Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently visited Harvard University in Cambridge, where he gave an impassioned speech about several issues afflicting Europe today. I won’t go into detail on the various subjects he touched, but I would like to delve into one particular theme that is dear to him: Italy’s investment in culture.
Renzi tied a widespread sentiment of fear and lack of solidarity to the rise of terrorism in Europe. “Culture is the target of terrorists,” he said. “You don’t think about death if you have a place to go to, if you have curiosity, if you have a job or something to look forward to. You don’t think about death if you know a good book to read or movie to go see.” A massive investment in culture is needed, said Renzi, who pledged one euro to culture for every euro spent beefing up Italy’s security. That all sounds very nice, but I’m not sure that such a massive investment should be poured into a generic idea of culture. I’d rather see the Italian government focus on creating jobs for the younger generations, who are still suffering from an unemployment rate that hovers around 37 percent. But that’s politics, and I don’t want to get into it. I do, however, want to trace a line between the lack of jobs and the culture clash that can arise from it.
Despite many ongoing issues, the United States is perhaps the best country in the world when it comes to assimilating and welcoming new cultures. The initial impact of an incoming ethnic group — such as the Italians were at the turn of the 20th century — is often countered with fear and skepticism. A quick search online will show you how Italian immigrants were depicted by important U.S. newspapers around 1900. Some illustrators thought it would be funny to render Italians as rats or monkeys.
Many Italians might have come here with little or no education, but they were hard workers and their American-born children and grandchildren went on to do great things. As time went by, the ignorance with which Italians had been greeted subsided, giving way to admiration and respect. (Americans of Italian heritage have occupied the most important positions in the country except for the presidency … but that will come one day, too!)
The reason why that shoddy welcome never transformed into a full-blown culture clash is because the United States has been — throughout its modern history — a land of opportunity. For those who seek them, jobs are available. In Europe, unfortunately, things have turned sour over the past several years because there are less and less opportunities for young Europeans. A recent statistic I found put at 30,000 the number of Italian researchers that will have left Italy between 2010 and 2020. If you’re not impressed by that number, let’s attach another one to it: $5 billion. That’s how much money is estimated to have been invested in educating and training 30,000 researchers.
I recently gave a presentation on these issues at UMASS Boston’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I explained that Italians are once again leaving the country. The last official statistics say 150,000 Italians leave every year, although the number is believed to be twice as big, as many do not register their new residency abroad for years. A big problem associated with this trend is that most of these expatriates (as I was in 2008) have degrees or are trained professionals. It’s the so-called brain drain. The problem wouldn’t be so bad if Italy attracted foreigners with degrees, but only 10 percent of those who move to Italy have degrees, while the United States sees at least 30 percent of those coming in the country with a degree. Reversing these trends is what a government should be doing, and what I hope the Italian government will start focusing on soon.