Vita Fortunati


To a Western European scholar like myself, the debate on the meaning and the institutionalization of multicultural education that has taken place in the United States, especially during the past decade, is so heated and controversial that I have decided to approach it indirectly, that is, by analyzing the role played by issues of race and gender in a different context-the Italian academy. I hope that my reflections on the impact of those issues on Italian academic research and curricula will reverberate through, and prove relevant to, the multicultural debate in the United States.

Today in America, the debate on the role of the university in a society changing profoundly under the pressure of different ethnic groups and cultures is much more lively than in any other country. Even the boundary between liberal and conservative is being questioned. The questions arising from this debate are various and not easily solved. One such question we face: In what way must teaching change in response to revisions of the literary canon and curricula? In these difficult times, pressing dilemmas, which have always characterized the history of university knowledge, rise again in search of resolution: the contested relationship between tradition and innovation, between cultural and political engagement, between ethics and aesthetics.

The echo of this fervent debate has reached "the borders of the empire," as Umberto Eco would say. In the last months in Italy, there have been heated discussions in our newspapers about the controversial theatrical play Oleanna by David Mamet, which explores the censorship of words and terms according to a "politically correct" agenda. Discussions also center on the tense atmosphere recalling witch-hunts, and on the dangerous wave of Khomeinism, taking form, for example, in the dogmatism and the extremely polarized terms of the "P.C." debate, which is supposedly sweeping American academia. It is the urgency of this debate which forces us to compare the European and the American situations. Currently, Europe is troubled both by extremely serious ethnic problems, connected to the rise of dangerous nationalisms (the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia, for example), and great waves of immigration. Issues of gender as well raise many unsolved problems, such as the question of abortion, which in Italy still provokes heated and dramatic debate, or the status of civil rights for gay men and lesbians, which have not yet been given full recognition.