Great Educator: Don Lorenzo Milani 1923 to 1967
Don Lorenzo Milani was an educator of the poor who developed methods of critical pedagogy and an advocate of conscientious objection. He is credited with contributing to critical citizenship which holds relevance today for the health of every open democratic society and his utilization of language as a vehicle to transmit his philosophy.
Milani was born in Florence in 1923 to a well off middle-class family. Milani‟s father was a University professor, his grandfather an archaeologist of repute and his great grandfather an internationally renowned philologist.
In June 1943 Milani converted to Roman Catholicism after studying at the Brera Academy, a state-run tertiary public academy of fine arts in Milan. He was ordained as a priest in 1947 and sent to assist Don Daniele Pugi who was a parish priest in San Donato in Calenzano, a town near Florence.
It was here he set up his first “school of the people” (scuola popolare) which was open to children from all backgrounds – whether religious or not, and a night school for the working people. This aggravated the conservative Catholic circles, and after Don Pugi’s death in 1954, Milani was exiled at Barbiana, a small, remote village in the Mugello region of Italy.
As an educationist, Milani was a firm believer in the importance of learning how to use words effectively: “Have something important to say, something useful to everyone or at least to many. Know for whom you are writing. Gather all useful materials. Find a logical pattern with which to develop the theme. Eliminate every useless word. Eliminate every word not used in the spoken language. Never set time Limits.”
His approach to education centres around social justice and focuses on a number of issues, including problems of social class, race issues (especially with his critique of North-South relations and cultural/technological transfer), the collective dimension of learning and action (emphasis is placed on reading and writing the word and the world collectively), student-teachers and teacher-students (a form of peer tutoring) reading and responding critically to the media (newspapers), the existential basis of one’s learning (from the occasional to the profound motive) and the fusion of academic and technical knowledge.
[Social Class, Language and Power ‘Letter to a Teacher’: Lorenzo Milani and the School of Barbiana, Carmel Borg Faculty of Education, University of Malta, Malta Mario Cardona Moray House School of Education, The University of Edinburgh, UK and Sandro Caruana Faculty of Education, University of Malta, Malta]
He founded the school of Barbiana. The school soon attracted people to the classes who found the knowledge exchange tailored to their needs by a man who provided encouragement and inspiration to pursue their own interests and move deeper into their own self directed studies.
Lorenzo’s social observations fuelled a critical approach, as he discovered that most of the children had either failed their exams and left school, or had experienced a negative and discouraging encounter with education. Most of the children had either failed their exams and left school or were treated negatively with the way they were taught.
He gathered together about ten boys between the ages of eleven and thirteen year old, and created for them a full timetable of eight hours’ work for six or seven days a week. Later, the group increased in size to twenty. The older children would give over a significant proportion of time to teaching the younger.
Over time, many people of all ages were attracted to his teaching methods. Various people in the community were asked to give accounts of their skills and trades accompanying demonstrations of their vernacular crafts. This included a range from farmers to artists, valuing science and mechanics through the voices of practitioners.
He used the national media as a scaffolding for teaching, getting pupils to analyse stories in the newspapers and offer their own takes on things. He saw this as preparing them with the tools needed to face life without fear, seeing problems as opportunities that could be grabbed with determination rather than deadends.
Study and understanding took the focus of problems which affected people directly, structuring learning around what was relevant to the children and individuals he worked with. In 1958, he published Pastoral Experiences (Esperienze pastorali). In the same year the Holy Office ordered its withdrawal although it held no errors of doctrine; the reason which they provided was that it was seen as “inopportune”. Displaying his conviction for challenging social justice issues Milani was put on trial in 1965 for advocating conscientious objection in his “Letter to Military Chaplains” (“Lettera ai cappellani militari”):
“I had to teach my pupils well how a citizen reacts to injustice. How he has freedom of speech and of the press. How a Christian reacts also to the priest and even the bishop who errs. How each one has to feel responsible for everyone else.”
Working with his pupils, Milani wrote ‘Letter to a Teacher’ (Lettera a una professoressa) using a “group writing” method. Again taking the structure of problem based education, it denounced the inequalities of a class-based educational system which advantaged the children of the rich over those of the poor.
Translated into about forty languages, Letter to a Teacher is a pedagogical classic that continues to shock and inspire. It was composed by eight boys from the school of Barbiana, according to the, in a year-long project coordinated by Milani.
The book starts: “This book is not written for teachers, but for parents. It is a call for them to organize. At first sight it seems written by one boy alone. Actually we, the authors, are eight boys from the school of Barbiana. Other schoolmates, who are now at work, helped us on Sundays…”
In 1967 Don Lorenzo Milani died in the summer shortly after the publication of ‘Letter to a Teacher’, and the school at Barbiana passed with him. The social legacy which he has left behind him features distinctly in critical pedagogy, and although less well known than many figures, nevertheless holds an important position in the history of open education.