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

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I'm Margherita Rossi, an Italian teacher of the Humanities. I'm writing from Bologna, Italy. For seven years, I've taught at Scuole Manzoni, a classical and scientific Lyceum for 8th-12th grade. For me, teaching at the 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 accompanies studying the humanities. Now I'm teaching those same subjects that so greatly influenced my personal education.

In Italy, the debate about education is nonexistent, like a flat encephalogram. 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.1 Likewise, Italian researchers are esteemed at an international level for their humanistic education.2 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 Greek3
  • Scientific: emphasizing math, physics, science and technical drawing4
  • Linguistic: emphasizing European languages5
  • Artistic: emphasizing the history of art and design6
  • Human sciences: emphasizing philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.7

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 8-12:

  1. Vocational schools
  2. Technical institutes
  3. 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.8 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?

Humanities are our Ariadne's thread, allowing us to navigate the maze of modern life. We may succumb to the Minotaur, but the thread (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.

So, again I ask, why not? I look forward to your responses in the comments section below.


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Jason's picture

I lived in Italy for seven years and saw first hand how overly romantic an illustration this is of the Italian school system. In reality, it is one in which rote memorization is emphasized over critical thought, practical applications of mathematics and science are nearly non-existent and ancient Greek and Latin are valued above all else. Italian children are preparing for a world that disappeared with the turn of the 20th Century and reform is nowhere in sight because of the prevalence of views that ignore the ways in which the world is changing. The system demands that all children learn in exactly the same way and deprives them of most contexts in which they might express individuality. Outside of pre-k in Reggio-Emilia, there is very little to commend about an Italian state education.

Margherita Rossi's picture
Margherita Rossi
Teacher of Classical Humanities at Lyceum (High School) from Bologna, Italy

Dear Jason, I beg to differ. As first think in my article I talk about the difficulties of the Italian school. But all is not to cast away. And the lyceal model is certainly a good element of our education system. I also contest your statement about not elaboration (or almost) of scientific disciplines. The system requires a good cultural background, not that all kids learn in exactly the same way. And certainly not "by heart". We have a common core that must be respected and achieved, if students want the final diploma. Finally, the classical languages are not overvalued. They require the same logical and thoughtful rigor of mathematics and they force the students to a determinant mental traning: because if our kids learn to think, they'll do so in future, in every area. I asked, however, a precise question in my speech and that is why the U. S. school system don't provide the lyceal model and from what this depends. I have of course no need to make "romantic" Italian school: but I'd like to create an opportunity for a debate on an item, the lyceum, which I think really competitive and training.

Jason's picture

Thank you for your response, Margherita. I apologize if my comment was not precise enough. Let's see if I can be less ambiguous. The United States has mostly rejected the model on which the contemporary liceo is founded because it is no longer relevant.
As our world becomes increasingly inclusive, the liceo actively works to limit inclusion. You made reference to the fact that all students learn differently. But where in your liceo classico do you find differentiation for those students? Children are pushed to either a technical or vocational school if they do not fit in the teacher-driven, lecture model found in the more "academic" setting of the liceo classico or liceo scientifico, but students whose style of learning is different from the norm are not valued or accommodated.
While the wider world becomes more connected, the importance of experience has increased. But how many laboratory experiments were performed by students at your liceo scientifico last school year? In Biology, Chemistry and Physics combined, I would be surprised if the honest answer were more than three. Moreover, while the practical experiences of students are limited, they are further being given the message that student contributions to the learning process is insignificant compared to whatever it is the teacher has to say.
Of course, this model of education, in its contemporary form, was put into place while Mussolini was in power. Even the buildings themselves, those massive structures of poured concrete, four stories tall with modern, block columns, originated in the era of fascism. And let's be honest, the liceo system would still produce wonderful fascists today if that is what it were asked to do.
But in returning to your question, why is this system not a popular model in the United States? In the end, the short answer is that parents in the US would like the individual needs of their child met as schools work to prepare their students for the world they will enter. And while that sometimes still happens with mixed results, mistakes are most often made in the search for progress, not because US schools refuse to acknowledge anything around them has changed in the last 75 years.

