I know my dearly departed Sicilian grandparents always placed a lot of value and importance on education. Even though they didn’t have the opportunity to have a lot of schooling, they were constantly learning new things. They managed to navigate a new country and language with great success. I always considered them a great font of knowledge and wisdom.
But they always would feel somehow insecure about their level of learning, which was uncalled for. That’s why my Nonni were so proud of their grandchildren, who all completed their schooling. They were incredibly proud of my brother and me, who were the first in our family to get a university degree.
Sicilian’s generally place a lot of importance on education, but there is also a certain level of suspicion of learning. In the past, only the wealthy had access to higher education, so the general population didn’t trust the upper class’s power over them because of their wealth and education. The aristocracy used its power to exploit the working classes in many cases. All you need to do is read the history books to see endless examples.
Not only within the historical feudal social system in Sicily was there a distrust of the educated and wealthy, but this fear was also heightened by the trauma of all of the island’s foreign invaders. Over 2,500 years at the centre of the strategic crossroads of the Mediterranean created a unique layering of history and cultures.
Thirteen dominations from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians and even the British have left an impression on the island. Each dominator of Sicily represents a foreign culture filled with a superior level of wealth, power and knowledge to exude their rule over the Sicilian population.
There is also a certain level of reasonable old fashioned Sicilian scepticism about education. Honestly, natural learning is done outside of the classroom, which is about observing the world around you, gathering knowledge, skills, and understanding that is more valuable than anything learnt through books and theory.
Sicilians like Italians also put a high value on something they call ‘furbizia’, a kind of street smarts that is more valuable than any other form of learning. You can be as well educated as you wish, but it will do no good if you are dull and naive. You are born with the quality of furbizia; it really cannot be taught.
The idea of furbizia translates to a mixture of cunning, trickery, astuteness and guile, has become a solid part of the Italian character, it’s not very attractive, and as usual, this trait becomes more pronounced in the South, like most things tend to do.
That’s why figures like Silvio Berlusconi are such a firm part of the political landscape; he is seen as very Furbo; he works the already corrupt system for himself and those who support him. They are admired for having the guile to manoeuvre through bureaucracy for their and others advantage.
This leads us to this week’s saying: ‘a closed book doesn’t make a literate or educated man.’ There is so much beauty to admire in this simple phrase. A closed book is a metaphor for a closed mind; if your mind isn’t opened, there is no way you can gather wisdom.
The idea that all knowledge is contained in books is a false one so that you can have all of the most beautiful books on your bookshelf, but if you don’t read them, you will never reap the benefit of them.
If they were still with us this year, my Nonno and Nonna would have turned 100. I can honestly say that their time with us was always not enough. We needed them for another hundred years still at least. But then that’s the way life is; our time is limited and is never enough, is it.
If they were still here, I’d share this saying with them and remind them that their minds were always so open, alive and more vivid than any intellectual. I preferred to hear about their experiences. Their stories were filled with more wisdom, down to earth common sense and heart and soul than anything else in this world.