Lorenzo Milani, The School of Barbiana and the Struggle for Social Justice

by Federico Batini (Author) Peter Mayo (Author) Alessio Surian (Author)
©2014 Textbook X, 127 Pages
Series: Education and Struggle, Volume 1


This book sheds light on the work of one of the 20th century’s foremost critical educators, the Italian Lorenzo Milani (1923–1967), on the 90th anniversary of his birth. It provides an exposition and critical analysis of the ideas contained in his writings, ideas that emerged from his experiences in two Tuscan localities. The work of Milani and the School of Barbiana that he directed provide signposts for a critically and sociologically engaged pedagogy. Important themes include education and class politics; education and imperialism; education and the culture of militarization; the collective dimensions of learning and writing; peer tutoring; critical media literacy; and reading history against the grain. These ideas are analyzed with reference to similar and contrasting ideas by other international educators, scholars and thinkers. As the book argues, Milani’s oeuvre contains important ingredients for a social justice-oriented critical pedagogy. The spirit for this pedagogical approach is captured in the School of Barbiana’s motto ‘I care.’

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Praise for Lorenzo Milani, The School of Barbiana and the Struggle for Social Justice
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface by Roger Dale
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Lorenzo Milani’s Relevance to Our Times
  • Critical Pedagogy
  • Other Italian Pedagogues
  • International Following
  • The Lettera and Other Texts
  • Learning History in an Age of Militarization
  • Anticipating/Complementing Critical Sociology of Education
  • Antidote to Measuring Schools
  • Rekindling Interest in Milani in a Period of Indignation
  • Chapter 2. Don Milani and His Time
  • His Education and Conversion: The Years of Fascism
  • The Italian Political Situation: After Fascism and the Birth of Christian Democracy
  • Ordainment as Priest and the San Donato Years
  • The San Donato Experience and Italian State Schools of the Time
  • The Transfer
  • The Barbiana School: The Beginnings
  • Changes to the Italian School System in the Mid-1950s
  • Pastoral Experiences: A Book Withdrawn from Publication
  • The Late Period
  • Chapter 3. Lorenzo Milani and the School of Barbiana’s Pedagogical Approach
  • Milani and Other Critical Pedagogues: Any Influence?
  • ’68 and All That!
  • Underlying Common Influence: Radical Christianity
  • Gender and Other Forms of Difference
  • Blood, Sweat, and Tears
  • Education, Politics, “Class Suicide,” and Social Justice
  • The Worlds of “Having” and “Being”
  • Lessons from Lorenzo Milani and the San Donato/Barbiana Experiences
  • Chapter 4. Writing as Collective Literacy
  • Writing as an Art Form
  • The Letters to Mario Lodi’s Pupils
  • Letter by the Barbiana Pupils to the Piadena Pupils
  • The Second Letter by the Barbiana Pupils
  • Steps to a Collective Approach to Writing
  • Step 1: Choosing the Theme and the Reader
  • Step 2: Collecting Ideas
  • Step 3: Clustering Ideas According to Chapters and Paragraphs
  • Step 4: Organizing Ideas within Chapters and Paragraphs
  • Step 5: Writing the Full Text
  • Step 6: General Revision of the Full Text
  • Step 7: Simplifying and Improving the Full Text
  • Step 8: Revision of the Full Text by External Actors
  • Collective Writing as Critical Literacy Practice
  • Notes
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • References
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • About the Authors

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Several years ago, in the middle of a typically stimulating conversation with my good friend, Peter Mayo, he referred to the Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una Professoressa, henceforth the Lettera), and asked me if I was aware of it. I think he was possibly rather surprised when I told him that not only was I aware of the book, but that, at the beginning of the1970s, I had been part of a UK Open University sociology of education course team that had made it a set text for students. We were both as delighted as we were surprised, and an invitation to write the Preface for this most interesting volume is the latest outcome of that original conversation.

