The Popular University (Unsigned, Avanti, 29 December 1916. (CT, 673-6))
I have in front of me the programme for the Popular University (Universita Populare) for the first period 1916-17. Five courses: three devoted to natural sciences, one to Italian literature, one to philosophy. Six lectures on various subjects: only two have titles giving some guarantee of seriousness. I sometimes wonder why it has not been possible in Turin to develop a solid institution for the popularization of culture, why the Public University has remained the poor thing it is and has been unable to win the public’s attention, respect and love, why it has not succeeded in forming a public of its own.
The answer is not easy, or it is too easy. There are clearly problems with organization and with the criteria which inform the university. The best response should be to do better, to show concretely that it is possible to do better and to gather a public round a cultural heat source, provided it is alive and really gives off heat. In Turin the Public University is a cold flame. It is neither a university, nor popular. Its directors are amateurs in matters of cultural organization. What causes them to act is a mild and insipid spirit of charity, not a live and fecund desire to contribute to the spiritual raising of the multitude through teaching. As in vulgar charitable institutes, they distribute food parcels which fill the stomach, perhaps cause some indigestion, but then leave no trace, bring about no change in people’s lives. The directors of the Public University know that the institution they run has to cater for a specific category of people who have not been able to follow regular studies at school. And that is all. They are not bothered about how this category of people might be drawn most effectively to the world of knowledge. They find a model in the existing cultural institutions: they copy it, they worsen it. They reason something like this: people who attend courses at the Public University are the same age and have the same general background as people who go to the state universities; so let us give them a surrogate of the latter. And they ignore everything else. They do not consider the fact that the state universities are a natural point of arrival of a whole activity of previous work; they do not consider that when a student arrives at university he has passed through the experience of high school and this has disciplined his spirit of research, has bolstered his amateurish impulsiveness with a methodical approach. In other words he has been through a process of becoming, he has been made alert gradually and gently, falling into error and pulling himself up, taking wrong turns and getting back on course. These directors do not understand that bits of knowledge, plucked out from all this previous activity of individual research, are nothing other than dogmas, absolute truths. They do not understand that the Public University, as they run it, is reduced to a form of theological teaching, a new version of the Jesuit schools, where knowledge is presented as something definitive, self-evident and unquestionable. Not even the universities are like this. There is now a common conviction that a truth is fecund only when one has made an effort to master it, that it does not exist in and for itself but has been a conquest of the spirit, and that each individual must reproduce in himself that state of anxiety which the scholar passed through before arriving at it. This is why the truly magisterial teachers give great importance in their teaching to the history of their subject. Taking one’s audience through the series of attempts, efforts and successes through which men had to pass in order to attain the present state of knowledge has far more educational value than a schematic exposition of the knowledge itself. It forms the scholar, it gives his mind that elasticity of methodical doubt which makes an amateur into a serious person, which purifies curiosity (in the popular sense of the word) and turns it into a healthy and fecund stimulus towards ever increasing and more perfect knowledge. The author of these notes speaks partly out of personal experience. The courses he remembers most vividly from when he started at university were those where the lecturer made him feel the active effort of research over the centuries to bring the research method to perfection. In the natural sciences, for instance, we were shown all the effort it cost to liberate the human spirit from prejudices and a priori religious or philosophical notions in order to arrive at the conclusion that sources of water originate from atmospheric precipitations and not from the sea. In philology we saw how the historical method was arrived at through the trials and errors of traditional empiricism and how, for example, the criteria and convictions that guided Francesco De Sanctis in writing his history of Italian literature were nothing other than truths which had emerged through tiring research, truths which liberated the spirit from the sentimental and rhetorical dross that had polluted the study of literature in the past. And so on for the other subjects. This was the most living part of studying: this spirit of re-creation, which enabled encyclopaedic items of information to be assimilated and fused them into a flame burning with a new individual life.
Teaching done in this way becomes an act of liberation. It has the fascination of all vital things. It needs particularly to demonstrate its effectiveness in the Public Universities, whose audiences lack precisely that intellectual preparation one needs in order to arrange the individual items of one’s studies into an organized whole. For them, particularly, what is most effective and interesting is the history of research, the history of this immense epic of the human spirit which slowly, patiently, tenaciously takes possession of truth, conquers truth. How from error one arrives at scientific truth. This is the road that everyone must follow. To show how it has been followed by others is the lesson that produces the best results. And it is, besides, a lesson in modesty, which avoids the formation of those irritating know-it-alls who believe they have plumbed the depths of the universe when their memories are fortunate enough to pigeon-hole a few dates and some random bits of knowledge.
But the Public Universities, like that of Turin, prefer to run useless and unwieldy courses on ‘The Italian Soul in the Art of Literature in Recent Generations’ or give lectures on ‘The European Conflagration as Judged by Vico’, where more care is taken to impress than to teach effectively, and the pretentious little lecturer outstrips the efforts of the modest teacher, who at least knows he is talking to uneducated people.