The Devil Is in the Examples. On Literary Theory and Comparative Literature in the Programs of the First Two Years of the Liceo

Toni Veneri


The teaching of the Italian language and literature during the first two years of the liceo occupies a crucial position in the educational process. Despite this, it draws much less attention than the preceding and following phases. While the ministry provides only generic indications, we still lack a significant debate on its contents, such as the one that revolves around the last three years' program and its textbooks, where many diverse and competing editorial proposals are provided by scholars and publishers. Thus, heterogenous forms of 'colonization' led the way to the cohabitation of various  discourses and rhetorics, often conflicting, either for their premises or their outcomes. On the one hand, the Western literary canon is reduced to raw material for textual analysis, in order to verify and confirm laws and procedures, which seem to regulate rather than describe the ways in which literature might function. On the other hand, the program insists on a few texts, considered as foundational to European and national culture, inflating their presentation with the highest ethical and aesthetic values. First and foremost, this paper aims to draw attention to the failing complementarity of these approaches and to the problematic implications of this failure. A second focus will engage the disciplinary dimension of these issues: if we talk academics, it must be said that very little of what is taught about literature in these years falls within the range of Italian studies. The recurring use of foreign texts, even if given in translation, allows us to understand their reading and analysis in class as a comparative practice. Moreover, the instruments and categories of literary analysis also have various origins, and combine elements deriving from traditional humanistic taxonomies (e.g., included within rhetoric, metrics, stylistics) with the results - the easiest to outline - of a historically circumscribed theoretical reflection (structuralism). Scholars have long pointed at the limits, weak points and implications of those results. Nevertheless, except for a few rare cases, no revision has yet been undertaken to alter their presence within the textbooks. Such revision could indeed proceed from a re-evaluation of the categories traditionally associated with rhetoric, to be understood as crucial moments in the process of interpretation, rather than pure technical facts.


School; Rhetoric; Structuralism;

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