The Italian Licio Classico: Education from the Heart of the Classical World

By Giulia Bertagnolio, guest blogger

Aristotle had a school where he used to teach philosophy in a small village near Athens called Liceo, which explains the origin of the Italian word for a certain kind of secondary school. In Italy, liceo classico – a classical studies high school – has existed since Napoleon, 1796, even though some schools had been teaching Greek and Latin before he reformed the school system.

In 1923, G. Gentile proposed a law to reform the liceo, which became a school aiming to shape students’ way of thinking and educate them in the humanities, including Latin and ancient Greek. It was an elite school that trained students to reach the most highly paid and important professions (surgeons, politicians, lawyers). After five years of liceo classico, students could enroll in any university, while other licei did not give the same opportunity. Other reforms followed and more subjects were introduced. For example, philosophy turned into a core subject. Classico was structured almost as it is today (some schedules might differ slightly, depending on the school): the first two years are called gymnasium and the last three are called liceo. Students learn grammar rules within the three languages: Italian, Greek and Latin; they learn how to translate texts from the classics (versioni), which is the foundation of the classical method.

After 1969, access to any kind of university was made free to students who completed high school, regardless of the type of secondary education the student had received. This caused liceo classico a loss of prestige and importance. However,  if you want a rigorous education nowadays, liceo might be the right choice. It is considered that Latin and ancient Greek help develop the brain’s ability to reason and to interpret history, from its ancient roots in Greece, from the spread of writing and through all the ages in which Latin was used as a lingua franca in Europe. These two languages’ grammar systems and vocabulary increase students’ logical abilities and creative skills and allow them to learn about old populations and their literature, for example, epic poems such as Homer’s The Odyssey, and great  Italian poems like Dante’s Divina Commedia and many other works of art. Students who attend liceo classico face a weekly curriculum of 21 hours of History, History of Art, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Italian out of a 27-31 hour weekly schedule. This is a large amount of hours dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of those subjects: students translate classic texts, learn to recite poems, learn to read ancient languages that represent the basis of our European culture and origins.

Liceo classico is the only high school where ancient Greek is taught and where Greek authors (historians, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights) are studied. This distinguishes it from every other high school here in Italy. This does not necessarily mean that it is a better school, though it is a high level preparation and the effort required often discourages students, who end up choosing other schools.

As for my experience, I attended Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico in Torino, Italy, from 1992 to 1997. This liceo is a rather famous one in my city; Italian poet Cesare Pavese and book publisher Giulio Einaudi studied there. My time at liceo was very happy, despite the amount of time I spent studying. I loved ancient Greek and its free way of writing and I really fell for the Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and their exploration of the human condition at the very beginning of western civilization. I did not always appreciate the long tests, unexpectedly challenging pop quizzes or scary teachers (there were some…) but I can say now, more than 20 years later, that it was worth it.

Giulia Bertagnolio is an English teacher at “IPIA Plana” vocational school, Torino, Italy. She has been teaching ESL in secondary schools since 2004: she has worked in adult education, night school, liceo linguistico and liceo artistico. Giulia has taught English language and literature for eight years in a linguistic school because of her love for the language and the classics.

The first aim of Giulia’s teaching is the relationship with her students; her teaching degree thesis was centered on this very topic. She loves researching and practicing action-research in her classes. She loves reading books to her two daughters and adores the cinema.

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