Every year, my best friends go on strike. As a student in a country where walkouts are only now becoming more frequent (and no less controversial), I can’t really fathom that strikes are expected in Italian schools at least once a year. When I ask my friends why, their responses are varied. Elena tells me there doesn’t have to be a reason, Marta insists that striking reminds the administration that students are watching, and it gives young people a way to participate in their education. Even asking my family members and other adults yields the same range of responses. A lot of them say the protests are an excuse for kids to be lazy, while others agree more with Marta. It would be easy to dismiss the former group as a bunch of old people who don’t remember what it was like to be a high school or college student, but the reality is much more complex. Because what unites this group of adults and divides them and the rest of Italy at the same time is one year—1968.
1968, the year of the student Contestazione, was the beginning of a tumultuous time in Italy. Italy was becoming wealthier, but the poverty gap was widening. Universities were becoming more accessible, but the administration grew more rigid. Public education was designed to produce single-minded individuals and to reinforce the traditional ways of thinking. Essentially, fascism might have been gone on paper, but it was still very much prevalent in Italian institutions. As a result, students all across Italy went on strike—a direct affront to the institutions to which they belonged. Students occupied universities, engaged in violent street clashes with police, and vehemently denounced the older generations. This period of social and political unrest lasted well into the 1970’s, and it forever shaped everything from Italian identity to abortion legislation.
Flash forward exactly fifty years later, and we see the familiar patterns of fascism and autocracy colliding with a new student left. Questions as to whether schools are a refuge from politics or the base of political organization are arising. In 2018, my friends and I gathered to protest the opening of the fascist party’s headquarters across from my cousins’ elementary school. It seems like everyone, including us, is battling for the minds of the younger generation. Politicians on all sides weaponize the language of ’68 and use it to prop up their campaigns. The Sessantottini, the protagonists of ’68, are alternately labeled as heroes or terrorists. Ultimately, the future of our country depends on how we as young people see ’68 and its legacy, and it’s therefore no coincidence that the events of ’68 still stir up so much controversy. Yet, in order to understand this division, I want to go back in time. This has led me to pose the question: to what extent has political identity shaped current Italian national discourse on the causes and legacy of the 1968 Contestazione?
The first class of perspectives on the Contestazione comes from the academic world, particularly from the areas of pedagogy and psychology. Its analysis of the Contestazione is not one of partisan politics, but rather, of the patterns that exist within power structures in Italy and whether those patterns can even be altered. This academic perspective takes a relatively defeatist view towards Italian education reforms that occurred in the wake of ’68. In an essay published for an Italian sociology journal, Studi di Sociologia in 1975, Professor Silvia Cortellazzi describes the Italian school system before the Contestazione as “a stable organization without any opening to society” and “an organism of conservatism and the only real agency of socialization” (324). She argues that the reforms driven by the students, while well-intentioned, actually did little to fundamentally change this. Cortellazzi acknowledges Italian schools are hierarchical (332) and that the people at the top of this hierarchy still have the most ability to effect change. Despite “allowing for experimentation” (330) that engages students and faculty more, the connection between students and the school administration is still one of student submission and administrative conservatism on student rights. Cortellazzi’s essay additionally analyzes individual reforms that emerged from ’68 and breaks each down for her audience—principally research colleagues and fellow educators—in order to bolster her point. In doing this, Cortellazzi offers a perspective of the Contestazione that justifies its goals as reasonable responses to an exclusionary, undemocratic system, yet also highlights its shortcomings in creating significant educational change. She starts by analyzing 1968 from the lens of education rather than politics, but inevitably develops a trace of the latter in her discussions about institutions of power and cultural conservatism that overshadow education in Italy and thus cannot completely be divorced from it. In short, Cortellazzi’s academic perspective stays mostly away from explicit political views on 1968, but parts of her perspective prove that it might just be impossible to fully separate politics and education.
The second class of understanding of the 1968 Contestazione is much more traditionally political and similar to popular discourses of today. Both the sources included in this group come from academic journals and magazines that are still peer-revised but read by a larger audience than the academic community. Their point of view rests on the idea that education is inherently political; for that reason, the Contestazione must be understood through a partisan lens. In Zolo’s “Student Power, Italian Style,” written in 1968 for the magazine The New Republic, Zolo collects interviews from Italian student protestors and includes his personal observations to conclude that for the first time, young Italians are “demanding power to control the processes that form their culture” (16). Zolo expands on Cortellazzi when he argues that Italian society, and not just Italian education, is ruled by the elite few, and he furthers this claim by saying this reflects the remaining principles of fascism. In this way, he fuses the students’ educational struggle with a political struggle—the two are inseparable. Similarly, in his 2018 piece for the American Historical Review Pizzolato argues that in Italy, contemporary divisions over ’68 run largely across political divisions between left and right-wing Italians. He writes to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Contestazione and to prove its relevance in how people’s understandings of ’68 shape their views on current student protests. Pizzolato summarizes right-wing perspectives that the protests of ’68 and today were and are the same “source of breakdown of the discipline and authority that underpinned good education” and uses this perspective to prove “the complex politics of the memory of 1968.” To Pizzolato, the controversy of 1968 and modern-day student protests lies in partisanship and its ties to Italian values. Furthermore, Pizzolato interjects his own opinion into the debate that these contemporary protests that happen so frequently in Italian schools come from “this [student] segment, having been failed by representative politics, deploy[ing] its own repertoire of direct political participation at regular intervals.” This relates to the disenfranchisement both Cortellazzi and Zolo mention Italian students experiencing, and it directly links this modern activism to the 1968 student actions that Cortellazzi and Zolo were responding to. In closing, by reflecting on 1968’s impact on Italian society from a political lens, Zolo and Pizzolato show how politically divisive the Contestazione was in 1968 and continues to be in 2018.
