Spring 2008

 

THE LAST WORD

 

Re-Thinking Italy - The Italian Brain Drain

 

by Joseph Pivato 

 

Italians in the New Europe are being forced to rediscover who they are. Italy has a forgotten history of immigration. Between 1860 and 1970 about 26 million people left Italy. Though this is one of the most massive migrations in world history, it was not studied in Italy until recently. Only two books of note have been published in the last fifteen years: Vito Teti’s La razza maledetta (1993) and Pasquino Crupi’s Un popolo in fuga (1991). Both titles suggest a negative image. Today, Italians are waking up to large numbers of immigrants coming into their country, while many educated and trained Italians are heading elsewhere for better opportunities.

 

Since the 1980s large numbers of immigrants have been entering Italy from many parts of the world, including Albania, Romania, the Philippines, Central America, and Moslem and African countries. This has changed the social composition of the peninsula. Italians often refer to these people as extracomunitari, that is, foreigners. But they are really new Italians who live and work in Italy, and whose children go to Italian school, study Dante, Pirandello, and Oriana Fallaci, and root for the local soccer team.

 

In the past the only differences that Italians recognized in their country were the familiar regional ones of funny dialects and peculiar dishes. With mass education, mass media and easy travel within Italy, many of these regional differences are disappearing. Now Italians see visible minorities on their streets every day and witness “boatpeople” landing on their shores every month. The national and regional governments have been coping poorly with the changes that these new realities are bringing about. Within the context of a declining Italian birth rate and increasing numbers of Italians leaving the country, what, we may ask, does the future hold for Italian society?

 

Italians emigrating today are not uneducated farm workers nor smalltown artisans like in the 1950s, but highly educated and trained professionals who are frustrated with the lack of opportunities within their country. Italy is beginning to suffer from a serious brain-drain, which it can ill afford as a G8 nation. Yet, with the inwardlooking and corrupt politics of the national government, it is difficult to see how this decline will be halted.

  Accenti THE LAST WORD  Re-Thinking Italy - The Italian Brain Drain  Joseph Pivato
     

 

By way of example, at a recent conference at the University of Warwick in England, academics looked at the topic of mobility and the ethnic identity of Italians. They presented research on both emigration from, and immigration to Italy. Speaker after speaker explained the nature of the problems, and gave evidence of the serious impact on Italian society.

 

I was invited to Warwick to speak about Italian Canadians and our writers. I explained the phenomenal development of Italian-Canadian literature as a reflection of the extraordinary cultural and economic achievements of Italians in North America. The flourishing of Guernica Editions and each issue of Accenti demonstrates this.

 

But what struck me most was the number of Italian academics who live and work in the UK. Since they are still within Europe, these academics return to Italy often and probably do not see themselves as immigrants. They may have started out working for two or three years in the UK with plans to return to Italy, but their return is delayed.

 

Some, like Michela Baldo of the University of Manchester, were students in the Erasmus Program, which allowed them to study anywhere in Europe and learn another language at the university level. They often found universities in Italy frustrating or dysfunctional and so returned to the UK to do graduate degrees. After completing their graduate work, they were offered university positions at British universities, while Italy offered them nothing comparable. Many like Dr. Loredana Polezzi have lived in the UK for ten years or more and have come to realize that they will never work at an Italian university. Many of these accomplished academics and researchers are women who know that they will never be hired through Italy’s “old-boy system” of cronyism. Despite their Italian passports, they now are wondering what it means to be Italian in the New Europe.

 

The Erasmus Student Exchange Program in Europe has operated since 1987. It has involved hundreds of thousands of students, 60 percent of whom are women. It is not surprising to find so many Italian women academics in British universities, where they are evaluated on the merit of their work. 

 

There are now about five million Italian nationals living outside Italy. However, this is not talked about in Italy. It is notable that this conference was held not in Italy but in England and was funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council. Some Italian researchers are now studying something that was, until recently, of little interest to the Italian academy: that is, the phenomenon of Italian immigration and Italian identity abroad. Are Italians going to learn something new about themselves beyond the clichés? How can Italian language and culture exist outside Italy? How can there be Italian identity for people living outside Italy? Italian- Canadians would, no doubt, have different answers to these questions than their counterparts in the UK. What is encouraging is that Italians outside Italy are asking these questions and critically evaluating their relationship with Italy.

 

 

For information on the “mobility conference,” see www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/italian/colloquium/.

For information on the politics in Italian universities see: justresponse.net and unimagazine.it. For work on Italian-Canadian writers, see www.athabascau.ca/cll/pivatoessays.htm

 

 

Joseph Pivato is professor of literature at Athabasca University in Edmonton. He is the editor of Mary di Michele: Essays on Her Work (Guernica 2008) and a frequent contributor to Accenti.

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