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A handbook for visiting academics in Italy

By Domenico Pacitti

The Italian proverb ‘Paese che vai, usanza che trovi’, faithfully mistranslated in standard bilingual dictionaries as ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’, stops short of offering potentially perilous advice but states simply that travellers will encounter different customs in different places. By encouraging a ‘look before you leap’ policy of observation prior to participation, it proves a safer solution for foreign academics contemplating a career at an Italian university.

Off-putting at first, no doubt, is the remarkably widespread and unrelenting flow of scandals not normally associated with higher seats of learning and ranging from academic incompetence and administrative inefficiency to moral decadence and Mafia-style corruption. Discovery that Italian universities are primarily concerned with ‘potere’ (power) rather than teaching and research provides a partial explanation. The conscious and dedicated pursuit of such power, often a ruthless, lifelong activity, reinforces the inevitable impression of a time trip to the feudal Middle Ages.

Niccolò Machiavelli's early 16th-century classic on power politics, Il Principe (The Prince), aptly described by Bertrand Russell as ‘a handbook for gangsters’, has long been a bible for Italian academics on how to acquire, maintain and exploit power. The favourite reference, ‘Il fine giustifica i mezzi’ (The end justifies the means), which teaches cynical disrespect for all legal and moral considerations in achieving goals, is supplemented by ‘Bisogna saper essere volpe e leone’ (You have to know how to be a fox and a lion) in order to be able to discover ‘complotti’ (plots) and frighten off attacking wolves. The unearthing and combating of plots and schemes is, in fact, a national obsession.

Indispensable for career advancement are ‘santi in paradiso’ (saints in heaven), who hold high positions in universities, political parties, the freemasonry or the Church and are willing to make a ‘raccomandazione’ (a special recommendation for preferential treatment) on the basis of criteria other than academic merit. The final success of such initiatives will depend on the strength of other candidates’ contacts. Anyone seriously presenting himself purely on the basis of qualifications will be ridiculed as either ‘ingenuo’ (ingenuous) or just plain ‘matto’ (mad).

A ‘protettore’ (protector) or ‘angelo custode’ (guardian angel), the professor providing constant personal ‘appoggio’ (support) to his protégé, also acts as guide and advisor making sure they have ‘le spalle coperte’ (their backs covered) against sudden cloak-and-dagger attempts by rival aspirants and is himself accountable to his superiors.

‘Famiglie’ (families), referred to by adversaries as ‘camarille’ (cliques) or ‘cosche’ (cosca clans), operate corporatively on a mercantile, exchange-of-favour basis and in strict accordance with pre-established codes of honour. The more powerful the family, the better the prospects.

Unquestioning obedience is essential, and 'portaborse' (bag carriers) or ‘leccapiedi’ (boot-lickers) are regularly ‘sfruttati’ (exploited) by protectors by having to run errands and even perform household chores in addition to sharing, and at times taking over entirely, the professor's meagre teaching burden. The resulting ‘strutture verticistiche’ (hierarchic structures), built on Mafia and Church models, link up at the  national level to form ‘la piramide invisibile’ (the invisible pyramid).

First attempts at objective criticism by the uninitiated meet with such self-refuting favourites as ‘Non si può generalizzare’ (You can't generalise) and ‘Tutto è relativo’ (Everything is relative), designed to throw truth-seekers off the track and prevent arguments from ever getting off the ground. Italians are invariably quite stunned to discover the contradictions in terms.

‘Verità’ (truth), an uncomfortable word, may be ‘mia’ (mine), ‘tua’ (yours) but never simply ‘la’ (the) since ‘un'opinione vale un'altra’ (one opinion is as good as another). Ironically, the usual Sicilian Mafia parallel breaks down at this point as ‘dire la verità’ (telling the truth) is for authentic ‘mafiosi’ (Mafia members) a categorical imperative.

Insistence will meet with such outcries as ‘Non fare il moralista’ (Don't moralise) and ‘Chi è senza peccato scagli la prima pietra’ (Let him who is without sin cast the first stone), moralising being the exclusive prerogative of the Church. Recognition that ‘siamo tutti peccatori’ (we are all sinners) normally does the trick in ensuring that few stones ever get thrown.

