by Giovanni Papini (1881-1956)
1st June 1914
Beware of large building where hundreds of men gather or are therein locked up. Prisons, Churches, Hospitals, Parliaments, Barracks, Lunatic asylums, Schools, Ministries, Convents. They are pieces of architecture of ill omen, irrefutable symptoms of an epidemic. They defend against crime, against death, against foreigners, against disorder, against loneliness, against everything that frightens man left to his own devices, the eternal coward that promulgates laws and forms societies as bastions and trenches against his trembling.
There are storehouses of evil men –in the city, country, on the seashore- by which one cannot pass without terror. There are condemned therein to darkness, hunger, suicide, immobility, brutalization, madness, thousands upon thousands of men that subtracted a little wealth from their richer brethren, or that suddenly diminished the number of this not too regrettable humanity. I don’t feel sorry about them, but suffer if I think too much about their life, or the quality and rights of their judges and prison warders. But for them there is at least the excuse of defending ourselves against renewed offences.
But what have done those boys, adolescents, young men that from six to ten, 15, 20, 24 years you lock up for so many hours a day in your whitewashed prisons where their bodies suffer and their brains shrivel? The others you may, with law code in hand, dub delinquents, but these are, even for you, as pure and innocent as when they exited the uteri of your spouses and daughters. With what traitorous pretexts dare you kill their pleasure and freedom in the most beautiful stage of life, blunting forever the freshness and sanity of their intelligence?
Don’t come to me with the heavy artillery of progressivist rhetoric: civilization, education of the spirit, advancement of knowledge… We know with absolute certainty that civilization does not originate in schools, that schools sadden the soul instead of lifting it up, and that decisive scientific discoveries did not come out of public education but of the solitary, at times mad, research of men that never went to school or never taught there.
Equally certainly we know that the school, by nature formal and traditionalist, has often contributed to fossilize knowledge and delay with stubborn obstruction the most urgent intellectual revolutions and reforms. Only by chance and sheer coincidence can schools, given their large numbers, be laboratories of new truths.
School is not, by nature, a spiritual enterprise, but a simple organism and practical instrument. It does not invent knowledge; it is happy by just handing it down. And it does not even perform this task well, either because it hands it down badly, or on handing it down it hinders the forming of new and better knowledge by drying up and twisting the brains of the learners. Schools are, therefore, no more than prisons for minors instructed to satisfy practical, petty bourgeois, needs. Which ones?
For parents, in the early years, school is the most decent means of getting rid of the nuisance of children. Later on, there comes into play the idea of “position” and “career”, For teachers, there is above all the motive of earning their bread, meat and clothes with a “noble” profession that offers, furthermore, three months of holidays a year and some small satisfaction of vanity. Add to this the sadism of being able to bore, intimidate and torment with impunity, for a lifetime, thousands of children and youth.
The State runs schools because parents want them and because itself, ever needful of battalions of functionaries every year, prefers to bring them up its own way and to choose them on the strength of certificates granted by itself without much more ado. Add to this that schools feed inspectors, principals, janitors, preparatory institutes, assistants, publishers, booksellers and stationers and you have the complete gamut of vested interests hovering around municipal, State and private penitentiaries.
No one, except in words, thinks of improving the nation, developing human thinking and even less of what matte4rs most, i.e. the good of children. Schools exist, they are convenient, provide a living to many: stuff them with boys and girls and that’s it.
Man, in the three half dozen years decisive in life (6-12, 12-18, 18-24) needs freedom to live: freedom to strengthen the body and maintain health, freedom to live in the open air. At school he ruins the eyes, the lungs, the nerves (how many short-sided, anemic and neurasthenics can rightly curse the school and who invented it!). Freedom to develop one’s personality in a life open to thousands of possibilities instead of the artificial, stuffy air of a classroom and a college.
Freedom to learn something truly useful, for one learns nothing of importance from classwork, but only from great books and from personal contact with reality, into which each one inserts oneself his own way and chooses what fits him best instead of undergoing desiccating, uniform teaching manipulation.
