What is liceo classico?

Is it still representative of today’s society or out of date? Is it a cradle of knowledge or an educational space for a select few? Every year in Italy there is a heated debate on the potential reform of liceo classico. But what exactly is this school? What do we study there? And above all, is it useful?

Dear students, for once, I’ll be here telling you about when I was a student! And guess what school I went to? That’s right, I went to liceo classico. That’s why, today, I’ll be describing this school, since many of you don’t know well how it works.

Liceo classico is a type of Italian high school that kids attend for five years, from around 14 to 18 years old. In this school, students focus on classics and humanities. What does that mean?

It means that in liceo classico students study Italian literature, philosophy, ancient Greek and Latin. You got it right, Greek and Latin! Do we only study these subjects? Of course not! We also study standard subjects, such as Italian, English, math and biology. However, our specialization is classics.

Liceo classico, as I said before, lasts five years and is divided into two cycles:

  1. IV and V ginnasio (first and second year);
  2. I, II and III liceo (third, fourth and fifth year, at the end of which students take the State examination).

Let’s have a look at these two cycles in more detail.

The IV and V ginnasio prepare you for the school’s last years (the hardest). Over these two years, beside math, history, geography, English and Phys. Ed., students begin to concentrate on Italian grammar, art history and the Latin and Greek languages.

A word of caveat though! Latin and ancient Greek are dead languages, so we don’t study them in the same way as we study English or you guys study Italian: we mostly study their grammar. So, to answer a question that a lot of students ask me, no, I can’t speak Latin and Greek!
This last point is one of the causes of the long-standing controversy over liceo classico, but I’ll go back to it in a little bit.

Studying Latin and Greek is no piece of cake: it requires a lot of patience and good memory. As we study the grammar of these languages, we learn to do the so-called “versioni“, that is, we translate into Italian Latin and Greek passages, which become increasingly hard.

I, II and III liceo instead prepare us for the State examination (which in Italy is also called the Esame di Maturità, which literally means maturity examination!). The transition from ginnasio to liceo is a pivotal moment: it means that we’re halfway through a long and tiring journey. Some teachers (and their subjects) change, others remain, new ones come. What do we study in these three years?

First of all, we stop studying geography and Italian grammar. We start to study Italian literature instead. The study of Greek and Latin changes too: we no longer study the grammar, but we focus on the literature and the study of classical texts.

I’ve got to be honest, at ginnasio I hated Greek and Latin, but then at liceo they turned out to be my favorite subjects: I loved to discover these cultures that were so far and yet so close to the Italian culture. Imagine being able to study the Iliad and the Odyssey or Julius Caesar‘s war diaries! Of course, however, it’s not all that easy: the versioni get harder, and you begin to translate really complicated authors, such as Plato.

Speaking of Plato, at liceo, Italian students begin to study philosophy (only western, unfortunately), while history is studied much more in depth (usually there is only one teacher for both these subjects).

Math, which we begin to study together with physics, and art history also remain. And finally, other scientific subjects are added (chemistry and biology in I and II liceo and astronomical geography and geology in the last year).

As you can see, it’s a complex but also extremely interesting school. So why do Italians discuss every year the potential reform of liceo classico?

The critics of liceo classico claim that studying Greek and Latin is useless, since these are languages that nobody speaks. They believe that we should get rid of these subjects and that students should rather study subjects that are more connected to the work world.

The defenders of liceo classico, on the other hand, think that for the Italian students it’s essential to study the cultures of the Romans and Greeks, given that these civilizations laid the foundations of the Italian culture. They also think that subjects such as philosophy and art history are important to form the students’ critical thinking and to promote the Italian artistic heritage.

There are also some who argue that liceo classico should be reformed to be more in step with the times and more motivating for students. Not just versioni and grammar, but a deeper knowledge of ancient cultures, so as to teach young people to be open-minded towards contemporary cultures.

What do you make of it? Are there such schools in your countries? Have you ever studied Greek, Latin or philosophy? Leave a message in the comments!

You can also read this article in Italian 🇮🇹 and French 🇫🇷!

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