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Minister orders the speed-up of history

David Newbold reports on the decree to bring the 20th century into the classroom. ITALY.

The study of 20th-century history is to be made compulsory in all Italy's schools from 1997 as a result of a decree issued by education minister Luigi Berlinguer.

In theory, contemporary history (until the foundation of the Italian republic in 1948) should be studied in the last year of upper school. But most teachers fall way behind with a syllabus intended to take their pupils from prehistory at age 15 to the 20th century at age 19.

Since teaching of most subjects effectively stops half-way through the final year for exam preparation, the modern age is currently sacrificed twice over.

The new decree will make the 20th century a compulsory subject of study for the final year of all school cycles - primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary.

School councils and teachers are invited to identify themes of particular interest, which can also take into account aspects of local history, and a directive issued with the decree makes provision for a training programme for teachers who will be taking final year history classes next year.

Part of the problem of the history syllabus has always been the lack of continuity between schools.

In an unconscious tribute to the cyclical vision of history propounded in the eighteenth century by Giambattista Vico in La Scienza Nuova, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools all make fresh starts.

The result is that by the end of their school career pupils may have done the Greeks and Romans to death but had only a fleeting stab at the moderns. But the events of the past few years have led to a public debate on the role of history teaching.

The devastating effects on the old political order caused by the Milan corruption trials have left ordinary Italians bewildered about the country they are living in. Most of them believe that the First Republic, dominated for almost 50 years by the Christian Democratic party, is at an end. But the Second Republic, with a rewritten constitution, has yet to emerge.

It is in this context that the need to bring recent Italian history into the classroom has made itself felt. The new decree talks of the "educational and cultural necessity" of dealing with recent historical and political events in the classroom, and it has been greeted with a chorus of approval by historians.

The fear of a hidden political curriculum, through an imposed version of recent history, is disdainfully rejected by Mr Berlinguer, a former communist and the first education minister from the left.

The minister may have made a popular move but he cannot claim the idea as his brainchild.

Five years ago an experimental curriculum was drawn up by a team headed by the then junior education minister Beniamino Brocca.

The last two years of the history programme were devoted exclusively to the present century, with the final year dealing with the postwar world.

Since its publication in 1992, schools have been free to adopt the curriculum, or parts of it, if they wish, but so far there have been few takers for history.

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