De Paola on McLean, 'Mussolini's Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy'

Eden K. McLean
Stephanie De Paola

Eden K. McLean. Mussolini's Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Illustrations. 348 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0642-8; $55.00 (e-book, epub), ISBN 978-1-4962-0720-3; $55.00 (e-book, pdf), ISBN 978-1-4962-0722-7.

Reviewed by Stephanie De Paola (Fordham University) Published on H-Italy (January, 2019) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

Printable Version:

Il Duce and Childhood

While numerous studies have considered the origins, legacies, and role of racism in Fascist Italy, the centrality of youth education to the Fascist racial apparatus has been largely overlooked. Eden K. McLean’s Mussolini’s Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy offers a new interpretation of Fascist racism by examining the role of elementary education, such ancillary organizations as the National Organization for the Protection of Mothers and Children (ONMI), and Fascist youth groups in disseminating ideas about italianità and in shaping and molding the physical and mental fitness of the Italian race from the inception of Mussolini’s regime in 1922 to the onset of war in 1940. McLean argues that during the Fascist regime, “school and its ancillary organizations were primary tools the Fascist state used to establish and impart discourses of racial identity and biopower” (p. 24).

Divided into four chronological sections, Mussolini’s Children traces the changes and continuities in the Fascist educational system from Giovanni Gentile’s 1923 educational reforms to Giuseppe Bottai’s leadership of the Ministry of National Education (MEN) in 1938-40. In part 1, “Defining Fascist Power and Identity, 1922-29,” McLean describes the initial reforms to the Italian educational system under Mussolini. The architects of the system, Gentile and Lombardo Radice, introduced a pedagogy that while in many ways was in line with “Western educational trends,” nevertheless prepared students to serve the Fascist state and fulfill its racial ideals (p. 25). The Fascist goal of shaping a collective racial community was accomplished through bureaucratic and pedagogical reforms, which built on resources from the Liberal period. The organic and active learning model espoused by Gentile was accompanied by the incorporation of mandatory religious education into a standardized curriculum that valorized the unifying concept of italianità through emphasis on Italian language, geography, history, and such shared values as obedience and discipline. With children ages six to fourteen required to attend school, the educational system increased its influence over Italian youth, including those in rural areas. Gentile’s early reforms also included a centralization of the rural school system, which was increasingly brought under the purview of the state, as well as through the use of modern technologies, such as radio and film. Alongside such educational reforms, youth organizations like the National Balilla Organization (ONB) in 1926 and later the Gioventù italiana del littorio (GIL) further instilled boys and girls with the physical fitness, martial values, and discipline necessary to serve the Fascist state.

In part 2, “‘Fascistizing’ the Nation and Race, 1929-34,” McLean delineates the fascistization of the educational system through a series of centralizing measures. Beginning in 1928-29, the educational system became more totalitarian despite “Gentile’s continued influence” (p. 93). Under the leadership of Balbino Giuliano, for example, the Ministry of Public Instruction (MPI) was transformed into the MEN—revealing increased centralization by Mussolini—and state-mandated national textbooks, more aligned with Fascist ideals, were introduced. The emphasis on romanità and its connections to modern Italian history, the valorization of the “heroes” of Italian history, and the increased presence of such terms as razza and stirpe in state textbooks revealed the more nationalistic and expansionist goals of the Fascist regime by the mid-1930s. At the same time, organizations, including ONMI and the ONB, increasingly collaborated with and shared responsibility with schools in shaping Italian youth “to embody the ideals of italianità and fulfill the supposed destiny of the race and the fatherland” (p. 89). From 1928 to 1932, the MPI also established physical education schools for teachers. Through physical fitness and the militarization of organizations like the ONB, Italian youth were being prepared to serve the fatherland both at home and abroad.

In 1934-36, at the apex of the Italian colonial project, the educational system was again revised to reflect the exigencies of the state at that time: to create the Second Roman Empire, which would provide evidence of Italy’s superiority, the focus of the third part, “Resurrecting the Roman Empire, 1934-38.” While elementary textbooks continued to underscore the same themes as previously—the heroes of Italian history, the success of the Italian Fascist party (PNF), and the connections between ancient Rome and modern Italy—increased emphasis was placed on “Fascist goals for autarky, irredentism, and colonialism” and on Italy’s ambitions beyond the peninsula as well as the wrongs done to Italy by foreign nations (pp. 141-42). Such changes were meant to imbue Italian youth with an “imperial consciousness” (p. 169). At the same time, italianità became less inclusive and more exclusive as it increasingly began to denote differences between Italians and non-Italians, the groundwork for which—as McLean argues—had been laid from the beginning of the regime.

The book’s fourth and final section, “Ensuring the Empire’s Immortality, 1938-40,” describes the radicalization of the educational system under Bottai. With Bottai’s school charter of 1939, elementary education was further politicized and centralized. Rural schools were required to provide courses in Fascist culture, physical education became a central part of the curriculum, and education was increasingly gendered to prepare boys and girls to meet the goals of the regime (women as mothers and homemakers and men as soldiers). The need for an expanded national workforce was reflected in the expansion of vocational education after third grade. The heightened anti-Semitism and racial rhetoric of the regime in the late 1930s was mirrored in the educational system as Jewish people were barred from public schools, textbooks were exclusively to be written by Italians, and travel abroad for academic purposes was strictly controlled. And, yet, despite such changes, continuities remained: “ultimately, elementary lessons between 1938 and 1940 echoed language and imagery from throughout the 1920s and 1930s” (p. 205).

Mussolini’s Children is an innovative study on Fascist elementary education. By using “the lens of state-mandated youth culture” and the concepts of race and biopolitics to examine the spreading of Fascist racial theories, McLean convincingly shows how Fascists used the educational system “to educate new generations of a strengthened Italian race” (pp. 2, 17). Using an array of new sources, including pedagogical journals, textbooks, and student notebooks, McLean provides a rich and contextualized analysis of the continuities and changes in elementary education from 1922 to 1940.

Despite these obvious merits, readers may wonder whether the Fascist quest for consent through elementary education was successful or not, despite, of course, the totalitarian nature of the regime. Student notebooks do, however, give us a glimpse into this question. Readers may also wonder whether or not the use of the modern conception of racism, “expressed as the privileging of one category of people—defined by presumed inherited differences—over other categories of people,” can be applied to some of the Fascist educational reforms of the early 1920s, such as the establishment of physical education academies (p. 6). In a similar way, readers might question whether the concept of italianità in the early 1920s led to the discrimination against and rejection of those who were not Italian by the end of the 1930s?

Overall, McLean’s book engages readers with an innovative approach and engaging narrative. It is highly recommended to those who seek a more comprehensive understanding of Fascist racism and the evolution of elementary education during the Fascist regime.

Citation: Stephanie De Paola. Review of McLean, Eden K., Mussolini's Children: Race and Elementary Education in Fascist Italy. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL:

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