Administration & Leadership

From Italy, with Love: An Argument for the Lyceum School Model

A look at how Italy’s secondary education model, based on Aristotle’s educational principles, might work in the U.S.

September 25, 2013
Photo credit: iStockphoto

I’m writing from Bologna, Italy, where for seven years I’ve taught at Scuole Manzoni, a classical and scientific Lyceum for grades 8 to 12. For me, teaching at a classical lyceum is a fulfillment. When I was young, I studied at the best lyceum in Bologna. There I saw firsthand the charm and rigor that accompany studying the humanities. Now I’m teaching those same subjects that so greatly influenced my personal education.

In Italy, debate about education is nonexistent, like a flat encephalogram, but the global crisis is destroying what the Italian schools have built over decades, a decline that is economic and cultural, with grave consequences in the field of education.

U.S. schools are in some points similar to Italy’s. International statistics consider your universities the best in the world. Likewise, Italian researchers are esteemed at an international level for their humanistic education. So why don’t U.S. schools also offer a lyceum as a model for high school students?

What Is a Lyceum?

The lyceum, styled after the school founded by Aristotle, offers the formative aspects of study as preparation for higher education. It is divided into five courses, each with a special emphasis:

  • Classical: emphasizing Italian, Latin, and Greek
  • Scientific: emphasizing math, physics, science, and technical drawing
  • Linguistic: emphasizing European languages
  • Artistic: emphasizing the history of art and design
  • Human sciences: emphasizing philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.

In all lyceums, it’s mandatory to study Italian, physics, art, science, at least one community language, history, and philosophy.

Our education system offers three possible choices for grades 8 to 12: vocational schools, technical institutes, and the lyceum.

Vocational schools and technical institutes promise quicker entry into employment. In contrast, the lyceum is a five-year model that leads to university admittance, and 49 percent of students prefer it to the other tracks, according to our Ministry of Education. The classical and scientific lyceum graduates are the best university students and experience the greatest social mobility. They have become excellent professionals, even in areas far from the humanities.

Ariadne’s Thread

The lyceum offers what we call forma mentis, tools for thinking and a critical spirit with which to approach reality. The five years of lyceum study are very hard—teachers demand the utmost preparation, and afternoons are spent in assiduous study. When students study Italian, they don’t just learn the language. They study Italy’s entire literary output, from 1200 B.C. to the present day. This includes Latin, from the origins of the language until the Christian era. Similarly, they study the entire breadth of history, philosophy, and art.

Why this obsession with looking to the past? This is perhaps the real question, and it deserves pragmatic answers, not just rhetoric.

  1. The past provides tools for approaching the present and future with greater awareness.
  2. The past tells us who we are and where we come from. It’s our identity.
  3. How can we choose our future without knowing where we’ve been?

The humanities are our Ariadne’s thread, allowing us to navigate the labyrinth of modern life. We may succumb to the Minotaur, but the thread of knowledge is our hope.

The world needs people who are broadly educated, who can make critically informed and wise decisions. Technicians trained only to complete a narrow task are destined to fail in the long run, particularly when you consider how quickly technology skills advance. We need thinking minds, and these come mainly from the lyceum.

Of course, there are educational pathways that are easier and less challenging, but whom does an easy school serve?

And so I must ask: Why is there not a lyceum in the United States? Is there a model more competitive and useful to your students where the humanities are in the foreground?

It is not my intention to be controversial. After all, I’m well aware that the Italian school system lost its supremacy long ago. It strikes me, however, that your excellent schools have missed an opportunity in not creating a school model like the lyceum. And I don’t think this is due only to a different historical-cultural context.

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