Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Children of Barbiana (Italy) publish Letter to a Teacher, a critical analysis of public school

This year, eight students of the Barbiana school (located in Tuscania, Italy) published a book that would soon become a bestseller in several languages. Entitled Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa) this document was one of the most powerful indictments of the injustices of the school system written by poor students. The book was the outcome of a year-long collaborative project coordinated by teacher Lorenzo Milani at the end of his life.

Anticipating some of the arguments advanced by sociological studies of the 1970s like Schooling in Capitalist America (Bowles and Gintis), Learning to Labour (Paul Willis), Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (Jeannie Oakes), Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work (Jean Anyon) or The Forms of Capital  (Pierre Bourdieu), the schoolboys of Barbiana lucidly examined the class bias of public schools. Using clear (and sometimes angry) language, challenging ideas, and a multiplicity of data and examples, in their letter the children exposed the variety of overt and covert mechanisms used by schools to discriminate against poor students.

Barbiana was at that time a small Italian village of about twenty farmhouses in the hills of the Mugello region, in Tuscany. The school of Barbiana (its full name was Santa Andrea di Barbiana) was set up by progressive educator, journalist and priest Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967) to provide an alternative for poor children who had been pushed out by the traditional school. Before being ordered to the Barbiana church in 1954, Milani had been assigned to Calenzano, a town near Florence, where as a young priest he had opened a night school for the working people. That experience taught Milani the importance that a relevant curriculum and proper encouragement have among students who have been pushed out by the school system. This lesson helped Milani when he arrived to Barbiana and noted that most of the children had either been flunked out of school or were bitterly discouraged with the way they were taught (Rossi and Cole 1969).

The school started with 10 peasant students, 11 to 13 years old, and included a rigorous schedule of eight hours of work per day, six to seven days a week. A few years later, the group grew to 20 students, with the older students teaching the younger ones. The curriculum included the analysis and discussion of the children’s own lives, and these analyses and discussions included an year-long project (coordinated by Milani) about their experiences in the school system. That project provided the basis for the book Letter to a Teacher.

When Milani died in 1967, the Barbiana school closed its doors. However, the students offered Milani a fine tribute by publishing one of the most eloquent pieces of the 20th century on school and social class. The book was written as a letter to an imaginary public school teacher. This abstract teacher was constructed from the childrenís concrete experiences in public schools.

Letter to a Teacher brought about many themes that still resonate strongly today. Among them are the problems of two-tiered education systems, of emphasizing testing and grades, of rating schools, of teacher's authoritarianism, of poor quality education for poor children, of irrelevant curricula, of repetition and dropouts, and of business-like management models in schools.

The first paragraph of the book announces the angry and eloquent tone of the remainder of the text:

Dear Miss,

You don’t remember me or my name. You have flunked so many of us. On the other hand I have often had thoughts about you, and the other teachers, and about the institution which you call ‘school’ and about the kids that you flunk. You flunk us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us.  (p. 3)

The book seems written by one boy alone, but the real authors are eight Barbiana school students, with the assistance of some former schoolmates who were working during the week and would help with the project on Sundays. While the book was written by the students and former students themselves, building on their own personal experiences, it is possible to infer the influence of teacher/journalist Milani, who probably helped them to give the text a publishable form. For instance, the children note that in writing the book they have used the 'the humble and sound rules of writing in all ages':

Have something important to say, something useful to everyone or at least to many. Know for whom you are writing. Gather all useful materials. Find a logical pattern with which to develop the theme. Eliminate every useless word. Eliminate every word not used in the spoken language. Never set time limits. (p. 25)

A few pages later, however, they add that this good writing is not enough to make a compelling argument, and in addressing their teacher they stress the importance of including compelling evidence to support their statements:

You can say you know a lot of other examples, as true as ours, but leading to the opposite conclusions. So, let us drop, all of us, a position that has become too emotional and let us stand on scientific ground. Let us start all over, this time with numbers. (p. 35)

So, after giving their personal examples, they present and analyze an extensive set of statistical data, tables and graphics on poverty, repetition and dropout rates, providing strong evidence of schools' bias against working class children.

Like Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which was written approximately at the same time), Letter to a Teacher not only denounces the classist character of the educational system, but also proposes new objectives and new pedagogical methods for education, particularly for the less privileged students. Also like Freire, the Barbiana schoolboys recognized the political dimension of education when they make the following call:

Whoever is fond of the comfortable and fortunate stays out of politics, he does not want anything to change. To get to know the children of the poor, and to love politics, are one and the same thing. You cannot love human beings who are marked by unjust laws, and not work for other laws.

The political intentionality of the book is also present in the dedication. Although the book is written as a letter to an imaginary teacher, the Barbiana students are appealing to a different public: “This book is not written for teachers, but for parents. It is a call for them to organize”, begins the dedication.

The Random House edition of the book includes two short and excellent postscripts, one by Robert Coles and the other by John Holt, who had published How Children Fail in 1964. Both postscripts manage to successfully relate the experience of the eight Barbiana students to the experiences of poor children in U.S. classrooms.

As I mentioned above, the book was originally published in Italian and was soon translated into many languages. Its first English edition was printed by Random House in 1970, and the following year it was reprinted by Penguin. I remember reading the Spanish version of the book in the early seventies in my secondary school in Argentina. Needless to say, it was not part of the school curriculum. My classmate Carlos Vanney lent it to me during a break with an air of secrecy and a mischievous smile, like if he was passing on to me a forbidden and powerful document that was going to change my understanding of schooling. It did. Gracias Carlos!


English translation: (1970). Letter to a teacher [by] schoolboys of Barbiana. Translated by Nora Rossi and Tom Cole. New York: Random House.

Rossi, Nora and Tom Cole (1970). Translators’ Introduction. In Letter to a teacher [by] schoolboys of Barbiana. Translated by Nora Rossi and Tom Cole. New York: Random House.

For a review of Letter to a Teacher, please see 

See also: 

Prepared by DS (OISE/University of Toronto)


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