Italiano (Italian) Español (Spanish) English Français (French)



Education - Cinzia Mion

Educating towards citizenship as public ethics

Cinzia Mion


The fact that in Italy there is a serious public ethics deficit does not make the news. Nor does the constant worsening of this deficit, crossing governments, eras, various bribe scandals and so forth engendering, a little bit at a time, the conviction that nothing can be done to contrast this tendency.

Headlines could be dedicated to, if ever, those who still dare to become indignant or to define the need of public ethics. Indeed it has become a revolutionary term under the strong desensitization to the smell of corruption and social injustice, reducing to rarity the individuation of someone claiming this aspect of the Italian people a danger to the country’s democracy.

Headlines could be dedicated to “healing” from this sickness. Edward Banfield, as far back as in the Fifties, had defined it “amoral familism”. It probably begins in school and therefore not inside the family, generally unable to perceive itself in this pathological attitude. The family, if ever, is involved in the project of education to citizenship as public ethics, after teachers have clarified among themselves, after they understand that it is not ethics in general or private morals, issues of which teachers have always considered themselves guardians. After they become conscious that public ethics goes beyond.

We will; therefore, try to analyze the magnitude of the aforementioned deficit, and then we will try to define useful educational solutions to an acceptable awareness of the problem, in order to bring about a hoped for trend inversion.

Deficit indicators

The level of widespread indifference that characterizes interpersonal relationships outside the family, has reached an alarming degree. We could watch a rape or assault on the streets without feeling "called upon" and strongly urged to intervene. We can stay undisturbed by images of the suffering man, tormented by real-time death, which we approach almost as voyeurs, no longer feeling we share the same human and earthly identity, as Edgar.Morin would say.

Regarding the responsibility that each one of us should activate wiath a naked and defenseless other, a concrete and oppressed man, Emmanuel Levinas affirms that "the other’s face beckons me," where the term Beckons with digs inside my bowels with a very strong appeal for a totally archaic solidarity, almost indescribable. For this to happen, however, the category of otherness must exist in the minds and hearts of those beckoned.

Now we should therefore ask ourselves if this category still exists or if it has been dissolved, swept out of our way of life so self-centered and pervaded by a ruling narcissism.

Zygmunt. Bauman states that the weakening of social bonds is functional to the expansion of global powers. It is the main source of their strength, guarantee of their invincibility. It appears to be a kind of "fluidity" that eliminates all barriers, including networks of relationships. This would be the liquid modernity, that kind of side effect that takes hold and makes everything more movable, slippery, elusive.

Underlying all this there seems to be neo-liberal policies of the last twenty years, emphasizing individual freedom at the expense of collectivity, induced an erosion of the social fabric.

But this freedom enslaved by the market and, therefore, the model of unbridled consumerism, supported by the widespread conformism, has the effect of a sense of loss, of collective helplessness, loneliness of the global citizen but, what is even more serious, of political paralysis.
In this bleak and desolate landscape, says Bauman, the man of the West feels more and more scared, a prey to the problem of personal security.
The brash pursuit of personal interests, legitimated at all levels, has taken the place of any thrust of solidarity and care for the common good. Neither is there a mental reflection on this issue.

The concept of common good has recently returned to prominence with the new social contract theory, which occupies a central place in recent political philosophy.

John Rawls, one of the most significant representatives of this movement, states that the purpose of common good is to maximize equality, defining a rational principle of universal justice, distributive justice in the sense of fairness. To achieve this we must reformulate the rules of the game in order to implement non competitive action that is cooperative. It should maximize not only individual good, but also collective good, something different from the simple sum of individual interests.

The concept of common good; furthermore, indicates an integral requirement of an organized community, clearly highlighted in political science: without a minimum consensus on the ultimate values of the community and the rules of coexistence, society is likely to fall apart , finding its only integration through force.

Italian familism

As we said in the beginning, the deficit of public ethics derives from consolidated Italian familism. Antonio Gambino recently defined this particular disease of the Italian “motherly familism", meaning a motherly-familiar mentality, or a psychology that has privileged the mother figure who" looks with suspicion at anything that happens outside."

With this starting point, Gambino identifies the specific defects in the indifference of Italians with regards to the law, cronyism, lacking sense of the state, corruption, the  search of a protector and so on.
Gambino argument’s that the cause of these defects can be found in the history of the Italian people due to the lack of a Protestant revolution in our country and the imposing presence of the papacy. Referring to Max Weber and his analysis on the Catholic issue, the author establishes a kind of perverse relationship "between the Italian mentality and confession, understood as a necessary step for forgiveness" This loophole blocks the growth of a community respecting culture and consolidates the familistic mother point of view that leads to contempt for the res publica.

Beyond the cases analyzed by Gambino, which we may or may not agree with, the fact remains that we have to deal with this mentality and situations it entails. Some speak of necessary "anthropological transformation" to bring about a breakthrough on this front. However, whenever we refer to this process, others curl their lips…

We still believe that a task, as difficult and delicate as educating to citizenship for public ethics should be taught at school.

