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The only problem is that my teachers attached to this truth a heavy layer of motives of social distinction and cultural superiority, like a fog clumsily painted over a beautiful landscape, that came close to ruining everything. My high school teachers were insisting on the educational function of Greek and Latin. They used to say, and I am not joking, that the study of these dead languages could show us the path of moral rectitude. Now I see what they meant: committing to a virtually endless search for knowledge and self-knowledge will probably make of most people a better person, if nothing else, because this path is likely to teach humbleness, which is very close to honesty. I would put it this way, maybe.
But they should have also said that what we were learning at school were particular approaches, not universal paradigms, and if Titian or Seneca did not do it for most of us, this was probably due to our young age and lack of knowledge of the larger context. They could have told us to be patient, because what we were learning would later facilitate our comprehension of possibly countless other cultural repertoires, more or less canonized, dead and living languages, poetic, literary, scientific, pictorial, and musical traditions to choose from. There is dance, ornithology and glassblowing and there is astronomy, Kendo, and gardening.
More importantly, to my mind, they could have explained something to us, just something, of the complex historical and social reasons that make of something a sublime art, and of something else a circus attraction. Why are some gymnasts competing at the Olympics whereas some others perform to the sound of cheap music among clowns? This, just to make an example, could have led to interesting debates about canonization of literature and art. But, believe it or not, most of my high school teachers used to think, theorize actually, that one’s potential as a human being was somehow weaker if one did not feel, at age thirteen or fourteen, a deep connection to a glorified Eurocentric canon of classical culture.
In spite of spending full afternoons studying and collecting an endless series of bad grades, in high school I developed a real passion for Greek tragedies. I remember I read them all, including the parts of the chorus, in that disciplined, rigid, self-imposed, and FOMO-induced way. I loved to read and re-read them and I knew them all: the tragedies, the sequels, the prequels, the spin-offs, and the remakes. I thought that those stories and those characters were the most fascinating universe I had come across in literature.
One day, my professor of ancient Greek questioned me about them. The interrogazione was (still is, as far as I know) the main assessment method in the Italian Liceo classico, every student had to endure it in every subject for a number of times each term. On that particular occasion, I was almost happy to go tell her how much I knew about the tragedies, and how much I had enjoyed reading them. Unfortunately, she started by asking the only question I did not have an answer to: what was the name of the poetic verse in which they were written? I was so eager to go beyond this question that I made up an answer for it, but it was wrong and the Professoressa made me go back to my seat to the sound of everyone’s laughter.
My experiences in and of school are filled with Peppermint Patty episodes. School for me was made of mental fog, frustration, tiredness, and the deluded feeling of being perceived as someone fundamentally honest and hard-working, when in reality all that the teachers and better-adjusted students could see, I suspect, was an aimless and harmless girl who did not know the first thing about the place she was in and what was required of her.
Now that I have frequented the academic world as an undergraduate student, postgraduate student, and Italian instructor for the last fifteen years or so, I can say, in all honesty, that I half despise it. In my experience, in the academic world there are very few people who genuinely care about what they do, what they study, and what they teach. Most people are very much engaged in power games and have retained surprisingly little of all the books they have (supposedly) read. Very few people care about intellectual work beyond social posturing and random bullshit. To me, intellectual work is for the most part just hard work. It is a lifetime spent trying to dissipate a kind of fog, knowing all along that the fog does not attach itself to a clear picture, but is very much part of it.