Undeniable accusations of peculiarly Italian horrors are swept aside with the self-consolatory ‘Tutto il mondo è paese’ (It's the same the whole world over). Such potentially mystifying questions as ‘Why did the dean persuade the examining commission to award a professorship to such an obvious incompetent?’ or ‘Why did the rector fiddle the records?’ respectively meet with such disarming justifications as: ‘Perché aveva preso l'impegno’ (Because he had given his word) and ‘È la prassi’ (It's normal practice).

And the frequent and incredulous ‘But how is this sort of thing possible?’ gets the inevitable  answer: ‘Siamo in Italia’ (We are in Italy), which turns out to be tantamount to saying ‘We are in a black hole where the laws of normality no longer hold’.

At this stage the tongue-tied questioner may find himself on the receiving end of some practical advice for academic survival: ‘farsi furbo’ (get smart) and ‘adeguarsi al sistema o arrangiarsi’ (adapt to the system or accept the consequences), because ‘Chi si fa pecora il lupo lo mangia’ (People who act like sheep fall prey to wolves). The decipherment of subtle facial signals and the discernment of ‘significati latenti’ (hidden meanings) are advocated as necessary arts, some amusing side effects of which are to be found in perverse readings of literary texts by Italian scholars convinced of seeing what is simply not there.

But the most important advice is to learn to remain silent as much as possible and listen, as speech can prove dangerous. ‘La miglior parola è quella che non si dice’ (The best word is the one you don't say), despite its exotic Taoist flavour, is a straight Sicilian Mafia saying, which is hardly surprising granted that ‘Tutto è mafia in Italia’ (Everything in Italy is Mafia).

Well-intentioned confidential advice, however misguided, from the occasional friendly Italian baron is due to a largely unconscious general philosophy of ‘pubbliche bugie e verità private’ (public lies and private truths), especially suited to a nation of accomplished natural actors who delight in asserting that ‘contano solo le apparenze’ (only appearances count).

Words and idle promises are sported by professors in their less elusive moments like designer clothes and just a few hours later the same person will flatly deny having spoken to you at all, having apparently also convinced himself of this. Especially in Italy, ‘Tra il dire e il fare c'è di mezzo il mare’ (There's a world of difference between saying and doing).

The suspicion that all of this means that little work ever gets done is confirmed by ‘assenteismo' (absenteeism), which is notoriously rife. A tenured teaching post, a veritable sinecure, means a cast-iron job for life and everyone knows of professors who have not been seen by students or colleagues for years and yet continue to collect their regular salaries.

That over two and a half million students, teaching and administrative staff and ministry employees, all perfectly well aware of the goings-on in their universities, have kept ‘omertà’ (collective silence) and rarely ‘fatto denuncia’ (lodged an official complaint) suggests a miracle of mass hypnosis which a totalitarian state would be delighted with. One explanation is well-founded ‘paura’ (fear) that justice will ever be carried out and that the denouncer will come off worse. The main reason, however, lies in the celebrated national ailment, ‘menefreghismo’ (a couldn't-care-less attitude), from ‘me ne frego’ (I don't give a damn).

‘Non puoi cambiare l'Italia’ (You can't change Italy), accompanied by the inevitable smile and shake of the head at foreigners’ attempts to obtain justice in Italy reveals a perplexingly misplaced pride in the fact that local bureaucracy and corruption always get the better of outsiders, as though they were part of the national heritage.

The infamous bureaucratic ‘muro di gomma’ (rubber wall) can be counted on to bounce attempts to obtain information from one department to the next and then invariably back to starting point. And a pragmatic profiteering mentality ensures that everything somehow manages to get ‘truccato’ (rigged) – from exams and degree certificates to court cases, elections, soccer matches and even the national lottery.

Education minister Letizia Moratti is the latest in a long line of Italian education ministers who have ritually promised to take appropriate action. Predictably, no one seriously believes anything will change. As those who have seen it all before delight in saying, ‘Cambiano i musicisti ma la musica resta la stessa’ – the musicians may change, but at the end of the day it’s the same old song.

Note: This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Informer.