When I went to Sardinia for my year-long student exchange in high school, one of the biggest shocks was adapting to a totally new education system. Italian kids go to school on Saturday mornings, in addition to the rest of the week, which outraged my ingrained sense of entitlement to a full two-day weekend. The school day was short but intense. From 8 a.m. till 2 p.m. I sat in a classroom while teachers rotated on an hourly basis. We got one short break around 11 p.m., but the rest of the time I had my nose to the grindstone because I desperately wanted to get academic credit for the year. I didn’t want to repeat grade eleven once back in Canada.
If I thought the schedule was intense, it was nothing compared to the academics. Latin, philosophy, math, English, French, history, Italian literature, art history, and gym were de rigeur. I joined another class for biology several times a week, opting out of Latin and Italian lit because there was a limit to how much my brain could absorb. When I got home and ate delicious pasta for pranzo, it was then time to study. I spent the next four hours at my desk, dictionary in hand, translating painstakingly as I attempted to make sense of the hours’ worth of notes I’d taken.
All of my classmates talked about the dreaded interrogazione, and their dread was justified. There is a two-part testing system in Italian schools, where students first write tests, but are then subjected to interrogation by the teacher in front of their classmates. As uncomfortable as it is, I actually like the idea of the interrogazioni because being quizzed on and having to talk about a subject solidifies one’s understanding of that subject unlike any amount of reading and writing possibly can. Plus it gives students real-life public speaking skills. Even though I knew it was good for my language skills, I still hated doing it.
What I appreciated, though, was the emphasis on heady subjects like philosophy, which Canadian schools have been so quick to reject. Instead, over here erudite academics have been replaced with (what I consider to be silly) courses such as “Civics and Careers.” Sure, it’s great to talk about potential career options, but why not focus on maximizing and intensifying students’ education, which is the school’s job in the first place and will open career doors further down the path? Sometimes I get frustrated by how the Canadian education system appears to strive to make learning as easy and fun as possible for kids, as if the journey toward education is a walk in the park. It should not be, and if it is, something’s wrong with the system. If you want it to be easy, just go home and “unschool” for a change.
As tough as it was, I’m grateful to the liceo for opening my exhausted mind to philosophers such as Machiavelli, Rousseau, Locke, and Descartes. I’m even grateful for those long hours spent sitting in a hard chair, gazing out longingly over the Sardinian hills, watching the clock move ever so slowly toward liberation time. Compared to that year, grade twelve and university felt like a breeze.