ROME, Italy — Dante Alighieri, author of the "Divine Comedy" and father of modern Italian, is likely turning in his grave.
Up until the 1960s, middle and high school students in Italy studied both Latin and Greek syntax and literature. Today they can hardly write (and many cases even speak) Italian properly.
Based on the results of the June graduation exams for public schools, one out of three high school seniors has a poor knowledge of grammar, limited sentence construction and vocabulary use.
Roughly 500,000 public school students took their exam — which includes a written essay. According to data from the Education Ministry, more than 8.6 percent of pupils failed the tests, three times more than did five years ago. Grades in general were lower, especially in the written essay, with an average below C.
Topics for the essay ranged from literature to history and society. The favored themes were "looking for happiness" and "the relationship between youth and music."
Among the errors: no period at the ends of sentences, no paragraph divisions, no logical connection between phrases, and wrongly spelt verbs, incorrect adverbs and conjunctions. Nouns were often mistaken for verbs and vice versa. From a semantic point of view the essays were poor on ideas, sense and originality.
A couple of years ago a student chose the theme on courage and wrote: "This is courage," followed by a blank page. The evaluation committee admired his gesture and gave him a B.
Authorities acknowledge that the level of "literacy" among students has drastically dropped in high schools and universities. The statistics are gloomy.
According to a national survey teenagers in the country read little, not more than one book per year. The Center for European Education calculated that 25 percent of Italian university graduates can hardly understand and analyze a text, let alone identify lexical ambiguity, metaphors, synonyms and antonyms. They are listed as the least literate in the world, followed by Mexicans.
To tackle this negative trend, several universities have recently launched special grammar courses for first year students, hoping that what they failed to learn in elementary school can now be recovered.
So whose fault is it? Leaving aside that the Italian language is considered one of the most complicated in the world, Italy's education system in recent years has been rocked by a series of destabilizing reforms that have ended up creating total chaos.
Since the 1960s lawmakers (both left- and right-wing) have tried making the school more meritocratic and innovative through the introduction of credits and the multiplication of subjects and faculties. But instead of modernizing the system, the changes brought about by successive governments triggered fragmentation, says education expert Fabrizio Reberschegg.
Computer studies and English language courses were introduced at elementary school, but without great results considering that most foreign language teachers are non-native speakers.
According to high school teacher Marco Lodoli, who several years ago wrote an alarming article on daily La Repubblica, "students have lost the ability to think and they live in silence."
For Rosa Maria Scrugli, a retired Italian language teacher, a great responsibility of the grammatical void among students lies with the teachers themselves.
"It's not the students' fault if they can't spell their verbs or write a logical sentence, but of the teacher who has a poor preparation. Ten years ago, professors constantly attended refresher courses. We had to keep up with the transformation of the Italian language and at the same time rehearse our Latin and Greek syntax. It doesn't work this way anymore."
And according to one student, who admitted to hopelessly failing her Italian exam: "I don't think it's such a big issue. Language is rapidly changing thanks to the influence of internet and new ways of writing are appearing," said 18-year-old Luisa Ranier.
Her friend Marco Bignani, 19, will start working at his father's bar in September. He passed his high school exams with a C. "What's the point of learning proper Italian if I'm not going to university?" he asked. "After all, I will be serving coffees and beers for the rest of my life."