Italian Sister: The COVID-19 Pandemic Represents an Opportunity for Freedom of Education
Sister Anna Monia Alfieri is an Italian nun who has dedicated her life to the defense of school choice for families.
In recent years, Sister Anna Monia Alfieri has progressively stood out as one of the leading figures for the defense of freedom of education and school pluralism in the Italian landscape.
And in recent months, she has gained national fame with the COVID-19 pandemic through her multiple media appearances, during which she has been alerting the Italian citizens and political leaders about the devastating effects of lockdowns on the school system and on the psychological health of young students.
Indeed, Italy has been one of the Western countries where schools have been closed for the longest period of time — 22 weeks, from the beginning of the pandemic — and the limits of online learning have been regularly denounced by parents and students themselves.
While being a voice for the numerous families who were feeling helpless in the face of an unprecedented situation, Sister Anna has also been seeking to raise awareness regarding the risk of closure of the so-called paritarie schools (state-accredited private schools, most of which are run by Catholic orders) that provide a public service in support of and in addition to the public system. Due to the pandemic, many parents can no longer afford the tuition and consequently are being forced to send their children back to public schools.
According to Sister Anna, the loss of these schools — which welcome around 900,000 students every year and represent a valuable resource in the face of the shortcomings of the public-school system (overcrowded classes, lack of staff and equipment, etc. — would further damage the quality of education in the country.
The Italian nun has tirelessly promoted the construction of a system whereby paritarie schools would be put at the same legal level as public schools through a government coordination and have similar costs for families. She discussed this long-term struggle in this interview with the Register; her efforts recently earned her the prestigious Ambrogino d’Oro prize, awarded each year by the municipality of Milan to people who distinguished themselves for their commitment and work for the common good.
A nun of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Marcellina, an order that she chose for its historical commitment in the field of education, the 45-year-old religious holds two degrees in law and economics. She is the school consultant for the Italian Conferences of Major Superiors (CISM) and Women Religious (USMI), which run a large part of the paritarie schools of the country, and is the legal representative for the 10 schools owned by her congregation. Sister Anna is aslo a lecturer in management of paritarie schools at the Catholic University of Milan and has co-authored several essays about education over the past years, including “Letter to Politicians About School Freedom” (2018).
Why did you decide to devote such a significant part of your life to education?
Because I fundamentally believe in the motto sapere aude: “dare to know.” I deeply believe in school, in education, in training, which foster knowledge, competence, and therefore a free mind, forever — a mind freed from ideology, idiocy, instrumentalization. So I have dedicated my life to educational freedom because I strongly believe that freedom favors responsibility.
Constraint is never good because, instead of generating citizens, it favors subjects. School is an opportunity for the most disadvantaged economically and the most fragile social classes. It is a social elevator that favors equity, the participation of all in collective life. Promoting culture and school fosters integration and tolerance.
It is the fundamental premise to emancipate human beings, to make them free and open them to an individual and collective responsibility.
You have also gained fame through your commitment in favor of paritarie schools. What is your goal?
I don’t just promote paritarie schools. I promote the need for parents who have educational responsibility to be able to make informed choices. There is a need for educational pluralism, made up of state schools, directly managed by the state, and paritarie schools, managed by organizations and institutions that have an agreement with the government. I am in favor of freedom of educational choice, freedom of teaching for teachers, the right for students to learn, without parents having to pay twice for this, through taxes and school tuitions.
You often quote Servant of God Don Luigi Sturzo, a prominent Italian political figure of the 20th century who promoted a wider commitment for religious people into civil society, as one of your greatest sources of inspiration. Who else gave you the necessary intellectual and spiritual arms to carry out such a mission?
Don Luigi Sturzo is indeed my greatest model of life. He used to say that “until citizens are free to educate their children, they will always be slaves.” Slaves to whom? To the current power.
I was also very much inspired by anti-mafia judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone [both assassinated by the mafia in 1992], who believed that school was fundamental to take power away from the mafia. School is always the starting point.
How do you explain the fact that Catholics have always been on the front line to defend education and freedom of choice in the educational field?
From the very beginning, genuine Catholic culture has a great deal of freedom in itself. I am referring to the great Master of my life, Jesus Christ. Christ was the freest man there was, but, also, the most liberating man. He never forced anyone. He called. He said, “Follow me; come.” But then what did Jesus appeal to? To the freedom of the individual! Even to be saved, one must freely choose to be saved. The Catholic religion has in itself an enormous foundation of freedom. One cannot be fully Catholic without feeling this great need for freedom, for oneself and for others.
Precisely because this characteristic is innate to the Catholic faith, Catholicism has always sought to liberate. And how do you free people? If one simply feeds people, one has not liberated them. One would save them from starvation, but they would still be bound; they would just change masters. They would pass from the one who enslaved and starved them to a benefactor master.
The Catholic religion cannot limit itself to feeding people. It always needs to liberate, to emancipate. In the Gospel, Jesus heals the blind man, the leper, but then sends them out into the world; he does not keep them to himself with a leash. It is always a healing “for” something, for the community. Individual responsibility becoming a collective one is a unique aspect of Christianity.
What is the uniqueness of Catholic schools?
Catholics have created schools all over the world, but they did not do so to proselytize religion, but to emancipate citizens, to give them free ideas, to make them capable of thinking. In Cairo, for example, there is a Catholic school that has only Muslim students. Then with a mind free from ideologies and prejudices, a person will be able to approach faith, which is a gift from God.
