by Lorenzo Bernasconi

Why is the Rossignoli case so controversial?

The unusual story of Carlotta Rossignoli, who graduated from San Raffaele University in Milan at the age of 23 with a degree in medicine, has divided Italian public opinion.

The media initially magnified the exploits of the wunderkind student, which even earned her an award from President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, raising her as a model of commitment and ambition. However, in the span of a few days, several commentators began to point out some apparent inconsistencies in the public narrative of the young woman's university career; inconsistencies that led more than one to speculate that the girl had taken advantage of undue "discounts" on compulsory attendance and/or internship hours, or even that she had received favorable treatment in the examination. Speculation apparently corroborated by the lifestyle (frequent travels and a semi-professional modeling activity) that emerges from the girl's socials: the question as to where the newly graduated Veronese has found the time to do everything - and always excelling - seems, in short, at least legitimate.

This, however, is not the crux of the matter: let's admit that there was no favoritism, in school or university, toward Rossignoli. The real question is, in my opinion, why the leading national newspapers chose to put up as a model a girl who claims to have zeroed out her social and emotional life so as not to take time away from the pursuit of scholastic-professional success. Rossignoli, moreover, candidly admits that she gets very little sleep, as she considers sleep a mere waste of time: but shouldn't a medical doctor know the fundamental role of night's rest for the psychophysical balance of the human being? It would then be interesting to understand why a significant share of public opinion defends the young Veronese woman to the hilt against any criticism, even benevolent one, branding anyone who dares to subject to critical scrutiny the "mythology of excellence" that the media sews on her as envious and an apologist for mediocrity.

Predestination, knowledge and success: the Calvinist approach to education

The origin of such an attitude by the media - from which public opinion has since borrowed it - I believe can be traced to the progressive but unrelenting spread, in Italy, of an approach to knowledge typical of the English-speaking world and traceable, eventually, to the peculiar relationship between man, the world and God that characterizes the various declinations of that Protestantism with which English-speaking culture is steeped.

In the Protestant view, in fact, success (economic, social, professional) is in essence a manifestation of God's benevolent gaze on the one who achieves it. And, mind you, the reverse is also true: poverty, failures, become tangible signs of a distance from the Almighty: failure on the economic and social level, therefore, here also takes on a moral significance, marking the unworthiness of a person in God's eyes. From such premises there has developed over the centuries, as is logical, a particular predilection for those forms of knowledge and content that are of immediate applicability in the world and that, above all, are useful - in a given historical period and in a given social context - to guarantee prestige and wealth to those who approach them.

Over time, this approach has gradually led to the establishment, in the collective consciousness of English-speaking peoples, of the idea of a hierarchy of knowledge based on the sole criterion of potential "profitability," eventually disavowing knowledge as a value in itself. The idea that has prevailed, we might say, is that "litterae" have value only to the extent that they "dant panem," otherwise they represent a waste of time and energy.

The school of testing and performance

But how do you structure a school and university system based on such premises?

Now, it is certainly possible, and even quite easy, to identify a priori certain fields of study that in a given era are more likely - from a statistical point of view - to lead into well-paid careers, and other fields that are less so, and thus to rank the various fields of knowledge on the basis of that criterion. When it comes, however, to figuring out which students - within the same pathway - are profiting most from their studies, that is, which students will have the best chance of establishing themselves in the workplace, things get quite complicated. For how is it possible to estimate a student's greater or lesser future economic performance if years will pass before he or she can actually be tested in the field?

Historically, the analogy has been chosen, postulating - albeit with a fair amount of arbitrariness - that the student who can perform best on a written test or in front of an examination board will also, tomorrow, perform best on the job and thus become the most successful professional. This is the origin, for example, of the American school and university system's obsession with tests: lots of them, frequent and as much as possible focused on closed-ended questions, because what counts is what can be measured, quantified, added and subtracted. Comprehensive understanding of phenomena and complexity, which is difficult to weigh with a slingbar, is put before the ability to apply knowledge of perhaps more limited scope, but with clear and rapid "expendability," to concrete cases.

