IN STARK contrast to the high school system prevalent in many countries, the Italian system is particularly harsh toward those who fail to meet the academic standards of the school syllabus. If you fall into that category you are ‘bocciato’ which means ‘rejected’, and you are therefore obliged to repeat the school year. This entails the humiliation of having to leave your old schoolmates to enter a classroom where your fellow-students are one year younger than yourself.

Quite understandably, most students, along with their parents, regard this event as a tragedy and feel quite ashamed and guilty when it happens to them.

Last month I received a phone call from Clara, a typical Italian mother and a close personal friend. Feeling very upset and in tears, she told me that Paul, one of her children, had been ‘bocciato’, and that therefore he was forced to repeat his school year.

Paul is a 16-year-old, kind-hearted young man. He is always willing to help his parents, is a boy scout leader, and is also very active in his parish. Though not the studious type, he has very clear ideas about what he wants to do in life: gym instructor and personal trainer in a fitness center.

Paolo knows that he must get a high school diploma if he wishes to achieve his goal, but he finds that school is too inflexible and that, above all, it makes his brain work in one direction while he delights in making it work in different ways.

Clara has two other children, Anna and Matteo, who are the exact opposite of Paolo. Intellectually gifted, they are studying at the best universities in the country and are confident that a solid future is in store for them in rewarding professions.

I naturally tried to cheer her up about Paolo’s difficulties at school, and in the process I underscored all of Paolo’s good points. I also praised her and her husband for doing such a good job at educating Paolo’s heart so well.

I do not know why, but in education we attach more importance to the head than to the heart. Indeed the heart hardly ever gets any consideration at school. We make more of a clever child than a good child. The world of business and politics awards cleverness rather than goodness and honesty. And yet in our everyday language we acknowledge the primacy of the heart.

We judge people by their hearts.  One of the most damning things we can say about anyone is that they have “no heart” or that they are “cold-hearted”. By the same token, one of the best things we can say about anyone is that they have “a heart” or are “warm-hearted”.

Even when we judge the degree of a person’s commitment to something, we do it in terms of the heart. We can say that someone’s “heart is not in it”, and as a result, that person will probably quit. Of others we say their “heart is in it”, and in all probability they will not only persevere, but put their best efforts into it as well.

We also describe sorrow and joy in terms of the heart. We say her “heart was broken” or she “went with a heavy heart”. Or we say her “heart overflowed with joy” or she “went with a light heart”.

Apparently, the wisdom we have acquired through the centuries has made its way into our everyday language. And this wisdom leads us to the conclusion that, all things considered, it is the heart that matters in the end. This is what Jesus himself tells us in Luke’s Gospel, “The good person, out of the good treasure in his heart, produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).

I am neither a parent nor an educator of young people, but I do believe that in our families we should opt, above all, for an education of the heart.  We should place special emphasis on a pedagogy able to awaken our children’s hearts because this is the fundamental centre of the human person. It is only this type of pedagogy that can teach them how to relate to others and to God in love, following Jesus’ example: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and in me you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29).


Updated on October 06 2016