The dream was once to have a foothold at every university to educate America’s youth in things Italian. But, that dream has produced few, if any, students prepared to lead our heritage or even defend it. Perhaps it was too much to expect.
The dream was launched at Columbia University in Manhattan with the invitation of Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte to teach Italian Literature in 1825. He was not paid by the college, and he had to charge students who attended. One hundred years later, in 1927, the Italian American community established the country’s first Casa Italiana there – a 30,000 s.f. palazzo to house the Italian Language Dept., classrooms, theater, and library – definitely geared to Italic students.
From the 1960s on, Italian study centers were created elsewhere on a much lesser scale: in rented spaces with directors and teachers paid from Italian American endowments or from legislative grants sponsored by Italian American politicians. In one case, at New York University, a Casa Italiana was founded by a wealthy donor and a small brownstone purchased.
Those were heady days for our community. Our sons and daughters had a place on campus to socialize and to participate in lectures and symposia to strengthen their ethnic identity. That was the theory. Anything an Italian center offered them was icing on the cake. Well, icing is not a food group.
There is no better example of our ethnic malnutrition than the issue of Columbus Day at our various Italian studies centers, today. Not one of these elite campus think-tanks has defended the man who unified the globe. Their mission in life is all cultural. They steer clear of community issues, especially ones that conflict with university consensus or the sacred realm of art. They will not laud Columbus or condemn Mafia movies.
As statues of the Great Navigator come down across the nation, as distortions, lies, and violence displace reason and debate, our cultural elite smugly wait out the storm confident in their scheme to remain silent. Meanwhile, some of them post press releases supporting Black Lives Matter, some conduct annual vigils condemning bygone Fascist anti-Semitism, and some have become more multi-cultural than Italian.
I undertook a quick survey to gage the interest of five Metro NY Italian studies centers in the Columbus Day controversy. Only one center responded – Casa Italiana at NYU. But, I clearly hit a nerve just asking the question:
Dear Mr. Mancini,
I’ve been working for the promotion of Italian Culture in the US for over 30 years and I’m not going to take a litmus test on my work based on a single issue picked by some unknown institute.
My center, as you call it, has been presenting over 100 events and programs free and open to the public every year for over 30 years. This is where we stand on Italian culture. We engage in free and open academic and intellectual discussion, not in crusades.
Sincerely, Stefano Albertini
Columbus, then, is not an academic matter because any such examination by an Italian center is a “crusade.” Imagine, 3,000 events and programs over thirty years at NYU and the greatest event in global history didn’t warrant a lecture! As for the other four centers, their silence is not surprising. I have monitored their anti-Columbus bias on-line. If there is a 1492 “crusade” in academia it is to destroy Columbus’s legacy.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that the directors of these Italian studies centers are left-leaning and embrace revisionist history. Another, is that some of them are non-Italic, being Judeo-Italian, Jewish, and even Irish. They may love Italian culture, but they have no skin in the game.
Across the board, we have witnessed the detachment of these centers from the best interests of our community. Columbus is the most obvious gap, but their failure to explore the effects of relentless defamation of Italian culture in cinema is also profound.
In all cases, these centers are unconcerned with the basic need of Italian American students for a historical grounding in their Classical heritage – from Rome to Columbus. While other ethnic and racial groups pine for what Italians accomplished, our own youth must discover it themselves. These centers are marginal to our true cultural needs.
To the extent that any of these centers exist at the taxpayers’ pleasure, they should be defunded! – JLM