It was 1960 when Alberto Manzi was selected by RAI–Radiotelevisione italiana (Italy’s national public broadcasting company) for what was to become one of the first examples of distance learning: the educational show ‘Non è mai troppo tardi’ (It’s Never Too Late).
Manzi was a school teacher at the time, and had no intention of working on television. “I was sent to audition for the show by my didactic director” Manzi himself would say, in a later interview. After tearing apart the lesson sample that had been written for him, he asked the television operators to provide him with cardboards: “I had imagined that television was all about moving images, and I thought that if I were to remain still then everybody would have fallen asleep, so I started drawing images. Then they called out for all the candidates to go home because they had come to a final decision”.
The Ministry of Education itself had wanted the show to happen; Italy was at the centre of a social and economical growth, and the phenomenon of illiteracy was no longer acceptable. “The country was mainly a rural one,” wrote the Italian journalist Enzo Biagi, “so there were many people who could not read nor write.”
‘Non è mai troppo tardi’ was broadcast from 1960 to 1968, and enabled adults to obtain their primary school diploma, fighting illiteracy before school became compulsory. The show was a complete success, and it went on to be reproduced in seventy-two other countries.
Today, many people have become accustomed to distance learning. Just like in the sixties, this allows adults working full time to get an education – especially a higher one – or to take their academic studies one step further, giving them the possibility to specialize or even to change careers. The current pandemic has extended this to schools too: children have had get to grips with online learning, and it has not been an easy task. Both teachers and pupils have faced various issues, extending from the mental strain that computers may cause, to the challenges of conducting tests and managing students online.
Adaptation is surely a key element in what is happening right now. Education expert Holly Kurzmich said that “schools are having to rethink their schedules overall”, in an interview with ABC News. Teachers have had the difficult task to reshape their methods, to find alternative ways to instruct and test students; inflexibility has proven to be a deterrent more than anything else, as exemplified in the case of a teacher who asked one student to blindfold herself during an oral test, so that she would not be able to cheat. Adjustability should indeed come from both sides, and not from the students alone – albeit teachers have certainly struggled a great deal, and, in most cases, put in even more hours then before.
But schools are not only a place where children learn, they’re also “childcare for so many families”, as Kurzmich says. It has not been easy for young parents especially to manage their own working life and their children’s lack of motivation or sudden bursts of energies, all within the same household. Everybody has had to become acquainted with online platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and so many adults have sacrificed much of their own time to follow their children more closely, and to help them cope with, and better understand, this new situation.
University students, on the other hand, might have seen their chance to get away and become independent postponed; so many of them missed out on the experience that symbolizes not only an academic achievement, but also a true ritual: the graduation ceremony. Anyone who has lived that moment would be filled with sadness when seeing a student graduating in front of a computer (videos of this circulated widely last year).
As Biagi subtly commented, Alberto Manzi did not seem to be at ease at all in front of the camera –knowing that the whole country was going to watch him – because what was missing was the primary resource of both his passion and his profession: the students. Giulia Manzi, his daughter, recounted of him: “he would never sit at the teacher’s table, but would always be with the students, circulating among them, mixing with them”. Direct contact is obviously the essential ingredient, and in a time when we are getting to know people online for the first time, we understand only too well what it means, both emotionally and psychologically, when we then get the chance to meet those same people face to face. Of course we should then strive for a world where the phrase “in person” is still at the heart of everything we do, yet, on the same grounds, we could not allow ourselves to exit this pandemic of our times without having learnt a lesson. We have now found new ways of going about our daily lives, of working, shopping, learning…; we possess new instruments that enable us to achieve a better quality of life, if employed in the proper manner. On the other hand, we have rediscovered the importance of the simple things in life: sharing our thoughts and ideas, having a dinner with our family or friends, going for a walk in the woods; these are the things we should always keep close to us, never forgetting that technology may and can not fill the void in our hearts, in our hands, in our faces.
When it comes to teaching, all this is just as true. In a generation where Google – not our parents – may answer any question we have, Alberto’s message is as strong as ever, and what Giulia tells us, makes perhaps the very core of education: “he did not teach them notions or concepts, because those can be found anywhere, especially nowadays; he used to teach them to think.”