A medal for a different kind of merit

A medal for a different kind of merit

Roots of the future/8 - Education for all was designed and wanted in order to reduce distances

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 23/10/2022

The book "Heart"/"Cuore" is a reflection on school and work, and gives us unlikely and wonderful words about what they both still represent in the eyes of children and in the lives of adults today.

De Amicis was able to give us a phrase that is the very distillation of a sea of ​​wisdom: «The poor love the alms of children because they do not humiliate them and because the children who need everyone resemble them».

The book “Heart”/”Cuore” is a book on school, and therefore it is not a book on merit. School, the entire school system, was never founded on merit. If we look at it from afar and on the surface, we see grades, some failures, and subsequently think that school resembles a business: grades being used as wages, academic achievement as career advancement. However, this is too distant and therefore the wrong view of school (and businesses). The meritocratic ideology that is successfully trying to occupy the school too is based on the dogma that talents are merits and therefore whoever has more talent must be rewarded more. However, we all know that this dogma is a fraud, or at least an illusion, for society and even more so for the school. Because talents are gifts, and our performance in life depends on the talents-gifts received, but very little on merits (because my capacity for commitment is also a gift). What is the merit in being born smart, rich, or even good? This is why school has been inspired by values ​​that are not only different from those of meritocracy, but also diametrically opposed.

The school of all and for all was wanted ad designed in order to reduce the social and natural inequalities that meritocracy, that is, the ideology of merit, increases. All boys and girls go, and have to go, to school, not just those who are deserving. Everyone must be enabled to flourish and achieve his or her own excellence, not just the most deserving. Everyone has the right to receive care, esteem, recognition, admiration and dignity even if they do not have many merits or if they have less than others do. Furthermore, school is a wonderful garden with many flowers with different talents: «Precossi, I give the medal to you. No one is more worthy to carry it than you. I do not give it to you only due to your intelligence and your good will; I give it thanks to your heart, to your courage, to your character as a good and kind son. Is it not true - he added, turning towards the class - that he deserves it for this as well? Yes, yes, they all replied in one voice». Precossi was the son of a blacksmith who drank too much and occasionally beat him. Nevertheless, he got his own medal too.

It was not Derossi's medal, who was top of the class. It was the medal of a different kind of school. De Amicis was then followed by Maria Montessori, who eliminated the grading system, and then Don Lorenzo Milani and the school of Barbiana. The democratic aspect to it was a multiplication of Precossi’s medals, which today are called school inclusion and support teachers; because we have learned that there are not only merits in a child's lives: there is life too. The day someone convinces us that even school must be founded on meritocracy, we will start handing out medals, all identical and always to the same pupils, and we will soon have special classes and schools for the non-deserving, inequalities will explode and democracy will finally have given way to meritocracy, which is the main attempt at an ethical legitimation of inequality.

Heart/Cuore also has a lot to say about work. The poor were the ones that worked in that Italy. In the fields, in the workshops, in the factories there were no rich people, lawyers or professors. “Cuore” offers very good words about the labour of workers and craftsmen. This is what Enrico’s father wrote to him: «Once you are at University or in high-school, you will go to visit your classmates in the shops or workshops... do see to that you despise the differences created by personal wealth and social class, due to which only the cowardly regulate their sentiments and courtesy». That new-born Italy was trying to take the principle of fraternity seriously, a principle which was also dear to Mazzini, and hoped that people belonging to different social classes could learn to feel like brothers, sisters and citizens before perceiving their many differences once in school.