These origins mean that this piece will necessarily reflect that rather partial understanding of many of the themes covered in the volume. However, the richness and significance of the Lettera continue to shine, assisted by the work of the many contributors referred to in the Introduction.

The continuing interest in the Lettera, from a range of points of view, demonstrates that the book has considerable contemporary as well as historical significance. However, I do not mean this in a clichéd, ‘nothing new under the sun’ way. Rather, it is to indicate elements of the importance of the book even when the conditions that had provided such a welcoming context for it on publication have effectively disappeared. Those conditions included vigorous debates around both the nature of education, which in England took the form of ‘progressive education,’ ← vii | viii → and the change from selective towards comprehensive entrance to secondary education, about both of which the Lettera had something original and significant to contribute. More broadly, we were still in the era of the Cold War and of the ideological battles which it spawned, which, as the Lettera showed, took on rather different hues in Italy—and Southern Europe more broadly—particularly through the possibilities of relationships between Catholicism and Socialism.

For me, there are two main aspects of those different contextual conditions where the Lettera remains prominent. On the one hand, the significance of the relationships between the ideas expressed in and through education, and the goals (especially those relating to social justice) remain as crucial as ever. On the other, a central feature of the Lettera is that they are addressed to parents, and here we find almost no parallels between the two epochs.

In terms of the first of these, we find differences in both the central meanings and the nature of social justice, and how it might be attained though education. Despite the differences of interpretation, at the time of the publication of the Lettera, and pervading its text, there was still a sense that a properly oriented and organized state education system was a key means to bringing about significant social change, especially through changes in both the role and the distribution of education. To put it rather too simply, it was assumed that this project would deliver social justice in its wake. And maybe the current emphasis on, and centrality of, social justice in itself is one major reflection of the failure of the social democratic goals and processes of the 1970s. In terms of the substance of social justice, following Nancy Fraser, it is not now possible to ignore the expansion of the aspects of social justice to include recognition and representation as well as the implicit redistribution on which the Lettera rested (where ‘class’ had been the key status, rather than one identity among many). And even these face a challenge from, for instance, Enrique Dussel’s proposed substitution of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, by Liberation, Alterity and Solidarity.

As far as the contribution of schooling to the attainment of social justice goals goes, it is notable that the writers of the Lettera focus strongly on the role of the curriculum (and indeed, this may have been one of the reasons for its adoption for the Open University course, since the main text for the course was M. F. D. Young’s Knowledge and Control, which emphasized the class basis of the selection of school knowledge). Nevertheless, as this volume shows, there was quite sufficient material to make the Lettera an extremely significant resource for the development of a critical pedagogy, which did enable a move beyond the curriculum as the crucial area of educational contestation. ← viii | ix →

However, when we come to consider the changes in the roles of parents since the Lettera was written, we do find rather more severe caesurae. The differences I notice may be at least as cultural/spatial as administrative/organizational. They involve the shifts of parents as a group from the cooperative pursuit of collectively determined and mutually beneficial goals, to making parents into individually mutually competitive drivers of (increasingly more ‘private’ and less ‘public’) systems of selection and stratification of access to the (increasingly narrowly defined) benefits of compulsory education. This may prove one of the most deeply embedded obstacles to the possibility of the emergence of democratic and egalitarian education systems and experiences.

While it is useful to be able to point to the continuing similarities between what is described and critiqued by the schoolchildren of Barbiana and what continue to be the experiences of children in contemporary schools (and the systems within which they are enmeshed), it would also seem entirely appropriate to try to learn from the continuities and discontinuities, both empirical and ideological, that they reveal. Take, for instance, one of the more vivid and often quoted phrases from the Lettera: ‘school is a hospital that tends to the healthy and neglects the sick.’ For while the phrase certainly retains its vividness and impact when taken alone, as it often seems to be, it loses its key nuances and contemporaneity, when it is detached from the argument to which it is a clinching conclusion. That argument suggests that while we are all aware of the problems caused for other learners by ‘trouble makers,’ or ‘slow’ children, for instance, that does not justify disregarding their presence or their particular needs and interests; it is that particular dereliction that would make schools into ‘hospitals that tend for the healthy and neglect the sick.’ And, as in the case of parents, the definitions of ‘healthy and ‘sick’ persist as if unchanged, with no recognition of the changing meanings and connotations attaching to them, especially as these relate to conceptions of democratic and egalitarian partnership.

