Why Italy needs democratic rituals: Lessons from Oxford’s “matriculation”
Two different parades
Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 8:15am – I tie the white bow tie and rush to New College (paradoxical name, you would say, given its more than 600 years of history). There, I join the other fresher students in our parade towards the Sheldonian Theater. Symmetrically-arranged Oxford freshers in “subfusc,” the formal academic dress composed of dark dress and white shirt and black or white bows, turn the Sheldonian into an elegant chessboard. My amazement is interrupted by the entrance of the Vice-Chancellor. “Matriculation” begins. With the centuries-old Latin formula, pronounced every year ever since Oxford was created, he confers membership of the University on all properly dressed (it is important to note) freshers: “Scitote vos in Matriculam Universitatis hodie relatos esse, et ad observandum omnia Statuta istius Universitatis, quantum ad vos spectent, teneri.” Few understand the words, but we all realise that we are now part of a centuries-old legacy, which has preserved its essential values even while adjusting to the course of history.
Meanwhile, another parade, very different from matriculation,” is taking place in Rome. Thousands of people (some say 50,000, others 100,000) are marching in the streets. Officially, they are demonstrating against the construction of a high-speed railway. In reality, the protest draws on mixed feelings from across Italian society. “We are refugees, without rights;” “Against austerity, we organize our anger.” These are the signs through which immigrants, union workers, retired people, parents and children express their newly found common identity, based on indignation, anger and frustration. Some blame the state, others the government and the EU, others rage against austerity… Collective anger blurs the line between different institutions that, in the eyes of protesters, embody the single cause of their existential malaise.
Why Italy needs a democratic “matriculation”
The protest in Rome signals, in my view, the failure of Italian institutions and politicians. Looking at the Roman protests while thinking at my Oxford “matriculation,” I realised what Italy lacks that Oxford University has: a unitary vision and a collective identity (within which diverse sub-identities thrive), celebrated and strengthened by regular rituals. The parallel between protests in Oxford and Rome illustrates why Italian institutions need to “matriculate” their citizens to preserve social stability.
In Italy, as in many democracies, every five years citizens are called to send democratic signals for politicians to orientate policies towards the common good. Since 2010, when Italy started navigating in the hostile waters of “austerity,” politicians have had to adopt unpopular yet necessary measures to tame the Italian debt crisis. After three years, harsh economic measures have changed little or nothing: taxes kept increasing, firms outsourced, unemployment has risen… Simultaneously, politicians have traded ideas and loyalty with “parliamentary seat security,” reminding citizens of “the fundamental duties of political, economic and social solidarity” only when asking for taxes or votes. The result? Italians vote less, do not accept giving up their well-being for austerity and protest because they have no alternative to express their indignation towards institutions.
At Oxford, we do not have austerity in the economic sense, but there are high academic, professional and social standards. The common good at Oxford is to demonstrate and achieve excellence, which implies hard, constant work (much like paying taxes, one might argue). Moreover, Oxford is a “requiring” democracy: although you not vote for the Vice-Chancellor or the head of your college, “you are encouraged” (i.e. “must”) fulfil a myriad of duties and expectations. Why, therefore, have Oxford students not started a revolution, since they have no vote yet many “taxes”? Because, at Oxford, you are constantly reminded that you are part of a vision, that your contribution adds to a common good. Your Vice-Chancellor, unlike the Italian government, does not merely ask your vote and tuition fees, but also your engagement in the community to navigate the University towards the future while preserving its centuries-old traditions. This happens on a regular basis, not every five years. In this light, even when your student life is austere, you remember that it is for the “greater good.”
Daily rituals to survive “austerity”
Here, I am neither suggesting that Oxford University and Italy are the same, nor that all that happens at Oxford is to be regarded as a model. Nations and universities are different and the practices of the latter cannot solve the challenges of the former. It would be naïve to imagine the Italian Prime Minister and President meeting with almost 60 million people on a regular basis. What I am suggesting is that when leaders cultivate their relationship with citizens in tangible and constant ways, rather than five years, people are more likely to pay “taxes,” whatever form taxes take. On that matter, Italian politics can learn from Oxford a lesson on building solidarity.
First, politicians must embody the model of behaviour that they ask citizens to adopt. In other words, they must illustrate why and how to be “austere,” if austerity is what is required. Then, they must remind citizens of the underlying reasons why Italians should embrace the same conduct at the same time. This step entails leadership and reforms: politicians should go “to the ground”: to universities, factories and perhaps even homes to explain why there are fewer jobs and more taxes and what they all can do to improve the situations; the education system should be reformed to teach high school students how to read and apply the constitution, and promote a practical application of knowledge to society.
152 years ago, thousands of people fought, often at the cost of life, to “matriculate” as Italians. Today, Italian identity often gets lost in the fracture separating politics from citizens. On the contrary, an Oxonian today maintains the same broad values (and, possibly, standards of excellence) of an Oxonian from seven centuries ago. If “matriculation” is what is required, perhaps more Italian politicians should learn a lesson from Oxford.
Image from Wikimedia Commons