Let us celebrate Don Lorenzo Milani

The Vatican condemned his book Esperienze pastorali (Pastoral Experiences), and although it did not breach any point of doctrine, it was considered too iconoclastic and was withdrawn from circulation

Milani: “Better to be called crazy than to be an instrument of racialism.”
Milani: “Better to be called crazy than to be an instrument of racialism.”

Last Monday was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Catholic priest Don Lorenzo Milani, who championed the education of children and teenagers who were socially excluded and considered total failures in the mainstream schools they attended (or rather stayed away from). Thanks to Carmel Borg and Mario Cardona the works of Don Lorenzo Milani have been made accessible in Malta.

They should be read carefully, as they are an inspiration for those of us who want to prevent early school leaving and bring down the rate of absenteeism in state secondary schools.

Don Milani died at the young age of 44 of leukemia, but by then he had already left his mark both as a priest and as an educator. He was considered a maverick individualist, as he had the moral courage to push the boundaries in whatever area he committed himself to.

In reviewing the book Don Lorenzo Milani, l-Edukazzjoni u l-Gustizzja Socjali, Dr Carmel Borg, Mario Cardona and Dr Helena Dalli wrote five years ago, "Milani's ideas were considered dangerously radical, and his bishop sent him into a sort of internal exile to a small mountain village north of Florence called Barbiana, thought too remote for him to cause problems. He started a full-time school there for children who had been failed or abandoned by the traditional education system. Eventually, hundreds of pupils of all ages were attracted to his teaching methods. Artists, farmers, scientists, artisans and professionals were invited to give hands-on explanations of their activities. Pupils were also made to read and evaluate national and international news. The aim was to educate them to analyze events critically so as to face life without fear and to solve problems with determination and awareness."

At Barbiana in Tuscany, Don Milani defied clerical and lay opposition and continued his radical educational activities by reaching out to those rejected by the Italian mainstream educational system.

In 1958, he published his first book, Esperienze pastorali (Pastoral Experiences). The Vatican condemned this book, and although it did not breach any point of doctrine, it was considered too iconoclastic and was withdrawn from circulation. He helped to bring about the short spring that the Church lived under the papacy of John XXIII, who tried to renew it through the Vatican Council II.

In 1965, Milani was put on trial for promoting conscientious objection in his Lettera ai cappellani militari (Letter to Military Chaplains). He said that you cannot be Christ's follower and go to war.

While I was working in Partinico, Sicily, as an early-childhood educator in a new educational centre which was experimenting with having male educators in kindergartens (considered the exclusive reserve of women), a Sicilian colleague, Franco Virga, gave me Lettera a una professoressa to read. It was a revelation for me. I liked it so much that I decided to translate it into Maltese, hoping that I would somehow publish it in Malta.

I never did as I lost the manuscript. It must be lying somewhere among my yellow papers in boxes hoarded away.

I was very happy when Borg and Cardona published the Don Milani book in Maltese. To a certain extent Don Milani did not write the book but he did inspire his eight students to write the Letter to a Teacher where they denounced the socially unjust Italian class-based educational system that advantaged the children of the rich over those of the poor.

It has been translated into about 40 languages. It is considered a pedagogical classic and continues to shock and inspire. The eight students spent a year working on the letter in a writing project led by Don Milani.

One of its reviewers calls it "a passionate and eloquent book. Simple and clearly written, with some devastating statistical analysis of the Italian education system, they set out to show the ways in which attitudes towards class, behaviour, language and subject-matter militates against the poor. They describe too, the reforms they propose and the methods they use in their own school - the School of Barbiana, started under the guidance of a parish priest and now run entirely by the children."

Edward Bolishen writes, "this marvel of a book... a masterpiece of protest... an original work of literature... I have read no book on education which has left me so uncomfortably aware of our fellow human beings." New Society wrote, "We in England cannot read this book complacently. It raises fundamental questions which educators everywhere must consider. It hits hard and it hits home."

This is one of my favourite quotes from this book about disruptive students: "This was our first contact with you. Through the boys you don't want.

"We, too, soon found out how much harder it is to run a school with them around. At times the temptation to get rid of them is strong. But if we lose them, school is no longer school. It is a hospital, which tends to the healthy and rejects the sick. It becomes just a device to strengthen the existing differences to a point of no return.

"And are you ready to take such a position? If not, get them back to school, insist, start from scratch all over again, even if you are called crazy.

"Better to be called crazy than to be an instrument of racialism."

On Tuesday in the evening we will be celebrating Don Lorenzo Milani at the Education Ministry.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education