“Attacks on democracy and teachers in Italy”, by David Edwards,

Extreme Right parties, often populist and nationalist, have become stronger than in any time since the Second World War. We have witnessed a return of racist, xenophobic and authoritarian policies and politics on all continents of the world.

In Europe, gains of the far right go from the Nordic countries in the North to Italy and Spain in the South, from the UK in the West to Poland and Hungary in the East. It is likely that their power will be enhanced by the elections to the European Parliament in a few days.

In Europe, extreme right parties are discussing strategies with the help of Steve Bannon the former aide of President Trump. Their work includes very sophisticated use of social media to create false news and fear. If you listen to the rhetoric for the European elections, you would never believe that the numbers of refugees and migrants entering the EU have been drastically reduced. To an unprecedented degree, in political discourse and “discussion”, perception, much of it fabricated, has replaced reality.

We have seen alt-right parties calling on students to report on what teachers say and teach in the classroom in Germany, the Netherlands, and Brazil. A recent incident in Italy further demonstrates that education and educators are not accidental victims of these attacks on democracy.

Last week, Rosa Maria Dell’Aria, a teacher in a technical institute was suspended for fifteen days, on half salary, following an inspection unleashed by a post published on Twitter by an extreme right activist, then relaunched by the Northern League under-secretary of Cultural Heritage, Lucia Borgonzoni.

The reason given for the suspension was not having supervised the work of some of her students, who in a video presentation to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, compared the racial laws under fascist rule with Minister Salvini's (Minister of Interior and Vice Prime Minister, leader of the Northern League) security decree. Although it may be coincidental, after the suspension, the Italian police force charged with sensitive cases such as terrorism and organized crime entered the school. 

In an interview, as reported by the Guardian, when asked for her reaction, the 63-year old Dell’Aria said, “I am embittered. I am not talking about the economic damage, or the days of suspension, but about the moral and professional damage after a whole life dedicated to the school and the kids.”

Teacher unions have supported Dell’Aria and have demonstrated with students and with the larger public. Several leading politicians have supported her. All the EI member organisations have done so as well. For example, in an article in the “Huff Post” (17 May 2019), Francesco Sinopoli, General Secretary of the Italian education union Federazione Lavoratori della Conoscenza (FLC-CGIL) wrote a solidarity message to the suspended teacher stressing that, with the disciplinary measure taken against her,  the entire Italian school system had been punished affecting  ‘its freedom to educate and instruct, its freedom of thought, and its ability to teach the reality of the world. The message is clear, and we will fight it – together.”

On 21 May, at 11:00, a “teacher pride” event was organised with the support of teacher unions, in which teachers read to their classes Articles 21 and 33 of the Constitution. The Constitution established the Republican principles of the state following the fall of fascism. Teachers also affirmed the role of the teaching profession as not being one of surveillance  or censorship of students, but rather of provoking thought and discussion.  

In Europe and beyond, Extreme Right approaches and methods are beginning to become remarkably similar in content and some “delivery systems” are developed together. Government authorities in many European countries as well as US intelligence services and Special Counsel Robert Mueller have all exposed the operations established by the Russian government to manipulate social media. A recent article in the “New York Times” shows how those same facilities are being used by far-right groups in ways that are increasingly difficult to track.

In the US and in some European countries, attempts have been made to stifle free speech in universities. In Italy, thousands of demonstrators tried to prevent the Mayor of Riace in Sapienza University in Rome from speaking about inclusion and solidarity. He was finally escorted, safely, into the university by students.

As is happening in many other countries, social media is the principal and privileged vehicle to spread disinformation. Millions of people believe falsehoods because they have read them. This produces or affects coverage in the media and can serve as a quiet or largely hidden way for parties, political leaders or even governments to manipulate public opinion.

Such social media “campaigns” seem to have influenced a decision by the Italian government that parents can exclude their children from participation in extra-curricular activities if they do not approve gender-related content.  

Another education issue of wide concern, including in Italy, is the teaching of history. The final test for history was eliminated for secondary schools. This has led to a larger concern in political and education circles about a de-emphasis on history. Those objecting to changes include the Senator and Holocaust survivor, Liliana Segre.

The conflicts in Italy show that teachers, whether they like it or not, are on the front lines of the struggle for democracy. However, they also demonstrate that, when authoritarians visibly and crudely display their views and their bigotry, there is a public reaction. The fact that there is a strong rejection of these abuses in Italy and in some other countries provides hope for the future of our societies and of our democracies. 


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David Edwards

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International.

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