A couple of weeks ago, there was a lot of talk in Italy about Finland for two reasons:

For many Italians, Finland—and the Scandinavian countries in general—appears to be an almost ideal nation in terms of management of public affairs and welfare, just like Denmark. Despite pervasive xenophilia among my compatriots, we should not mythologize or idolize these countries. We should rather acknowledge they generally serve as wonderful examples when it comes to government activities, but we should not forget to judge them with a critical perspective as well. In light of the two events mentioned earlier, I would like to share some thoughts. Because these facts are so effective at highlighting the glaring cultural differences between Finns and Italians, they can be viewed as a succinct dissertation on contemporary cultural anthropology.

I believe that the story of the Finnish family caused astonishment in the majority of people who, like myself, were born and raised in Italy. I was intrigued by how a family could travel to another country without doing their research first and speaking with locals about the customs and lifestyle. Considering there are four children involved, I had trouble understanding why they would make such a choice without fully understanding the those differences in advance. How was it possible to act so carelessly? I tried to put myself in the shoes of the Finnish family. How would the average Italian have handled the situation? Given his or her multigenerational experience, which is now wired at the DNA level, he or she would have anticipated a number of potential issues, starting with absent or inadequate public services. He or she would have inspected each and every one of them beforehand. Where necessary, he or she would have put everything in place to address these problems in order to be more or less prepared for any circumstance (e.g., verifying the presence of compatriots in town who could be a great help). After deciding to leave Sicily, the Finnish mother wrote a letter in which she expressed her thoughts on the matter. She herself wonders whether they were too naive to assume, for example, that the school system was qualitatively homogeneous throughout the Mediterranean. Only a Martian could have made such an assumption in the eyes of an Italian, because we are well aware that the quality of the educational system — and of public services in general — varies dramatically not only from one region to another, but also from one school to another. Even the quality of a public office depends on the person you are assigned to when you need to get there for doing some paperwork. We Italians accept passively this situation as a fact, as an immutable “law of nature” that requires us to adjust and compensate for it with our own skills, relentlessly and creatively. The capability to cope with virtually any unexpected situation is a skill that has been developed and refined over generations. These considerations prompt an obvious reflection on the Finnish educational system, which was well-described by the television program Report. According to all the parameters considered, this system ranks among the best in the world. However, it hasn’t been successful in producing citizens who can manage their transfer to Sicily successfully. In other words, it could not prepare them for real life. Watching Report’s service, one is left stunned. How can one not be envious of such a well-designed system? It is just amazing! Everything works exceptionally well. The system is built around the students in order to pursue an optimal trade-off between their learning process and their quality of life. Yet, after reading the history of the Finnish family, you begin to have some reservations. Paradoxically, isn’t this system perhaps too well done? Students grow up in such a well-functioning, cocooned environment that it appears like someone else always paves the way for them. I wonder if this approach truly prepares them for life in the real world. In Italy, this means you have to deal with bureaucratic, organizational, legislative, and other absurd challenges on a daily basis. Do I mean that the Italian educational system is better than the Finnish one? Of course not. Nevertheless, it must be noted that growing up and attending schools in Italy fosters the ability to deal with unexpected and improbable situations. To address them, it is necessary to find original solutions by thinking outside of rigid, pre-established frames. This expertise is invaluable in the workplace, for instance, and has made the fortune of many Italian professionals who have achieved substantial success abroad, particularly in countries where this kind of mental flexibility is not prompted. From an evolutionary standpoint, Darwin has taught us that adaptability is what makes a difference. Italians have many flaws, but in this regard, we are well-equipped. We generally possess this skill, which should not be underestimated in a world changing so quickly.

That being said, we also find incomprehensible the decision itself of the Finnish mother to write such a letter. I believe that, for readers in central and northern Europe as well as the Anglo-Saxon world, this letter appears to be just a description of the terrible experience they had because of the Italian school’s shortcomings and flaws. We Italians see something else in that letter too: there is the underlying admission that the Finnish family was so naive to assume that everything functions as well as it does in Finland. For this reason, I don’t think any Italian, or almost any Italian, would feel the need to write a similar letter if they had such an experience. We would be generally too proud to make such a public admission.

Lastly, let’s talk about the most painful thoughts for me. What picture is painted of the Italian educational system, and more broadly of Italy itself? To get an idea, all you need to do is read my compatriots’ comments on social media. On one hand, I agree with those who argue that adopting the Finnish model to Italy in its current form would be ludicrous. Instead, they assert there are various excellent concepts to draw inspiration from for improving the Italian scholastic system. On the other hand, there are also numerous comments that demonstrate an anachronistic, self-centered view of the world. The authors of these comments believe we are still living in the time of the Roman Empire when Rome lighted the Western civilization, the Italian peninsula was the center of the known world, and Latin was the reference language, much like English is today. These people have never had the intellectual curiosity to understand how things work outside of our borders. They are resistant to any kind of change because they think our system is the best in the world by definition. They fear any contact with the outside world because they know it would expose their incompetence and lack of professionalism. They battle tooth and nail to keep the status quo in order to preserve the privileges they have obtained, which they mistakenly believe to be rights. The most serious aspect, however, is what an Italian university professor working in Finland has accurately described when interviewed by the Report‘s journalist: a complete lack of vision and planning in the political class and, as a result, in all state branches. That vision — whose absence causes many young Italians to flee our country in an apparently unstoppable migrant flow — has enabled Finland to accomplish the results described by Report.

PS: Report also showed the following chart comparing the starting salaries of teachers in various European countries. I expected the Finnish pay to be noticeably greater since I thought the cost of living in Finland was quite higher than in Italy. Evidently, that is not the case.


This post was written with the help of DeepL, Quillibot, and AISEO.

Featured image by Olivier Darny: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-lake-during-daytime-3109271/.