Margherita Rossi's picture
Margherita Rossi
Teacher of Classical Humanities at Lyceum (High School) from Bologna, Italy

Dear Jason,
What can I say? I really appreciate your clarification, even if I stay on my positions. If it states that the Italian school is perched on old and outdated models: it's true. When you underline the paucity of lab teaching, you claim another truth.
Frome here, however, to argue that the our educational model only serves to form automatons, blindly ready to obedience in a totalitarian State, I'm sorry, but it's a statement forced and almost offensive.
I don't know what kind of experience you've had here in Italy: obviously bad. And I'm sorry for this.
I don't want to proselytize and I don't claim to be right: but the critical spirit is one of the fundamental objectives of our school. And if there are legions of teachers belonging to the Jurassic era, offering an educational model is no longer anchored to reality, please: give me credit when I say that there are also many young, motivated teachers, who are trying to attach to the present their students, even proposing programs and seemingly distant subjects.
I will not expire in rhetoric, but it's really inconceivable to speak of democracy, today, through the Greek history? It's, in your opinion, sterile to talk about civil commitment, today, through ancient and contemporaries texts that deal with the same themes?
It's totally unnecessary to provide our kids a thick cultural baggage?
Finally: it's so utopian the idea of preparing for the future through the Humanities?
Even here too school focuses not only on knowledge, but on knowing how to do. Fine. In my opinion, however, theory and praxis must proceed in parallel. You can learn to do many things. But if you don't know why and for what purpose those things are done, you risk the loss. Knowledge is power (ipsa scientia potestas est) said someone some centuries ago. This is the interpretation that I proposed in the article: a youth holding a solid foundation, able to think, ready for the challenges of the future.
I don't pretend to be right. I ask you, at the same time, not to "label" all of us, guilty to be "Italian", defining our education as a fascist school.
I understand that the image of Italy abroad is mean-spirited, narrow-minded and too provincial. But, at least, give us the pride of owning a historical-cultural legacy that we cannot ignore and from which I believe we can be drawn the courage and the strength necessary to transform and to enhance our country and our school.

Jason's picture

On the contrary, Margherita -

I loved my time in Italy and that has nothing to do with how backward the educational system is there.

I noticed that you concede an outdated model and lack of practical experiments without addressing the true, underlying problem: your schools are not fascist factories because of the inundation of rhetoric but rather because everyone is told exactly what they are and are not able to do from an extraordinarily early age. Without the hint of understanding why a student may struggle in a purely lecture format, students are pushed toward a track that will exclude them from ever attending university before they enter high school.

Much more disturbing to me is that you believe this system of exclusion is at all suited to teach democracy, whether or not you intend to use Greece as your example. And what about the power of thinking? Do you mean to tell me students are not penalized in your system, in your school, by teachers old and young alike, if they disagree with the perspective that is taught?

What about your class? How many points of view are presented? When was the last time you used a rubric to grade a tema rather than allowing your own perspective to determine whether that dissenting argument earned a 4 or a 5? Yes, you live the idea that knowledge is power, so long as that knowledge conforms to what the teacher has declaimed.

Again, no thank you. But don't take my word for it: the people who were most successful in the liceo system from the last generation are making a different choice for their children today. The are moving abroad to live and work and when they remain, they are choosing schools that offer a different model more and more. Or is there a Latin phrase to explain that as well?

Bruce Smith's picture

Dear Margherita,
I am sorry for the rude sarcasm that your open-minded, inquisitive initial post inspired. While Jason
may well be right that the Italian education system has many weaknesses to which you have readily admitted, it does not follow that there are precisely two education systems in the world from which to choose. As someone interested in bringing a modern lyceum model to the United States, I assert that the top five education systems in the world, which I believe to be, in alphabetical order, those of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Switzerland, all have schools whose design is closer to Italy's liceo than to the U.S. comprehensive high school, and that the Danes, Dutch, and Swiss in particular continue to value the classical lyceum, rather than see it as an outdated relic, for the same reason you do: they value our best inheritance from the past as a part of a well-rounded education for 21st century citizens of the world.

Best wishes,


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