What school offers, instead, is a daily reclusion in dusty rooms stuffy with stale breathing, a most unnatural physical motionlessness, immobility of spirit forced to repeat instead of seeking, a most disastrous effort to learn with idiotic methods a plethora of useless information, and the systematic drowning of all personality, originality and initiative in the dark sea of uniform programs. Up to six years of age man is a prisoner of parents, nannies and governesses; from six to 24 he is under parents and teachers; thereafter he is a slave to his office, head of section, the public and a wife; between 40-50 he is mechanized and ossified by habit (worse than any boss) and finally servant, slave, prisoner, forced worker and puppet until death.
Let at least childhood and youth enjoy a modicum of healthy anarchy! The only excuse (never sufficient) for such long imprisonment is purported to be an acknowledged utility for the future. But on this point there is some kind of consensus among the most enlightened spirits. School does more harm than good to brains in formation. It teaches many useless things, to be unlearned later to make room for many others on one’s own. It teaches many false or debatable things very costly to rid oneself of, and not all succeed.
School trains people to accept that the entire world’s wisdom is to be found within the covers of printed books. Hardly ever it teaches what one should really do in life, for which only a long, self-training is good enough. It teaches, or pretends to teach, what no one ever can: painting in art schools, literature in academies; thinking in faculties of philosophy; pedagogy in normal courses; music in conservatoires. It teaches badly because it teaches everyone the same things, in the same way and quantity without paying attention to the infinite diversity of talent, ethnic and social extraction, age, need, etc.
It is impossible to teach more than one person at a time. Learning occurs exclusively by interacting with another person, where the teacher adapts himself to the learner’s nature, repeats explanations, asks, discusses without dictating his words as from on high.
Almost all innovators either have never been to school, or escaped from it in time, or have been “bad” students. “Top” students are the mediocre ones who make an honoured “career” in life, even reaching a certain degree of notoriety. School fails to teach precisely what one needs most. After passing exams and obtaining the certificates one has to vomit all that has been force fed in those banquets and start all over again.
How I wish that our legislators, for whom school is the temple of the new generations and the approved textbooks the sacred scripture of pedantic religion, read at least once Hazlitt’s essay on the ignorance of the learned. The opening sentence reads:
“The description of persons who have the fewest ideas of all others are of mere authors and readers. It is better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else.”
And further down: “Anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.”
I think that very few could –if they knew- boast of such resistance. It is enough to look around to see the average intelligence of our employees, managers, professionals and politicians to realize how dead right Hazlitt was. If any intelligence is left, it must be sought either among the self-taught or among the illiterates.
School is so essentially anti-intellectual as to make fools not only of students but also of teachers. By repeating the same things year after year, they become more imbeciles and unmalleable than they were at the beginning, which is quite an achievement. Poor prison warders, sour, bored, ankylosed, empty, dry, anguished, discouraged movers of their official and government arms and legs only when it is a question of a salary rise!
There’s talk of moral education in schools. The only result of teachers coexisting with students is the apparent servility and hypocrisy of the latter towards the former, and mutual corruption of schoolmates. The only test of sincerity in schools is the walls of the washrooms.
Let us close down all schools, from first to last. Kindergarten, colleges, boarding schools, primary and secondary, gymnasia, technical schools, universities, academies; commercial institutes and military academies; high schools and of application; polytechnics and teacher trainings. Anywhere a man has the pretence of teaching other men ought to be closed down. Do not listen to embarrassed parents, unemployed teachers or bankrupted booksellers. Everything will be alright in time. Ways will be found of acquiring knowedge, better and in less time, without having to sacrifice the best years of life on the benches of Government part-time prisons.
There will be more intelligent men and more geniuses; life and science will progress better, everyone will look after oneself and civilization will not slow down even one second. There will be more freedom, more health and more joy.
The human soul comes first. It is the most precious thing we possess. We want to save it at least at the fledgling stage. We shall give life pensions to all teachers, tutors, prefects, principals, professors, tenured lecturers and janitors, provided they set the youth free from their privileged factories of State imbeciles. We have had enough after so many centuries.
The enemies of freedom and of the young promote imbecility and death.