School of merit

Marta Bernardi
Current events

What this means is refusing to recognise the different types of intelligence that students possess and trying to mould their educational paths into straight lines that would increasingly make them likely to lead lives of mediocre standardised success.

Talking about meritocracy in Italy stirs tempers pretty quickly. We are a nation that has firmly grasped the variety of shortcuts that can be taken to reach a particular goal or position. An issue that rightfully infuriates those who, either through lack of opportunity or of will, have never resorted to these shortcuts. After all, if there is one thing Italians need no explanation about, it is the saying “to have friends in high places”. The issue affects schools of course – especially in terms of university teaching posts – but also many other places of authority and status. It is therefore natural that the label ‘of merit’, affixed by the Meloni government to the Ministry of Education, has caused quite a few divisions and controversies.

In essence, there is general agreement on the concept that the deserving should be rewarded. However, the initial rifts begin when considering what this merit ought to be awarded for. There has been much bickering about who should be assessed on the basis of their merits: whether pupils or the teaching staff. Much of the debate has been focused on the former rather than the latter.

Francesco Greco, president of the National Association of Teachers, is among those who have applauded the new ministerial designation, claiming the change as a long-awaited achievement. According to him, it is not the focus on merit in schools that makes schools class-conscious – one of the main criticisms levelled at the alleged ‘merit school’ – but rather generalised promotions. It is with this rather strong belief that Greco argues how it is precisely this reticence to fail pupils that make socio-economic differences within classes more obvious. In fact, in the face of increasingly standardised exit curricula, it would be up to the pupils’ families, with their different opportunities and abilities, to take care of their children’s, grandchildren’s, and cousins’ integration into society.

Among those who are highly dissatisfied with this statement are the professor of Italian literature Nuccio Ordine, and the writer Paolo Giordano. The two approach the issue of scholastic merit from two different angles. The former focuses on the type of merit that should be recognised today, which would look at qualities such as speed and efficiency in learning. Undoubtedly very good qualities, but ones that have a bitter taste, says the professor. Indeed, they are characteristics valued in (and thus indices of) a market-oriented school with a neo-liberal imprint, where students are regarded solely as future workers. A ‘corporate school’ where the notions studied are all the more appreciated as the more marketable they appeal to industries. The focus of this kind of school would shift toward its students’ future employment instead of concentrating on training balanced, free individuals capable of thinking for themselves. 

Giordano depicts an even more demeaning vision. First of all, and not too differently from Professor Ordine, he points out how merit nowadays is a synonym for adequacy. Therefore, by being adequate to the standards, demands and expectations of society. He then continues by stressing how, from a school of merit perspective, scholastic adequacy is associated with the possibilities of social advancement, as if this were not closely intertwined with the deep economic and social diversity experienced by every student. This is all to be considered in a context where – partly due to a phenomenon of idealisation of the school of our youth and childhood, partly due to a hardening of the institution itself – there is a large gap between families and teachers. In fact, it is this gap that generates mistrust and mutual suspicion, creating difficulties that add to the social complexities that the school has to face, all on its own.

Alone since most of Italy’s social complexities are often overlooked by other institutions and by politics as well, and this forces the school to absorb them and deal with them, struggling at every turn. Clear symptoms of this are the school drop-outs, the growing disinterest in education, the indicators that measure students’ ability to cope and who have taken a nosedive. This is without mentioning the problems surrounding school buildings alone, as well as the economic precariousness and lack of social dignity of the teaching staff. 

Thinking that this situation could be solved by strict flunking and by the predominance of numerical grades is to be completely disconnected from reality. Apart from creating an environment based on competition, thinking that this will somehow put society back into order, the merit system denies the complex variety of forms of disadvantage experienced by students, whether social, financial, geographical, emotional, familial or cognitive. What this means is refusing to recognise the different types of intelligence that students possess and trying to mould their educational paths into straight lines that would increasingly make them likely to lead lives of mediocre standardised success. This means beatifying the exclusivity and selectivity of an institution that has always belonged to everyone and, above all, is for everyone.

[1] Giuliani, A. (2022). Tecnica della scuola. Il ministero del Merito significa più scuola-azienda e competizione sfrenata? Per il professore Nuccio Ordine sarebbe antieducativo. 

[2] Giordano, P. (2022). Il Corriere. La complessità a scuola e i miraggi del merito.

[4] Bramati, M. (2022). Panorama. Il “merito” a scuola è un concetto giusto con un vocabolo pessimo.

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