Liliana Segre, one of the few Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors, once recounted that when the racial laws came into force [under the Fascist regime], she, a wealthy third-generation Milanese bourgeois, was sent away from her public school, which was supposed to be “for everyone.” So, with her many other classmates, she went to the paritaria school across the street, which was Catholic. In contexts of dictatorial and unjust regimes, the Catholic school has always shown all its universal and liberating dimension.
What are the main challenges you have faced along your path in defense of education?
It has not been easy; it has been more than 16 years since I started my mission. I have worked and studied a lot. But good ideas, especially revolutionary ones, that touch an ailing apparatus of the state, expose you a lot [to criticism]. You are kind of seen as an extraterrestrial.
During our existence, we pursue ideals, and we also have to deal with a reality that may not be ready to accept them. It requires a lot of work, courage, stubbornness and the belief in an ideal that surpasses even yourself. There is no room for narcissism because the difficulties in these missions are not lacking: closed doors, resistance from those who do not understand, not to mention all the communities you are inconveniencing, including within the Church. In fact, when I talk about freedom and educational choice, I am saying that school does not belong to the state nor to the Church, but to the family. And I hear resistance on the part of many, doubts about the ability of people to choose freely for their children. This resistance, most of the time, is not motivated by ill will, but by a fear of change.
It has taken a long time, and in all of this, Pope Francis has helped a lot, because his way of dialoguing, of putting forward issues, has been fundamental in this battle. He has created an important cultural background.
In the same way, when I tell politicians that they can’t make the school their electoral ground, I discomfort interests, clearly. The same goes for unions.
And from this point of view, do you think your religious habit has helped in making your voice more authoritative, or has it been an obstacle?
What has always helped me a lot has been my will to speak from the perspective of law and economics, but without compromising with unions nor political forces. I’ve always affirmed my desire to free the school from third-party interests.
The religious habit was not always a help. Rather, it has been a challenge, because the habit makes some people think that I am only defending the interests of the parochial schools, of priests and nuns. Some ask me what I have to do with schools, politics; they tell me to “go be a nun,” to pray and to stop dealing with the affairs of the world. It’s a bit like the criticism that Don Sturzo received in his time.
Personally, I believe in the will to get fully involved and if you manage, despite your habit and your beliefs, to catch the attention of someone, to convince him to listen and dialogue, then you have won. I would not have done this battle without this habit.
Then, besides my habit, I would say that it is the awareness of being part of a religious community that has helped me so much in my mission. The community supports you; it supports you morally.
From what you see on the ground, what are the concrete impacts of the health crisis on young people?
This disease is incredibly challenging the Italian people; it has impacted the country in its most fragile points. Schooling here has stopped like in no other Western country. 34,000 pupils have dropped out of school. The problem, especially in the poorest areas of the country, is that young people who have left the school system are at greater risk of falling into the hands of the mafia. And this will also prevent the country from recovering, because we are not creating the conditions to ensure a decent future: We are condemning our children to a life of hardship.
In Italy, we were not accustomed to online learning; and, therefore, the virus has excluded 300,000 pupils with disabilities who now live in a situation of isolation, while 1.6 million pupils have not been reached by distance learning, thus increasing the disparities between rich and poor, between North and South. Moreover, even those who have benefited from distance learning live in a situation of isolation and social deconstruction, which generates heavy psychological consequences, since school is also the place of encounter, where a civic sense and a sense of community mature. We hear from hospitals that there is a sharp increase in suicides among young people, but also in acts of self-harm, generated by extreme frustration. We now risk the loss of an unprecedented human capital. Meanwhile, school is not properly resuming, and the solution is always being delayed, while expecting better days to come.
How did you receive the Ambrogino d’Oro you were awarded by the municipality of Milan in November? Do you think it means that something is moving in the right direction?
The Ambrogino d’Oro has represented, for me, a great personal and collective help; personal because it was the recognition of an idea of freedom of educational choice and pluralism by public institutions.
It is a proof that some politicians recognize this commitment; and with this award, they tell citizens that freedom of education is worthy of attention and dedication. In fact, why can’t the poor choose their children’s school?
I believe that this recognition would not have been possible without a political transversality: Throughout these years, the fact that I have always been able to dialogue with governments of different political parties has helped me a lot because it has shown that schools have no political color. And the fact that the Ambrogino d’Oro was awarded to me by a left-wing council is proof of the transversality of such a struggle.
Do you think that, in the end, the coronavirus disaster could be an opportunity, from this point of view?
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the serious limitations of the Italian school system, such as overcrowding of classrooms, lack of transportation and precariousness of teachers. But it can become a great opportunity if we can seize it. In the aftermath of World War II, or the era of the Red Brigades, in order to get the country back on its feet, there was a need for a broad cross section of people to rebuild it. It will be the same to get out of the crisis triggered by the coronavirus and to resume schooling. And this is my victory, the dream of a lifetime: to succeed in bringing together all the political forces around this issue.
Is there a particular project you hope to bring to fruition soon?
In these past few hours there have been steps forward to restart the schooling in Italy through a great agreement which provides for the use of public and paritarie schools by revising the financing laws through the standard costs of sustainability per pupil. It would be a way to avoid waste, to better use citizens’ money, to promote a fairer, more equitable and free school. This epoch-making school reform has been waiting for too many years to be accomplished. This will save Italy and restore a lot of dignity to parents, families and teachers.