School and education to citizenship

The school which treads this path must begin to deal with some issues arising from lacking public ethics inside it. The lack that, unfortunately, characterizes the educational institution can be observed in the practice of pretending and the underlying real consideration of cunning. Sometimes it is the school itself which unwittingly transmits this type of behavior. The reference to the practice of copying in the classroom is banal, but it gives the idea of how cheating the teacher is a consolidated habit of which nobody doubts the legitimacy, if anything, the problem is not being discovered. Sometimes it is the teacher himself who pretends not to know his students copy translations from a greek or latin translator ... The issue is not putting the ethic of solidarity and that of fair competition one against the other: in the name of the first; as a matter of fact, you can put in place mutual aid between friends and help out the weaker ones in the name of the second, during the performance evaluation, the rules of solidarity should be suspended, copying means cheating.

It is urgent; therefore, that teachers become aware that school is the first public institution with which a person comes in contact in evolution and that in it there is a kind of imprinting that leaves its mark.

The key factor is the ratio between explicit and implicit communication, between preaching and practice. It is crucial in the correct setting of any ethics, that there be a coincidence between the explicit and implicit codes, otherwise we see the root of hypocrisy and of pretending. The school, for better or for worse, in this sense becomes an unrivaled lab. More than the family where the rules of ethics, unfortunately, often though not always, are volatile and affected by the mood of its members, sometimes rigidly imposed other times laxly forgotten.

Proper education to citizenship, understood as public ethics, and not merely good manners - although these should not be despised in the times we are living in - does not only deal with the issues addressed so far, but also with the very noteworthy concept of social justice.
Keep in mind that school is where we first live the experience of being treated properly or improperly, as holders of rights  that are equal for all. If the school becomes the place in the students’ minds, where injustice is dealt (incurred in directly or by schoolmates) a rejection of institutions and their way of operating begins.
Schools teach rules but we have also seen that by implicitly tolerating cunning and make-believe, they also teach not to follow them.
An important ritual in this regard is assessment. If you do not explain the criteria by which it is applied, it becomes the occasion for beginning to build the idea that public authority is arbitrary, without appeal, but most especially, liable to manipulation with opportunistic behavior of meekness and submission.
These are a prelude to submission not to citizenship!

The public ethic and public goods

The classroom context, organization, cooperative or competitive relations that within it are solicited or inhibited, the whole of practices and diversities, built between students, are a miniature society, educating or dis-educating. This aspect is also part of the consideration given to the concept of common good.
Calling forth the mental category and ethics of common good, becomes especially important and so do the decisive strategies that will be used to make it a normal behavior and attitude.
Learning to ask others and one’s self,  if our actions and demands are affecting or limiting the rights of others or helping to achieve a correct social conscience, should become a habit of the mind.
"Public goods" are available to all classes in schools, such as furniture, subsidies, and since kindergarten we are educated to care for their maximum conservation and utilization, since they are res publica.

Enable a knowledgeable care-taking attention for ourselves, others and the environment, including objects of everyday life, is not at all obvious or trivial. The teachers of kindergarten and primary schools know how hard it is to each this attitude to today's children, who are so used to consuming and using everything with great care-lessness.
Then there are consumer-friendly materials available to everyone. For this to happen, everyone should be enabled to understand that resources are finite, they do not last forever, and as a result of everyone should learn to give something up so that everyone else can have access to it.
Giving something up for others, along with all work-shifting rites, are ways to make it clear that the giving up does not involve any loss since the first is related to having and the second is related to being.
Learning to endure giving something up, understanding it is no loss of self, but a way of finding a stronger and fairer identity, becomes an essential educational goal in a society where owning is a demonstrated value.
Common good is not always a given, but it often has to be built and to do so you have to go through practices that help put one’s personal gain and greed in the background.
As children grow and and go from primary to secondary school it becomes very important teaching them self-reflective and argumentative skills in issues of public ethics.

This is the reason for case studies which may present ethical dilemmas taken from everyday life.

They will become interesting classroom discussions on where the democratic method of exchange of views, will be practiced interactively. They will be able to articulate and support their ideas arguing the pros and cons, while respecting those of others.
The current issues that lend themselves to the democratic game while building an ethical conscience, as described so far, pertain to the relationship between ethics and biology, economics, environment, politics and communication, as well as, the relationship with future generations.

Don’t turn off utopia

Schools cannot be expected to bridge the deficit of public ethics of this country but we can cultivate the utopia of trying to form "virtuous minorities", as Bobbio wished. Virtuous minorities able to promote and defend both public ethics and democracy, which is its end and its condition, with strong, lay values of equality, social justice, solidarity, freedom, peace and tolerance. Those who can appreciate the meaning of citizenship are willing to proudly pay the price for it, in order to avoid subservience and subjugation. He knows how to give up certain privileges and deal with discomfort, if it allows him independence of opinion, critical thinking and the realization of its ideals.

Previous page: Rapports Attigliano  Next page: