Italy – The Protestant Ragged Schools At Naples

I HAD the pleasure one day of visiting nearly all the free schools which the wise philanthropy of the Protestant residents of Naples has established in that city. The schools had a peculiar interest for me, be-cause I had noticed (in an not careful fashion enough, no doubt) the great changes which had taken place in Italy under its new national government, and was desirous to see for myself the sort of progress the Italians of the south were making in avenues so long closed to them. I believe I have no mania for missionaries ; I have heard of the converted Jew-and-a-half, and I have thought it a good joke; but I cannot help offering a very cordial homage to the truth that the missionaries are doing a vast deal of good in Naples, where they are not only spreading the gospel, but the spelling-book, the arithmetic, and the geography.

It is not to be understood from the word missionaries, that this work is done by men especially sent from England or America to perform it. The free Protestant schools in Naples are conducted under the auspices of the Evangelical Aid Committee, — composed of members of the English Church, the Swiss Church, and the Presbyterian Church ; the President of this committee is Dr. Strange, an Englishman, and the Treasurer is Mr. Rogers, the American banker. The missionaries in Naples, therefore, are men who have themselves found out their work and appointed themselves to do it. The gentleman by whose kindness I was permitted to visit the schools was one of these men, — the Rev. Mr. Buscarlet, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Naples, a Swiss by birth, who had received his education chiefly in Scotland.

He accompanied me to the different schools, and as we walked up the long Toledo, and threaded our way through the sprightly Neapolitan crowd, he told me of the origin of the schools, and of the peculiar difficulties encountered in their foundation and maintenance. They are no older than the union of Naples with the Kingdom of Italy, when toleration of Protestantism was decreed by law ; and from the first, their managers proceeded upon a principle of perfect openness and candor with the parents who wished to send their children to them. They announced that the children would be taught certain branches of learning, and that the whole Bible would be placed in their hands, to be studied and under-stood. In spite of this declaration of the Protestant character of the schools, the parents of the children were so anxious to secure them the benefits of education, that they willingly ran the risk of their becoming heretics. They were principally people of the lower classes, — laborers, hackmen, fishermen, domestics, and very small shopkeepers, but occasionally among them were parents able to senti their children to other schools, yet preferring the thorough and conscientious system practiced in these. So the children came, and thanks to the peaceful, uncombative nature of Italian boys, who get on with much less waylaying and thumping and bullying than boys of northern blood, they have not been molested by their companions who still live the wild life of the streets, and they have only once suffered through interference of the priests. On complaint to the authorities the wrong was promptly redressed, and was not again inflicted. Of course these poor little people, picked up out of the vileness and ignorance of a city that had suffered for ages the most degrading oppression, are by no means regenerate yet, but there seems to be great hope for them. Now at least they are taught a reasonable and logical morality — and who can tell what wonders the novel instruction may not work ? They learn for the first time that it is a foolish shame to lie and cheat, and it would scarcely be surprising if some of them were finally persuaded that Honesty is the best Policy — a maxim that few Italians believe. And here lies the trouble, — in the unfathomable, disheartening duplicity of the race. The children are not quarrelsome, nor cruel, nor brutal ; but the servile defect of falsehood fixed by long generations of slavery in the Italians, is almost ineradicable. The fault is worse in Naples than else-where in Italy ; but how bad it is everywhere, no merely travellers, but all residents in Italy, must bear witness.

The first school which we visited was a girls’ school, in which some forty-four little women of all: ages, from four to fifteen years, were assembled under the charge of a young Corfute girl, an Italian Protestant, who had delegated her authority to different children under her. The small maidens gathered around their chiefs in groups, and read from the book in which they were studying when we appeared. Some allowance must be made for difference of the languages, Italian being logically spelled and easily pronounced ; but I certainly never heard American children of their age read nearly so well. They seemed also to have a lively understanding of what they read, and to be greatly interested in the scriptural stories of which their books were made up. They repeated verses from the Bible, and stanzas of poetry, all very eagerly and prettily. As bashfulness is scarcely known to their race, they had no hesitation in showing off their accomplishments before a stranger, and seemed quite delighted with his applause. They were not particularly quiet; perhaps with young Neapolitans that would be impossible. I saw their copy-books, in which the writing was very good, (I am sure the printer would like mine to be as legible,) and the books were kept neat and clean, as were the hands and faces of the children. Taking the children as one goes in the sheets of Naples, it would require a day perhaps to find as many clean ones as I saw in these schools, where cleanliness is resolutely insisted upon. Many of the children were ragged ; here and there was one hideous with ophthalmia; but there was not a clouded countenance, nor a dirty hand among them. We should have great hopes for a nation of which the children can be taught to wash themselves.

There were fourteen pupils in the boys’ superior school, where geography, mathematics, linear drawing, French, Italian history, and ancient history were taught. A brief examination showed the boys to be well up in their studies ; — indeed they furnished some recondite information about Baffin’s Bay for which I should not myself have liked to be called on suddenly. Their drawing-books were prodigies of neatness, and betrayed that aptness for form and facility of execution which are natural to the Italians. Some of these boys had been in the schools nearly three years ; they were nearly all of the class which must otherwise have grown up to hope-less vagabondage ; but here they were receiving gratis an education that would fit them for employments wherein trained intellectual capacity is required. If their education went no higher than this, what an advance it would be upon their original condition !

In the room devoted to boys of lower grade, I en-tangled myself in difficulties with a bright-eyed young gentleman, whom I asked if he liked Italian history better than ancient history. He said he liked the latter, especially that of the Romans, much better. ” Why, that is strange. I should think are Italian boy would like Italian history best.” ” But were not the Romans also Italians, Signore ? ” blush to say that I basely sneaked out of this trouble by answering that they were not like the Italians of the present day, — whatever that meant. But indeed all these young persons were startlingly quick with their information, and knowing that I knew very little on any subject with certainty, I think I was wise to refuse all offers to examine them in their studies.

We left this school and returned to the Toledo by one of those wonderful little side streets already mentioned, which are forever tumultuous with the oddest Neapolitan life — with men quarreling themselves purple over small quantities of fish — with asses braying loud and clear above their discord — with women roasting pine-cones at charcoal fires — with children in the agonies of having their hair combed — with degraded poultry and homeless dogs — with fruit-stands and green groceries, and the little edifices of ecclesiastical architecture for the sale of lemonade — with wandering bag-pipers, and herds of nonchalant goats — with horses, and grooms currying them — and over all, from vast heights of balcony, with people lazily hanging upon rails and looking down on the riot. Reentering the stream of the Toledo, it carried us almost to the Museo Borbonico before we again struck aside into one of the smaller streets, whence we climbed quite to the top of one of those incredibly high Neapolitan houses. Here, crossing an open terrace on the roof, we visited three small rooms, in which there were altogether some hundred boys in the first stages of reclamation. They were under the immediate superintendence of Mr. Buscarlet, and he seemed to feel the fondest interest in them. Indeed, there was sufficient reason for this : up to a certain point, the Neapolitan children learn so rapidly and willingly that it can hardly be other than a pleasure to teach them. After this, their zeal flags ; they know enough ; and their parents and friends, far more ignorant than they, are perfectly satisfied with their progress. Then the difficulties of their teachers begin ; but here, in these lowest grade schools, they had not yet begun. The boys were still eager to learn, and were ardently following the lead of their teachers. They were little fellows, nearly all, and none of them had been in school more than a year and a half, while some had been there only three or four months. They rose up with ” Buon giorno, signori,” as we entered, and could hardly be persuaded to lapse back to the duties of life during our stay. They had very good faces, indeed, for the most part, and even the vicious had intellectual brightness. Just and consistent usage has the best influence on them ; and one boy was pointed out as quite docile and manageable, whose parents had given him up as incorrigible before he entered the school. As it was, there was something almost pathetic in his good behavior, as being possible to him, but utterly alien to his instincts. The boys of these schools seldom play truant, and they are never severely beaten in school ; when quite in-tractable, notice is given to their parents, and they usually return in a more docile state. It sometimes happens- that the boys are taken away by their parents, from one motive or another ; but they find their way back again, and are received as if nothing had happened.

The teacher in the first room here is a handsome young Calabrian, with the gentlest face and manner, — one of the most efficient teachers under Mr. Buscarlet. The boys had out their Bibles when we entered, and one after another read passages to us. There were children of seven, eight, and nine years, who had been in the school only three months, and who read any part of their Bibles with facility and correctness ; of course, before coming to school they had not known one letter from another. The most accomplished scholar was a youngster, named Saggiomo, who had received eighteen months’ schooling, He was consequently very quick indeed, and wanted to answer all the liard questions put to the other boys. In fact, all of them were ready enough, and there was a great deal of writhing and snapping of fingers among those who longed to answer some hesitator’s question — just as you see in schools at home. They were examined in geography, and then in Bible history —particularly Joseph’s story. They responded in chorus to all demands on this part of study, and could hardly be quieted sufficiently to give Saggiomo’s little brother, aged five, a chance to tell why Joseph’s brethren sold him. As soon as he could be heard he piped out : ” Perchè Giuseppe aveva dei sogni ! ” (Because Joseph had dreams.) It was not exactly the right answer, but nobody laughed at the little fellow, though they all roared but in correction when permitted.

In the next room, boys somewhat older were examined in Italian history, and responded correctly and promptly. They were given a sum which they performed in a miraculously short time ; and their copy-books, when shown, were equally creditable to them. Their teacher was a Bolognese, — a naturalized Swiss, — who had been a soldier, and who maintained strict discipline among his irregulars, without, however, any perceptible terrorism.

The amount of work these teachers accomplish in a day is incredible : the boys’ school opens at eight in the morning and closes at four, with intermission of an hour at noon. Then in the evening the same men teach a school for adults, and on Sunday have their classes in the Sunday-schools. And this the whole year round. Their pay is not great, being about twenty dollars a month, and they are evidently not wholly self-interested from this fact. The amount of good they accomplish under the direction of their superiors is in proportion to the work done. To appreciate it, the reader must consider that they take the children of the most ignorant and degraded of all the Italians ; that they cause them to be washed corporeally, first of all, and then set about cleansing them morally ; and having cleared away as much of the inherited corruption of ages as possible, they begin to educate them in the various branches of learning. There is no direct proselyting in the schools, but the Bible is the first study, and the children are constantly examined in it ; and the result is at least not superstition. The advance upon the old condition of things is incalculably great ; for till the revolution under Garibaldi in 1860, the schools of Naples were all in the hands of the priests or their creatures, and the little learning there imparted was as dangerous as it could well be made. Now these schools are free, the children are honestly and thoroughly taught, and if they are not directly instructed in Protestantism, are at least instructed to associate religion with morality, probably for the first time in their lives. Too much credit cannot be given to the Italian government which has acted in such good faith with the men engaged in this work, protecting them from all interruption and persecution ; but after all, the great praise is due to their own wise, unflagging zeal. They have worked unostentatiously, making no idle attacks on time-honored prejudices, but still having a purpose of enlightenment which they frankly avowed. The people whom they seek to benefit judge them by their works, and the result is that they have quite as much before them as they can do. Their discouragements are great. The day’s teaching is often undone at home; the boys forget as aptly as they learn ; and from the fact that only the baser feelings of fear and interest have ever been appealed to before in the Neapolitans, they have often to build in treacherous places with-ant foundation of good faith or gratitude. Embarrassments for want of adequate funds are sometimes êlt also. But no one can study their operations without feeling that success must attend their efforts, with honor to them, and with inestimable benefits to the generation which shall one day help to govern free Italy.