the temptation of giving up, even if we know that we will have to fight on two fronts, with a ploughshare in one hand and a sword in another, to use a Biblical expression which to some might appear emphatic but which in my view well reflects the role of protection and constructive commitment that characterises us and which we cannot at any cost forgo. Beyond School Benches In oratories, where an increasing number of young people with non-Italian backgrounds (and non-Christian faiths) go at the least to obtain a support for their studies or various forms of recreational activity, in associations and voluntary organisations, the so-called second generations in particular are experiencing a new season. Young Muslims as well, and above all else. The situation is totally different to that of twenty or thirty years ago when in response to the first and timid approaches in the mosques of my area, zealous but not very suitable leaders received with commiserating smiles and open rejection my proposals to engage in ‘dialogue.‘ My patience and hope that supported a long and difficult wait were not to be disappointed. A first and meaningful fact is that many of these young people have decided, at least so far, to remain believers and to practise their religion. Even before considering what this means and the forms in which it is expressed, it is comforting for us to know that the chosen pathway has not been that of becoming secularised, becoming indifferent or even opposed to the idea of belonging to a religious faith or confining it to the strict boundaries of one’s inner self. More than a thousand lessons of catechesis or reproaches, for many of our young people to observe that their contemporaries make this choice every day can constitute a healthy provocation not to diminish their own Christian identity to a private matter, above all if by this term is meant something that is marginal, accessory and without influence. And there is no need to emphasise that this is also an indispensable pre-condition for the role of these young Muslims in the communities to which they belong to have a certain weight. But there is much more. Beyond the technical realities that concern experts in religious law, also, and perhaps above all, ordinary Muslim believers who live in the West are reflecting on this question which is of capital importance: with the changing of social and cultural conditions, which part of the Islamic tradition and its classic institutions should still be seen as being valid and thus conserved at a any price? Which aspects, instead, are modifiable and through which procedures? To answer these questions it is necessary to reconsider the evolutionary process which during the early centuries of Islam led to the formation of its doctrines and its fundamental structures in order to be able to take up in forms that are suitable to our times, the fruitful work of the first generations of the faithful. It is also salutary to be aware of the plural forms in which their faith has been expressed over time and how varied its practices still are today in the various latitudes of the planet. It is specifically in the Islamic centres of Europe that young Muslims learn to know about their correligionists of other ethnic groups, at times in far away lands, even of different religious currents, as in the case of the Shiites. In daily practice many mediations between the customs of parents and the sensibility of those who have been born in the West are already underway and these by no means rarely concern also the dimension of religiosity. For that matter, is this not also the case with us? I can remember Catholic schools and oratories rigidly divided between the sexes, I can remember the Mass in Latin, the catechesis with questions and answers learnt by heart, I can remember women sitting on one side of the church and men on the other, my sister who could not come into the church wearing trousers, women who until forty years ago were seen as ‘impure’ after giving birth…not to mention fasts, acts of mortification and processions. All these things are no longer a part of our shared religiosity, some of them by now are very distant from our sensibility, but would we say because of this that we are less religious believers and observers? Perhaps we have left behind some things too quickly and they should be retrieved, but we have gained in maturity: a less formal faith to achieve a more convinced and deeper adherence. Can we exclude that something similar can happen to other people? The Islam of the people, like Christianity of the masses, expressed itself for a long time in forms of devotion linked to figures and places drawn near to with a sense of the magical and the sacred that was specific to archaic, rural, not very educated societies inclined to spurious practices where the dimension of superstition was not completely absent. That of learned men has for some time become sclerotic with canonical formulations which a perverse mixing with political interests has made practically immutable. Amongst immigrants, therefore, there exists the possibility that both of these become superseded, without by this denying their values and functions, but within a finally freed approach. An immense wealth, therefore, remains to be appreciated, given the neglect of institutions and the mass media which are distracted by, or sick with, sensationalism and are unable to invest in education because they are obsessed by immediate results and effects that assure some kind of visibility and support, often in an approach of ‘safety,’ without being able to understand that the best antidote to the marginalisation of entire social groups is specifically the positive inclusion of the new generations.