In the elementary school, there used to be two elements in the educational formation of the children. They were taught the rudiments of natural science, and the idea of civic rights and duties. Science was intended to introduce the child to the societas rerum, the world of things, while lessons in rights and duties were intended to introduce him to the state and civil society. The scientific ideas the children learnt conflicted with the magical conception of the world and nature which they absorbed from an environment steeped in folklore; while the idea of civic rights and duties conflicted with tendencies towards individualistic and localistic barbarism—another dimension of folklore. The school combated folklore, indeed every residue of a traditional vision of the world. It taught a more modern outlook, based essentially on an awareness of the simple and fundamental fact that there exist objective, intractable natural laws to which man must adapt himself if he is to master them in his turn—and that there exist social and state laws which are the product of human activity, which are established by men and can be altered by men in the interests of their collective development. These laws of the state and of society create that human order which historically best enables men to dominate the laws of nature, that is to say which most facilitates their work. For work is the specific mode by which man actively participates in natural life, in order to transform and socialize it more and more deeply and extensively.
Thus one can say that the educational principle which was the basis of the old elementary school was the idea of work. Human work cannot be realized in all its power of expansion and productivity without an exact and realistic knowledge of natural laws and without a legal order which organically regulates men’s life in common. Men must respect this legal order through spontaneous assent, rather than as an external imposition—it must be a necessity recognized and proposed to themselves as freedom, and not a result of simple coercion. The idea and the fact of work, as theoretical and practical activity, was the educative principle latent in the elementary school, since it is by means of human activity that the social and state order, with its rights and duties, is introduced and identified within the natural order. The discovery that the relations between the social and natural orders are mediated by work, by man’s theoretical and practical activity, creates the first elements of an intuition of the world free from all magic and superstition. It provides a basis for the subsequent development of a historical, dialectical conception of the world, which understands movement and change, which appreciates the sum of effort and sacrifice which the present has cost the past and which the future is costing the present, and which conceives the contemporary world as a synthesis of the past, of all past generations, which projects itself into the future. This was the real basis of the elementary school. Whether it yielded all its fruits, and whether the actual teachers were aware of the nature and philosophical content of their task, is another question. In practice, this depended on the degree of civic consciousness of the entire nation, of which the teaching body was merely an expression, and rather a poor expression— certainly not an avant-garde.
It is not in fact true that ‘instruction’ is something quite different from ‘education’. An excessive emphasis on this distinction has been a serious error of idealist educationalists and its effects can already be seen in the elementary school as they have reorganized it. For instruction to be wholly distinct from education, the pupil would have to be pure passivity, a ‘mechanical receiver’ of abstract notions—which is absurd and is anyway ‘abstractly’ denied by the supporters of pure educativity precisely in their opposition to mere mechanistic instruction. The ‘evident’ becomes ‘true’ in the child’s consciousness. But the child’s consciousness is not something individual (still less individuated), it reflects the sector of civil society in which the child participates, and the social relations which are formed within his family, his neighbourhood, his village. The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula: thus the ‘evident’ of an advanced culture becomes ‘true’ in the framework of a fossilized and anachronistic culture. There is no unity between school and life, and so there is no automatic unity between instruction and education. In the school, the nexus between instruction and education can only be realized by the living work of the teacher. For this he must be aware of the contrast between the type of culture and society which he represents and the type of culture and society represented by his pupils, and conscious of his obligation to accelerate and regulate the child’s formation in conformity with the former and in conflict with the latter. If the teaching body is not adequate
This degeneration is even clearer in the secondary school, in the literature and philosophy syllabus. Previously the pupils at least acquired a certain ‘baggage’ or ‘equipment’ of concrete facts. Now that the teacher must be specifically a philosopher and aesthete, the pupil does not bother with concrete facts and fills his head with formulae and words which usually mean nothing to him, and which are forgotten at once. It was right to struggle against the old school, but the new reform is not so simple as it seems. Its character is determined not by draft programmes but by men, and not just the men who are themselves teachers but by the entire social complex which they express. In reality a mediocre teacher may manage to see to it that his pupils become more informed, although he will not succeed in making them better educated; he can devote a scrupulous and bureaucratic conscientiousness to the mechanical part of teaching—and the pupil, if he has an active intelligence, will give an order of his own, with the aid of his social background, to the ‘baggage’ he accumulates. With the new programme, which coincides with a general lowering of the level of the teaching profession, there will no longer be any ‘baggage’ to put in order. The new programmes should have abolished examinations entirely; for to take an examination now is fearfully more hazardous than before. A date is always a date, whatever teacher sets the examination, and a definition is always a definition: but an aesthetic judgement or a philosophical analysis?
The educational efficacy of the old Italian secondary school, as organized by the Casati Act, was not to be sought (or rejected) in its explicit aim as an educative system, but in the fact that its structure and its programme were the expression of a traditional mode of intellectual and moral life, of a cultural climate diffused throughout Italian society as an ancient tradition. It was the fact that this climate and way of life were in their death-throes, and that the school had become cut off from life, which brought about the crisis in education. A criticism of the programmes and disciplinary structure of the old system means less than nothing if one does not keep this fact in mind. Thus we come back to the truly active participation of the pupil in the school, which can only exist if the school is related to life. The more the new programmes nominally affirm and theorize the pupil’s activity and working collaboration with the teacher, the more they are actually designed as if the pupil were purely passive.