Italian students dither over whether to waffle

School-leavers in Italy are being told to stick to the facts in their exams. Traditionalists don't like it, writes Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online
ITALIAN students sitting their school-leaving exams have had more than usual justification to be nervous this year. Not only have they had to face the notorious general paper - a six-hour essay-writing ordeal that has barely changed since the Fascist period - they have also been wrestling with some disconcertingly unfamiliar advice.

Keep your essays concise, say their teachers, the education ministry and a clutch of leading pedagogues. Stick to the point, make your arguments logical and present them clearly.

To anyone brought up in an Anglo-Saxon education system, that might sound like plain common sense, but in Italy it is little short of revolutionary. This is a country where rhetoric has held sway since the halcyon days of the Roman Empire, where style has always been valued over substance, where elegant formulations of nothing in particular have always been given greater credit than adherence to anything as vulgar as hard fact.

And what is true of Italy in general is especially true of an education system where students have traditionally learned to waffle in much the same vacuous fashion as their teachers holding forth in the classroom. No aspect of the education system has been guiltier of this sin than the general paper of the maturita, the Italian equivalent of A-levels. The fact that the questions are so broad and so unexpected virtually forces a waffly answer, since there is no way the average student can be expected to be familiar with the subject at hand.

No more, it would seem. Last year, Italy's centre-left government passed a law changing the whole structure of the maturita and specifying that the whole final year's course work should be marked by a "concise approach to subjects" and an emphasis on practical and professional topics. And that is just the beginning. Starting next year, the dreaded general paper will no longer be mandatory, but will be one option among many that will also include poetry and short-story writing.

"At last, the desire for modernity expressed by the movement of 1968 will reach fruition," is the confident prediction of educationalists and the education minister himself, Luigi Berlinguer. But the dilemma for the poor student remains: does the new law really augur a new era of straightforwardness, or will teachers and examiners - despite what they say in public - continue to expect writing replete with flattery, circumlocution and the rest? In short, to waffle or not to waffle? As recently as last year, maturita students had to grapple with essay questions that virtually begged fluffy answers, such as: "Italy is the country of a hundred cities and a thousand landscapes. Describe the emotions aroused in you by one particular stretch of landscape in your or any other region of Italy, highlighting its dominant formal characteristics and also the cultural and affective reasons that make it so uniquely significant."

In the Italian tradition, arguing a case is not only discouraged, it is frowned upon as an intemperate failure by students to understand their modest place in the pantheon of learning. Literary authors are to be revered, not engaged with. Learning is still largely by rote. Phrases that would lose a student marks in an Anglo-Saxon environment because they would be considered fatuous and irrelevant ("We can see from this passage that Jane Austen is one of the great English writers of the 19th century") are considered de rigueur.

High-school students who come to Italy after years abroad suddenly find themselves being awarded mediocre grades, if not being failed outright, because they have the temerity to attack their subjects head-on rather than blather in a roundabout way.

So how has the new-look general paper performed? This year's exam, which students sat on Wednesday, certainly won points for specificity: one question on medical ethics and another on Italian politics in the run-up to the First World War; only a very vague question on 19th-century Italian literature recalled the general papers of old.

The fear, though, is that the new exam will merely encourage a different kind of waffle. "Keep it banal, and you'll be okay," was the acid reaction of the author Carlo Fruttero. "Just repeat the commonplaces you've heard a thousand times on television."

Fruttero, who said he would have answered the vague literature question, is one of a multitude of old school intellectuals who have been brought up in the tradition of high-brow rhetoric and see no reason to abandon it. These are the people for whom the "modern" era means the High Renaissance, and who consider subjects such as medical ethics an abominable vulgarity because they get discussed in newspapers and on TV.

The students themselves think differently, to judge by the vast majority who opted for the ethics question - encouraged, no doubt, by the recent debate over a "miracle" cancer cure developed by an 85-year-old doctor from Modena that is now being tested, under the sheer weight of public opinion, at state expense around the country.

The exam itself was not immune from imprecision and waffle, though. The history question asked students to pay particular attention to the actions of the Giolitti government in the run-up to the Great War. As it turns out, the liberal leader Giovanni Giolitti was out of office and out of government when war broke out. The Prime Minister of the time was not Giolitti, but Antonio Salandra. "Proof," commented one Roman radio station, "that this is still a country full of wonders and endless surprises, where even issues of great seriousness turn out to be no more than vaudeville farce".