The last class of opinion I could find on why Italians are so divided in their understanding of the Contestazione belongs to those who believe that the Contestazione’s controversy should be understood by examining generational ideological differences among the left. A series of interviews conducted by Stuart Hilwig on parents of the Sessantottini for The Journal of Contemporary History in 2001 convey this perspective perfectly. The title itself, “Are You Calling Me a Fascist?” summarizes Hilwig’s argument that many of the parents of student protestors didn’t oppose their children’s actions because they conflicted with their political beliefs, but rather because they failed to see why their children were seeking to undermine Italy’s burgeoning era of growth. According to Hilwig, those interviewed were “intimately connected to the students by familial and even ideological bonds” (581), which gives even more importance to their testimonies insofar as understanding the divisions of 1968. Many of the Sessantottini’s parents were mortified at being called fascists simply for failing to understand and support their childrens’ radical new interpretation of traditional leftist beliefs. According to Hilwig, these testimonies collectively show “an image of Italy in which the younger generation was reformulating its parents’ political ideologies and commitment to antifascism in an environment of peaceful affluence and democratic government rather than the hard times of war and dictatorship” (596). Therefore, it is inaccurate to say those who view the Contestazione and its causes in a negative way are people who lean right politically. This is distinct from Zolo and Pizzolato’s evaluation, but it is similar in the sense that it recognizes political divisions—in this case ideological splits among generations—impact the subjectivity of memory of 1968 and student movements after. All in all, Hilwig’s evaluation creates a completely different angle of approach that suggests the controversy around Italian understanding of 1968 could still largely be political, just not in the bipolar way most would assume.
In conclusion, it is difficult to reduce views on the student Contestazione of 1968 to being solely influenced by right or left-wing political ideologies. Instead, a more nuanced understanding of ’68 is demonstrated in the variations and intersections between my sources. Silvia Cortellazzi disapproves not of the students’ efforts, but of the ineffectiveness of the reforms that came about because of the Contestazione. Her opinion does not reduce the student protests to laziness or heroism, but rather to logical reactions to a closed system. This view comes from her understanding of education and student psychology, and it does not mention political views. Zolo and Pizzolato agree with Cortellazzi’s diagnosis of the Italian school system, but they differ in their belief that politics is the determining factor in how Italians look back on ’68. The two of them emphasize that the importance of the Contestazione is that it created a grassroots democracy tradition among Italian students, which is something they argue many right-leaning Italians strongly oppose. Hilwig brings yet another perspective by including the voices of the parents of Sessantottini, who were largely left-leaning but simply failed to understand their childrens’ anger in such a time of peace and prosperity. Hilwig opposes Zolo and Pizzolato in this respect because he argues directly against placing all those who have negative opinions on the Contestazione into the “right-wing.” Ultimately, this disjointed perception of the Contestazione across Italian society, coupled with the rise of familiar fascist trends in Italian politics and educational institutions is what makes the Contestazione so controversial.
The issue of fascism becomes even more urgent in this context because there are those who believe its totalitarian and discriminatory impulses constitute an external threat—that they assail our beloved institutions from without. But, in fact, those impulses may be latent in any power structure, especially one such as education, which is a main vehicle of social advancement. That is why it is important to call out the fascism embedded within these institutions if we are ever to make progress and rebuild. If anything, my research showed me that in order to reconcile with 1968 and its aftermath, we must stop associating our relationship with the Contestazione as something purely political. Rather, we must embrace the ideological contradictions we as human beings cannot eliminate. Forcing certain views into political categories might be a good way to form the edges of the puzzle of Italian society, but if we don’t learn to see the bigger picture and the links between these views, we can never gain insight into ourselves and hold society accountable. That is why I want to expand my research to find more diverse perspectives on the causes of ’68 and to understand why it has been reduced to a partisan issue for so long. In the midst of all of this, as I write on the 74th anniversary of Italian Liberation from fascism, I hope to discover the contradictions within myself on this issue, and how I can hold the institutions that have shaped me accountable for perpetuating injustice, rather than defending them from being “corrupted.”