In many ways, the idea of ‘youth’ embodied the fascist vision, the classic characteristics of this group not only symbolically parallel the new vision for the country but also as a physically important demographic. Across many cultures, youth is associated with beginnings, optimism, strength, and energy(McLean, 2018). The fascist regime latched on to these characteristics, portraying their national fascist project as a “‘magnificent adolescent’ who heralded the resurrection of Italy’s innate strength and dominance in the world” (McLean, 2018). This paper will explore one area of youth policy; educational reform in fascist Italy. This will be discussed in the context of the educational policy on the peninsula and abroad, and will ultimately seek to understand what educational policy reveals about fascist values and beliefs.
Education was the first major fascist reform. In 1923, a year after the start of the fascist rule of Italy, the whole state education system was reformed and centralized (Foss, 1997). The 1923 reform was referred to as the Gentile Reform. It echoed educational trends in other Western nations, including the introduction of pedagogical principles such as the supremacy of the collective over the individual, of the spiritual over the tangible, and of action over passivity. In this first wave of reforms, there was also the introduction of lessons that reinforced the existence of an Italian race and nation (McLean, 2018). The Western pedagogical principles introduced in the relatively modest Gentile reforms established an important precedent for the fascist regime to introduce more comprehensive educational reforms a couple years later.
An important change in the extent of government power over schools occurred in January 1927. A governmental decree was announced which declared that schools, colleges, and universities whose teachings were “disrespectful” of the nation, and therefore the fascist regime, would be abolished (Abad, 1932). Two years later, in 1927, it was mandated that all elementary schools were to use the same textbooks (Foss, 1997). Between 1927 and 1934 elementary education was shifted from “a largely Western-inspired system to a truly Fascist, totalitarian way of life” (McLean).
A set of standardized textbooks by grade level were distributed throughout the country, the dominant idea of all of these being the greatness of Italy, a land blessed by God. These books embedded fascist values into all subject areas. For example, a math textbook used as an example problem, the fascist achievements in wheat production (Abad, 1932). Likewise, readers for young students might have told stories of fascist heroes, or tales praising the greatness of Italy. In addition to the greatness of Italy, authority, obedience, and discipline were central pillars of the fascist value system imparted through the standardized curriculum. School taught that having as many children as possible was the ultimate patriotic duty for female students. While for male students, their predestined vocation was to become a soldier. The very structure of school life reflected these values, as C.H. Abad affirms in his 1932 article, “Fascist Education in Italy.”
“School life accentuates the lessons of the textbooks. The elementary school must emphasize the spiritual unity of the nation, and teachers are supposed to arouse and strengthen national consciousness in the children…. Frequent complaints by the teachers that so much time is occupied with fêtes and parades that completion of the annual curriculum is difficult.”
For the fascist regime, the school was not purely an intellectual space, but rather an opportunity to monopolize the time and minds of the youth, all part of a strategy to maintain power.
Fascist educational reform was not limited to the Italian peninsula. The educational policies implemented in the Ethiopian colony further reflect the values of Mussolini’s regime. On July 24th, 1936 an educational ordinance was issued that established the principles of fascist educational principles in Ethiopia. The first article of this ordinance created a system made up of two types of schools; Italian schools and schools for colonial subjects (Pankhurst, 1992). This separation established and reinforced a “dominant” and a “subjected” race, the basis of the fascist empire-building structure, and had overt racist ideology deeply embedded (Pankhurst, 1992).
The Italian schools were very similar to those in the homeland, they used the same materials(discussed above) and followed the same curriculum. The “native” schools were similar in that they also tried to instill in the students a sense of loyalty to the fascist regime. However, this attempt to inspire loyalty went much further, seeking to transform the whole moral and social beliefs and practices of the Ethiopians. Unlike the Italian schools, the “native” schools had a large focus on rudimentary and menial tasks, as well as on hygiene. The focus on hygiene stemmed from the underlying racist belief that the local population was dirty and at risk of “contaminating the Italians that resided among them” (Pankhurst, 1992).
The extent to which propaganda and fascist ideals were entrenched into education and controlled private life naturally leads to the question of how, then, was fascism able to collapse so quickly? In his article, “Teaching Fascism: School Books of Mussolini’s Italy,” Clive Foss points to two possible explanations for this phenomenon. First, the failure to monopolize loyalty. Loyalty was emphasized in schools, loyalties to the nation, the church, and family were all deemed as incredibly important to the social structure. Most important was family, “family life and mother love were central to the life of the society portrayed in all these texts. No matter what the regime said or threatened, there was still a refuge at home, and possibly greater confidence in the values of the family than in those of the state” (Foss, 1997). The other answer which Foss suggests as to why fascism was able to crumble so quickly has to do with the social organization of fascist Italy more generally. Foss claims that Italian society suffered from “stagnation and boredom” during the regime. Corruption and strict social conventions meant that there were limited opportunities for social mobility, especially for those who did not find success within the education system. Because of the perceived gap between the reality people lived and the boisterous claims of the regime, people were all too ready to abandon fascism by 1941 (Foss, 1997).
In Ethiopia, many shortcomings of the education scheme were exposed after 1940. Just as in Italy, it became clear that, despite the emphasis on military qualities and obedience in school, the local populations’ loyalties were superficial at best (Pankhurst, 1972). Further, the racial division in the education system was detrimental to Ethiopian society in the long run. Under the fascist policy, only “Italians” were given the opportunity to pursue more complete education and develop professional skills, ultimately trying “to develop the empire with Italian skilled labor alone” (Pankhurst, 1972). The collapse of fascist power left Ethiopia without a skilled workforce, as a society, unequip to tackle the process of independence.
Despite its conservative beginnings, education reform was a prized part of fascist policy in Mussolini’s Italy. A centralized education system was developed. A comprehensive pedagogical approach was developed, which treated the student as a future soldier, imposed fascist ideas throughout all areas of learning, and had no space for alternative narratives. The idea that the “duce” is always right was a pillar of this new system, a system where loyalty, discipline, and obedience were of utmost importance. Yet, despite this exhaustive model, fascism fell quickly. While the explanations offered in this paper point to the failure to monopolize loyalties and the gap between government rhetoric and the citizen’s reality, this is a question that necessitates more research. The exploration of this question provides insight into the role of education in society more broadly.
Abad, C. H. “Fascist Education in Italy.” Current History (1916-1940) 36, no. 4 (1932): 433–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45334082.
Foss, Clive. “Teaching fascism: Schoolbooks of Mussolini’s Italy.” Harvard Library Bulletin 8, no. 1 (1997): 3-30. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/42665575.
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McLean, Eden K. “Designing a Fascist Elementary Education.” In Mussolini’s Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy, 23–50. University of Nebraska Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv19x4pm.7.
McLean, Eden K. “Conclusion.” In Mussolini’s Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy, 223–32. University of Nebraska Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv19x4pm.16.
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