The little mason. He is the son of a bricklayer, one of Enrico's most beloved companions - who instead comes from a wealthy family. One day he invites him home: «The little mason has come today, all dressed in garments handed down by his father, still stained white with mortar and plaster». Cuore/Heart often shows us the little mason in his characteristic and most sympathetic gesture: he was amazing at making “funny faces”, a relational resource that he uses every now and then to transform a severe reproach from his master into a choral smile. Speaking and playing, the little mason «told me about his family: they live in an attic, his father goes to evening school learning how to read and his mother is from Biella». The description of the workers' evening school is among the most beautiful pages in the book: they were «speechless as they payed attention to the class». I saw the boys I met in schools in Africa and Asia, with the same hunger for knowledge and a better life, in those men who were for hungry for knowledge. They then have a snack together, on the sofa: «When we got up, my father did not want me to clean the back of the chair on which the little bricklayer had left white stains from his jacket». De Amicis concludes the episode with a passage from a letter from Enrico's father, where we find some of the most beautiful words written about work in our literature: «Do you know, son, why I did not want you to clean the sofa? Because cleaning it would have almost been like reproaching him for soiling it… And what you produce while working is never dirt, it is not dust, but lime, paint, all you want; but not filth. Work does not get things dirty: never say of a worker who comes home from work: he is dirty». These pages are also part of the collective soul of the Italians, which enabled them to write the following decades later: «Italy is a democratic republic founded on work» (Article 1).

The poor. It is yet another letter written by his father to Enrico: «Do not get used to being indifferent to the misery that extends its hand to you». We, on the other hand, are perfectly accustomed to the misery of the world; then we realized that our indifference became the new great poverty of our time, preventing us from suffering from the poverty of others due to the atrophy of our soul. We no longer suffer from witnessing misery because we have morally impoverished ourselves.

Then, among these words about the poor, like an unexpected rainbow, we find the words that have pierced my soul and intelligence with their beauty and truth: «The poor love the alms from kids because they do not humiliate them, and because kids who need everyone, look like them». This phrase is a distillation of a sea of ​​wisdom. Those few times when a child or a teenager manages to approach and meet a person in poverty - an increasingly rare event, because the separation of children from poverty is one of the traits of our impoverished time that thinks that immunizing children from the poverty of life is an advantage and richness. That intersection of glances is among the most admirable spectacles that exist. A wonderful unlikely fraternity is created. Boys, girls, kids, and sometimes young people, do not distinguish between rich and poor adults: to them they are all "people". Of course, they notice the differences in appearance, but it is as if they do not see them, because they perceive the soul behind. Hence, they do not feel that wrong sense of compassion that humiliates the person being pitied. On the other hand, the "poor" person (I do not like to use the word "poor" in a generic way) knows that the child is poor like him - «they need everyone» - and thus experiences a sense of true equality with him or her. In my childhood, I was loved by many poor people, who enriched me with their poverty, without the intention of wanting to love me, but simply by being what they were. And I loved them too with my naturally friendly and absolutely sincere childhood and adolescence. Therefore, it is true that only children can give or do something for the poor without humiliating them, together with those adults who have struggled all their lives to save and keep at least some aspect of their childhood. As an adult, it is very difficult for me to just be a brother next to a "poor" person, but when it happens it is as beautiful as it was in my childhood days: «The alms given by an adult are an act of charity, but those of a child are both an act of charity and a caress: do you understand?». Yes, we do.

The workshop. Precossi, another companion, is the son of a blacksmith who was redeemed to life, from a wrongful one, thanks to Precossi’s medal. The boy «was studying» on a «brick turret, with the book placed on his knees». The father, on the other hand, was working: «He raised a big hammer and began to beat a bar, pushing the hot part here and there between a tip of the anvil and the middle». In the meantime «his son was looking at us, with a certain haughty air, as if to say: 'See how my father works!'».

To be proud of the work done by their parents is like good bread nourishing children and young people. Our esteem for the world and for adults begins by appreciating our father while he works. The work of their parents is also important for our children sense of self-esteem. Children know that their fathers and mothers are good and kind even if they do not work, but it is also the duty of a good society to put every person in a condition to be able to work so that their children can say with a haughty air: “See how my father/mother works!” Sons and daughters take pride in any kind of job that their parents do. Even here they do not distinguish the jobs that society considers prestigious from the humblest ones, because it is the beauty of their parents that makes their jobs beautiful - to children, parents are the most beautiful thing in the world. This is why perhaps there is no greater pain than what a child feels when his or her parents' work is humiliated by someone else. It is a profanation of the heart. Meritocracy is also a factory of humiliation for many workers and their children.

When they grow up, at the right time, children will understand that not all jobs are the same, not all jobs are deemed worthy and not all jobs are paid fairly. However, as children they only have to be able to say, haughtily: "See how my father/mother works!"

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