Finally, what for me the Lettera provides above all, is a resource of hope, against T. S. Eliot’s pessimistic conservative surrender, that there could be no hope, ‘for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.’

Roger Dale
July 2013

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X, 127
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (January)
pedagogy education peer tutoring literacy critical analysis educationÿ
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 127 pp.

Biographical notes

Federico Batini (Author) Peter Mayo (Author) Alessio Surian (Author)

Federico Batini is a researcher at the University of Perugia. Founder and director of a training and guidance agency Pratika (www.pratika.net) and the centre of ideas and cultural productions Nausika (www.narrazioni.it), he is also a senior partner of Thélème (www.theleme.it). He has been dealing with stories and narratives in many formats for the past twenty years. He is working on a project of books and audio books of fairy tales and fables rewritten and adapted in collaboration with modern writers and experts. He has written plays and short stories, edited anthologies and written lyrics. He has devised a method of guidance through story telling called narrative guidance (Per un orientamento narrative, 2000) and has published articles, books, and other materials about this method. His most recent publications include L'orientamento narrativo a scuola. Lavorare sulle competenze per l’orientamento dalla scuola dell’infanzia all’educazione degli adulti (2008); Mettere in circolo. Una ricerca sui circoli di studio: Dalla pratica al metodo (2008); Competenze e diritto all’apprendimento (co-edited with A. Surian, 2008); L’Isola sconosciuta. Un progetto di orientamento narrativo: Metodi e risultati, Storientando: Un progetto e una ricerca con l’orientamento narrativo (with A. Surian, 2008); Storie, futuro e controllo (ed., 2011); Storie e orientamento. Percorsi per l'orientamento narrativo di gruppo (2011), Orientare per non disperdere: le storie siamo noi; Quando i figli scelgono (2011); Comprendere le differenze; Verso una pedagogia dell'identità sessuale (2011); Storie che crescono (2011). Peter Mayo is Professor in the Department of Education Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Malta. His many books include Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education (1999), subsequently published in translation in six languages; Liberating Praxis (2004), which won an AESA Critics Choice Award in 2005; Learning and Social Difference (with C. Borg, 2006); Adult Education in Malta (2007); Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Change: A Book of Interviews (with C. Borg, Peter Lang 2007); Learning with Adults: A Critical Pedagogical Introduction (with L. English, 2007), winner of the 2014 C. Houle Award for outstanding literature in adult education; Politics of Indignation (2012); and Echoes from Freire for a Critically Engaged Pedagogy (2014). He was 2011 winner of the CIES Higher Ed SIG award for best paper in comparative/international Higher Ed. He co-edits Palgrave Macmillan’s book series on postcolonial studies in Education and edits the Sense book series on International Issues in Adult Education. He is co-editor of the refereed journal, Postcolonial Directions in Education. Alessio Surian is researcher at the University of Padova where he teaches Transformative Learning. He is co-coordinator of the Special Interest Group on Teaching and Learning in Culturally Diverse Settings of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction and a member of the executive committee of the World Education Forum. He is the author of several studies on participatory methodologies, collaborative learning and intercultural communication, including «Mr. Palomar and Youth 2.0: Beyond the Faustian Bargain» (Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 2014); «Transformative Learning and Youth Agency within Present and Future Urban Scenarios» (Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 3, 147–183, 2011); Making a Difference: Learning That Matters (ed.), Diversity Youth Forum, Strasbourg, 2007; and Traveling Cultural Diversity (ed.), British Council–SALTO, London, 2005.


Title: Lorenzo Milani, The School of Barbiana and the Struggle for Social Justice
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144 pages