Culture as human development

This approach, which is now catching on even in a Europe unable to break free from cultural subservience to the English-speaking world, fits well with the dogmas of neoliberal globalism; if, in fact, every culture is equivalent to every other, there are no objective values, no human nature deserving of respect, and - with the exception of the free market and capitalism, which do not tolerate questioning - everything is mere social convention regulated by the more or less spontaneous consensus of public opinion, then the only forms of knowledge actually deserving of attention will be those immediately translatable into a profit-generating activity. The point is that studying Cicero, rather than the Iliad or the Punic Wars, makes sense to the extent that we recognize in those texts and events an objective value, one that contributes, namely, to making us sharper in interpreting the world around us, more aware of what we are as human beings and of our relationship with the cosmos; in essence, it makes sense if we believe that culture serves to further the development of our humanity, even before it serves to inflate our bank account.

La dimensione profonda dell'immigrazione che l'Europa non capisce ma subisce

If this precondition falls, then those who extol Rossignoli's feat, which, in terms of performance, has undoubtedly achieved an extraordinary result, are right. If, on the other hand, we reason from a perspective that sees culture as a value in itself and as a fundamental tool of individual empowerment, are we really sure that burning time is the best choice? That it is wise to memorize a large amount of content in a short time, without having a chance to metabolize it gradually? That giving up all that world of encounters, friendships, and shared experiences that is the natural complement of a university course (and also allows for healthy debate among peers, fostering the development of critical skills and training in cooperation) really represents the high road to making the best of a course of study?

Selective education - but not by wealth

Another aspect largely ignored by the proponents of the "Rossignoli model" concerns the socioeconomic background of the Veronese student, who comes from a particularly wealthy family, as well as being very lavish in investing in her daughter. As often mentioned in this blog, wealth is not a bad thing and it would, if anything, be a mistake not to take advantage of it, having the opportunity, to invest in one's education: however, it is undeniable that a student's family background plays an important role in favoring or hindering his or her academic success. Those who, like the young MA, have been fortunate enough to be born into a family able to cover the costs of private schools, language and music courses, study vacations, etc., are objectively at an advantage over those who do not have the same opportunities and perhaps find themselves having to work to pay for their studies.

This is not meant to question the commitment, intelligence and merit of a girl who achieved particularly brilliant results by graduating with top marks and in the shortest possible time; more simply, it is meant to remind us that stories should be told in full. Mythicizing figures like Rossignoli's, omitting aspects that would make the story less surprising and "newsworthy," but which are crucial to be able to objectively compare her path with that of her peers, risks inducing frustration and a sense of inadequacy in many students whose performance is not equal to that of the young Veronese girl, but who may not even have the same resources.

This is not, let me be clear, to praise some form of "aurea mediocritas" as opposed to individual excellence, nor to question the fact that schools should select and "discriminate" on the basis of skill levels. On the contrary, in my opinion, one of the main limitations of the Italian school consists precisely in having given up on being selective: the ideology of compulsory education for all - even for those who would like to be anywhere but among the desks - until almost the age of majority has contributed to leveling the quality of teaching downward, because if the idea is that one must at any cost allow everyone to keep up, inevitably the entire class will have to settle into the rhythm of the slowest and most listless.

However, I find it essential to understand on what criteria the selection should be based: whether on an aseptic calculation of the average mnemonic-calculatory performance of each student, or on an overall assessment of the level of cultural growth a student has achieved. Option, the latter, which certainly requires greater commitment, as well as a certain esprit de finesse, on the teacher's part, and which undoubtedly presents an ineradicable margin of discretion (and thus, potentially, of arbitrariness) such as to turn up the noses of purists of objective judgment.

Nonetheless, I believe that, with good grace from U.S. universities and their Italian imitations, only a model of education and assessment centered on the human and cultural growth of the student is capable of grasping and enhancing the enormous complexity of the human mind and its modes of learning. Contests over peak performance, on the other hand, we could safely leave to supercars and microprocessors.

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Research Fellow at the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies, formerly worked as a consultant at European Parliament, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Chamber of Deputies and Ministry of Economic Development. M.A. in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan.