Liceo classico

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Classical lyceum Paolo Sarpi, located in Bergamo, established 1803
Classical lyceum Vittorio Emanuele II, located in Palermo, next to the cathedral

Liceo classico (classical lyceum) is the oldest, public secondary school type in Italy. The educational curriculum lasts five years, and students are generally about 14 to 19 years of age. Due to its rigorous curriculum and numerous notable alumni, it is considered, together with its scientific counterpart school - Liceo scientifico - the most prestigious secondary school students can attend throughout Italy.

Until 1969, this was the only secondary education track that allowed a student access to any kind of Italian university (including humanities and jurisprudence). It is known as a social scientific and humanistic school, one of the very few European secondary school types where the study of ancient languages (Latin and Ancient Greek) and their literature are compulsory.
Until 1968, any professor of Latin and Ancient Greek had to take a written test with an Interlinear Translation (morpheme by morpheme) directly from Latin to Greek, or from Greek to Latin.

Liceo classico schools started to be created in 1859, with the implementation of Gabrio Casati's reform.

The Gentile Reform created the Gymnasium, a five-years school (for students from 11 to 16), with a final test at the end of the second year of the secondary school. The test was written and oral, to be admitted to the three last years of Liceo. In the last two years of Gymnasium (IV e V), each student's class may have the same teacher, for 18 teaching hours on 30 in a week (Latin, Greek, Italian, History, Geography).

Since the 1960s, all presbyters and bishops of the Catholic Church studied in five (six)-years Seminary Minor, and since the 1990s at the Seminary Major (after the secondary school), the same matters of Liceo Classico (Theoretical Philosophy, Latin and Greek grammar and literature, English), with many others: ethics, psychology, pedagogy, sociology, Hebrew language, biblical criticism, Koine Greek (the Hellenistic period and Septuagint Bible), pastoral theology, Christian ethics and systematic theology, anthropology and eschatology, sacramentarian theology, Christology and Trinitarian theology, Mariology, patristics, ecclesiology, history of Christianity, history of religions, canon law, liturgy.


A liceo classico offers a wide selection of subjects, but the central subjects are those related to literature. Several hours are also dedicated to the study of history and philosophy.

The liceo classico's distinctive subjects are history, Latin and Ancient Greek. In Italy, Latin is taught in other kinds of schools as well, like liceo scientifico, liceo delle scienze umane and few others with linguistic specializations. However, Ancient Greek is taught only in the liceo classico.

Another peculiarity of the liceo classico is how the years of course are called: in all the other Italian five-year secondary schools, the years are referred to with increasing numbers from 1 to 5. In liceo classico the first two years are called ginnasio; the name comes from the Greek gymnasion (training ground). The first year is called "4th year of ginnasio", and the second year is referred to as "5th year of ginnasio" because, until the reform of 1962, this course of study started just after a three-year middle school ("scuola media inferiore"). By 1963, the first three years were suppressed and integrated in the 'unified secondary school', where Latin was mandatory as a subject to access the high schools until 1975. The remaining three years of liceo classico are referred as "1st, 2nd and 3rd year of liceo". However, nowadays this habit is waning, even though the names of the different years are still colloquially used.

This naming system comes from the Gentile Reform of the fascist regime, named after Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher and politician, who had planned an eight-year school career (five years of ginnasio and three of liceo) that could be accessed by passing a test after the fifth year of elementary school. There was also another test between the ginnasio and the liceo. Several reforms changed the Italian school system in about 1940 and 1960; the first three years of ginnasio were separated and became an independent kind of school. In 1968, the compulsory test which had to be taken at the end of the ginnasio to enter the liceo was abolished, so the liceo classico got the structure it has today.

In 2010, the Gelmini Reform [it] changed the traditional Italian school system, so now students follow this specific pattern of courses that covers a large range of disciplines:

However, nowadays it is common to find licei offering (together with this programme of studies) courses in music theory and history of music or an in-depth course in science or maths, for one or two hours a week every year.

At the end, students must pass the Esame di Stato (until 1999 denominated Esame di maturità) to obtain their certificate.

Subjects 1º Biennial 2º Biennial V year
I year II year III year IV year
Italian language and literature 4 4 4 4 4
Latin 5 5 4 4 4
Ancient Greek 4 4 3 3 3
English 3 3 3 3 3
History and geography 3 3 - - -
History - - 3 3 3
Philosophy - - 3 3 3
Mathematics* 3 3 2 2 2
Physics - - 2 2 2
Natural science** 2 2 2 2 2
History of art - - 2 2 2
Physical education 2 2 2 2 2
Catholic religion instruction or other activities[1] 1 1 1 1 1
Weekly lesson hours 27 27 31 31 31

Debate on the study of Latin and Ancient Greek[edit]

Unlike what is commonly believed, the debate on whether or not to abolish the study of Latin and Ancient Greek is not recent. Among others, academic Federico Condello and Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore examined its development over history. Thomas Jefferson, as early as 1782, pointed out that "Ancient Greek and Latin are nowadays less and less taught in Europe." [2]

In the Kingdom of Italy, in the report "On the conditions of public education in the Kingdom of Italy" (1865), it was stated that "Latin is neither studied nor loved by young people and, regarding the knowledge of Latin, there has been a considerable regress in the past twenty-five years. "[2]

In the twentieth century, the left-wing thinkers started to moderately criticize classical studies. On 17 September 1906, Ernesto Cesare Longobardi wrote on newspaper L'Avanti that "Italy needs more traders and technicians than commentators of classics "; but he also affirmed that completely abandoning the study of Latin wouldn't be a good thing.[2]

In the second half of the twentieth century left-wing thinkers managed to standardize and modernize education in a certain sense, eliminating the bourgeois obstacles of education. Thanks to these reforms, Latin disappeared from middle school curricula, and it became possible to be enrolled to university for all students from any Italian high school, but the teaching of Latin and Ancient Greek remained a compulsory part of the curriculum of Liceo classico.

The academic and writer Federico Condello, in his book La scuola giusta. In difesa del liceo classico (2018), also examines the positions of a controversial figure such as Adolf Hitler quoting a phrase from Mein Kampf, in which it is written that "[education] has to correspond more to the classic subjects,... Otherwise, one renounces forces which are still more important for the preservation of the nation than any technical or other ability. Classical studies don't have to be abandoned. The Hellenic ideal of culture, too, should be preserved for us in its exemplary beauty."[2][3]

Debate on liceo classico[edit]

In recent years, the real usefulness of liceo classico has also been questioned, with criticism and defenses coming from many parts. In general, the debate has developed both in the broader context of the need to reform the entire education system of Italy, adapting it to the cultural and working needs of the contemporary world.

Translation from ancient languages[edit]

Liceo classico is supposed to teach the students, among other things, a more rigourus way of translating a text. It is taught that the nuances of meaning can make the difference and that, in order to be able to translate correctly, it is necessary to understand and explain with simple words the meaning of each word. The translation of the so-called "versions" (Italian: versioni) of text in Latin and Ancient Greek has been compared by physicist Guido Tonelli to "scientific research" and it's supposed to be a useful mental exercise.[4]

Moreover, Latin and Ancient Greek may also make the students more interested in archeology, philology, linguistics and the deciphering of ancient languages. When students of liceo classico are abroad and learn a new language, some of them are supposed to follow a more rigorous and perhaps more profitable approach than other students, for example by buying a good dictionary and deepening the study of grammar.

In Italy, Latin and Ancient Greek are said to be highly educational; these disciplines, as well as liceo classico itself are supposed to make the students more skilled according to many Italians, even though there is no conclusive statistical evidence that shows this. According to the critics, the study of Latin and Ancient Greek would not provide a better education in all fields, but only in the field of humanities, i.e. literature linguistics, history, philosophy, philology, archeology, art history and therefore it is more suitable for students with a primary interest in these disciplines.[5]

Some Italian newspapers also praised Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates because they had studied Latin and Ancient Greek at high school, and some newspapers even claimed that this was the key to their success and that without the knowledge of these disciplines they would have been "underpaid employees". Other sources, however, pointed out that in particular Mark Zuckerberg was already very clever on his own, he had studied in elite institutions, he also knew Hebrew and other ancient and modern languages, and he had knowledge in various fields. Moreover, it is unclear how many hours Zuckerberg and Gates have actually dedicated to these subjects, perhaps only a small part compared to the efforts needed by the Italian school system. Last but not least, other successful entrepreneurs, such as Steve Jobs, did not know Latin and Ancient Greek.[6]

The Italian academic Massimo Fusillo, professor of literary criticism and comparative literature at the University of L'Aquila, for a brief part of his life was also a classicist and pointed out that the previous students of liceo classico who enroll in classics university courses "basically start from the beginning". In addition, in the United States students begin to study Latin and Ancient Greek in universities without having knowledge at all of these languages and, despite this, American universities always provided highly skilled classicists.[4] Fusillo also stated that, during his teaching experience at university, he rarely found "differences between students coming from the liceo classico and liceo scientifico ".[4]

Elitism and backwardness[edit]

Among the points in favor of liceo classico is certainly its being an elitist school, since it allows the cleverest and most ambitious students to follow a common study path compared to a mixed class, and this may result in a better education. This, however, is generally valid for most elite schools, regardless of whether Latin or Ancient Greek are taught.

The statistical data that seem to prove that liceo classico provides a better education (for example, students who studied at liceo classico graduate at university with higher scores compared to students who studied in other schools),[7] are correct, but not sufficient to establish an indisputable primacy of liceo classico on other high schools.[8] Since liceo classico still has the fame of being an elite school,[9] Italian students who choose liceo classico are more "serious", prepared, more motivated by their parents than students who enroll in other high schools and their average scores are higher since the middle school. Therefore, from a statistical point of view, it's not correct to draw conclusions from the graduation grades of students coming from different schools, since there has been a sort of upstream "selection" and the sample of students of liceo classico is, in statistical terms, "not representative of the population". [10] In addition, students who are rejected by liceo classico often enroll in other high schools or technical schools and a certain percentage manage to graduate, while it's very unlikely that a student rejected from liceo scientifico or a technical institute enroll in liceo classico and manages to graduate there. Another factor might be the almost total absence of foreigners studying in liceo classico, since it has been proved that there is a negative correlation between the number of foreign students in a class and the collective performance of the students of that class. [11]

Unlike the education system of other European and world countries, in Italy an "elite school" still includes the compulsory study of Latin and Ancient Greek, both considered "dead languages", belonging only to the historical and literary field of the education. The education of countries like Finland, considered one of the best in the world, or the United States of America, whose contents and model (such as the SAT or the APT of The College Board) are also in use in many Chinese high schools, doesn't include any compulsory courses of Latin and Ancient Greek. APT does include a short Latin course, but it's not compulsory and its duration is not comparable with the Italian system, where the study of Latin and Ancient Greek lasts for five years and it takes most of the weekly periods.

Notable alumni[edit]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ namely, for students who decide not to follow this course
  2. ^ a b c d
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Marta Cordini; Andrea Parma (April–June 2016). the Magazine of Social Policies. pp. 99–120. Missing or empty |title= (help)