2010 Balzan Prize for European History (1400-1700)
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 19.11.2010
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am deeply honoured by the prestigious prize that I have been awarded. At this moment, I feel the need to thank all of those who have helped me through their friendship and affection, their criticism, and what they have taught me. To my family and my friends, I extend my appreciation: to those who are here and those who no longer are. Here, on this public occasion, I want to remember those from whom I have learned a great deal.Apart from my research work, teaching has been my profession, or better, an important aspect of my profession. I have often found myself saying that I like teaching, but that I like learning more. I consider learning to be one of the great joys of life. I have had the good fortune of learning from very diverse people who were full of extraordinary qualities. If I look back, I am moved by their generosity and their human and intellectual diversity. I think of Goya’s wonderful drawing depicting an old man with a white beard, slowly moving forward with two canes; above him are written two words: Aun aprendo, I still learn, I’m still learning. Goya was thinking of himself, and when I look at that old man, I see myself in him. One never stops learning. I have learned outside school, unpredictably and in unpredictable circumstances; and I have also learned in school, from elementary school onwards, until recently, when I formally stopped teaching: because, as one knows, teachers learn from their students, and vice versa. What I am saying is obvious, because everyone learns (homo sapiens is not the animal that knows, but rather, is the animal that knows how to learn). In evoking the idea of learning, it is not obvious to remember all of this today, on such a solemn occasion, when in so many countries, starting with the one where I am a citizen, the schools have become a fragile, threatened institution – due in the first instance to the short-sightedness of the political class, but also to the absolutely inadequate reaction of public opinion. I have spoken of short-sightedness, but I realize that I have used an improper term. Of course, cutting investment destined for education, in a world where education is (and will be even more so) the most precious resource for the development of society, is a short-sighted gesture that goes against the interests of the country, and – let’s say it without any pretence – that condemns it to certain decadence in the future. Nevertheless, this reasoning is insufficient and should be rejected, because what it really does is to implicitly accept the so often taken for granted idea that education and the transmission of knowledge are goods that are subject to the laws of the market, to the mechanism of supply and demand. So I should correct myself: it is not a question of short-sightedness, or in any event, not only of short-sightedness. This is an assault (because we are talking about a direct attack here) on public education. Is this malizia or matta bestialitate, malice or brute bestiality? readers of Dante will ask. Perhaps both – who knows?My generation was fortunate to be involved in the extraordinary technology that has transformed how knowledge is attained and handed down: namely the internet. Some have said that the internet is a tool of democracy. Taken literally, this statement is false. One needs to add: it is a tool of potential democracy. The internet’s motto can be summed up in the paradoxical and politically incorrect words that Jesus pronounced: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance” (Matthew, XIII, 12). In surfing the internet, in order to be able to pick out pearls from trash, one must already have had access to knowledge – access that is normally (here I am speaking of personal experience) associated with social privilege. The internet, which could potentially be a tool that would lessen cultural disparities, in the short term, actually exaggerates them. Schools need the internet, of course; but, in order to be used to its full potential (let’s be realistic: to one millionth of its capacity), the internet needs public schools that really do teach.In the course of my life, I have had the good fortune of attending schools and universities, in Italy and outside Italy, where I met extraordinary scholars who were all – without exception – extraordinary teachers as well. If I had not met them, I would be another person today, and I cannot even imagine what I would have become. I will name a few: Delio Cantimori, Arsenio Frugoni, Augusto Campana, Arnaldo Momigliano, Gianfranco Contini, Carlo Dionisotti, Ernst Gombrich and Lawrence Stone. Then, those from outside university lecture halls: Felice Balbo, Sebastiano Timpanaro and Cesare Garboli. I have cited only the names of scholars who have passed away. To the living, and to those who are near and very dear to me, I pronounce my gratitude once more.