He became world famous with his essay The utility of the useless (Cliff), a defense of the humanities and the classics for both education and life. In it, the Italian professor and philosopher Nuccio Ordine (Diamante, 1958) denounced the damage that current utilitarianism causes in schools, universities, and research: what does not provide immediate benefit is cut. A work that has just been recognized with the 2023 Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities. Ordine is happy because he believes that the award is an endorsement of what he defends.
Congratulations. How did you receive the award?
It is too great an honor, I did not expect it. The values that I have defended now have more strength with the prestige of this award. That’s why I’ve dedicated it to the teachers around the world who are quietly changing the lives of students. Today the work of a teacher does not have a great importance in our society. That’s why I dedicate the award to them. And at the same time I am very proud and I have an enormous debt to three very important teachers in my life, Emilio Lledó, Umberto Eco and George Steiner, who have won this award before me. I have an infinite debt to these giants of European culture.
“The humanities and basic research are threatened by the idea that only what produces money is not a waste of time”
The jury rewards him for his defense of the humanities. What threatens them today?
The same threat that the humanities have is scientific research. The idea that we have to choose only the activities that produce money, therefore unfairly in our society reading a book, admiring a painting, means wasting time. Doing scientific research just to respond to curiosity, to learn about nature, is wasting time. That’s why basic scientific research has many difficulties, it doesn’t have money. There is a very strong pressure for scientific research to be short-term, quickly profitable. Today defending the humanities and basic scientific research means defending the future of humanity.
In this defense of the humanities and the future of humanity, is the school one of the main battlefields?
School and university, yes, because today society makes students believe that you have to study to obtain a diploma and then earn money in the world of work. It is a paltry vision of education. The first task is to make our young people understand that the main objective of education is to be better, to become educated women and men and then, with what they have studied with love, worked only with the desire to know, they will be good professionals. If ethics fails, it is because speeches like Boris Johnson’s to British students a few months ago are uneducative: you have to choose only the disciplines that allow you to earn money. Being a doctor or an engineer to earn money means that the ethical level of the profession is going down, because the objective is not to be a good doctor or engineer, it is to earn money. We must defend the true task of education.
“The idea of competences, that knowledge must immediately have a practical meaning, is a way of making education miserable”
What do you think, in this sense, of the current focus of education by competencies, not by rote?
The idea of competences, that knowledge must immediately have a practical meaning, is a way of making education miserable. For me today, the main task is to make understand the great values of society, the school and university have to be critical laboratories. Today they are not. Being places where false social values are criticized. Today they have to train little soldiers for the world of work, who are passive consumers. They have to leave school with the same weight and ideas. It is a horror. You can’t imagine a more human humanity like this
In that sense, what do the classics contribute?
I have written the trilogy formed by The utility of the useless, classics for life and men are not islands to make people understand that the classics are not studied to get a degree or pass an exam, but rather help us to live. Each chosen page shows how our contemporaries are always, they always talk about our life. Defending the classics, music, works of art, artistic heritage, means defending the things that can make humanity more human.
What is the last classic you have read?
a fantastic one, bartleby the clerkby Hermann Melville. It stars a man who is precisely in a reality like Wall Street and who dares to say I don’t like this, to say no in a productive world. There is always a person who can say no, who can do things that are not for money. Every time his master offers him money, if he thinks he can’t do it, he won’t do it for all the money in the world. It is a very important novel to make people understand that there are more important values than money. It is not true that money is the only thing to be happy. Montaigne teaches us that among the true values that make us happy, first of all, we must learn to enjoy, not to possess, our society makes you understand the opposite, that it is to possess and not to enjoy what makes you happy. It’s a lie.
“Italy is not fascist, it has a very different feeling, but today communication can make people understand things that are false”
How is the Italian political situation, with a prime minister like Giorgia Mel?oni?
What can I say, these rulers who defend false values, who consider immigrants as enemies, who plan to build walls, who have no respect for diversity and human rights, allied with people like Viktor Orban against homosexuals, who defend the idea of the natural family, father, mother and son, and if two people love each other it is not a family. Total madness, very concerned about the Italian situation. Literature teaches us that life can only have meaning through the things we do for others. Einstein in a wonderful article in The New York Times He said that only a life lived for others is a life worth living.
Does it surprise you that Italy has chosen to govern someone somehow heir to 20th century fascism?
They are the effects of false information, and everyone is like that. We have more information today, but little knowledge. Populist parties are successful because there is no sense of criticism. Italy is not like that, it is not fascist, it has a very different feeling, but today communication can make people understand things that are false, that are lies.
What do you think of Meloni in particular?
She is a woman who has a formation of far-right parties, and now with the migrants she is doing things that reveal that vision of the world. She and she has allied with Orban, in Europe she has not signed the declaration against him for not defending human rights. Teachers must defend good values through literature and schools, today the good teachers are the rebels, heretics, salmon against the current. This award makes me happy because it gives voice to salmon teachers who can criticize the dominant values in our society all over the world.
“Even when in a war a clear and safe distinction can be made between good and evil, there is also evil in good”
Right now there is great concern about the effects of artificial intelligence. Does it worry you?
Technology is a drug. The Greek root of this word is pharmacon, remedy, but also poison. It means that the importance is in the doses that we assume of all this. A lot of technology can hurt. Today there are statements from the inventors of artificial intelligence who wonder with great concern about the future if there are no parameters and rules that can control this work. Technology is not bad but a lot of technology can kill. But I wonder if we can really talk about intelligence. True intelligence means creating and imagining things that didn’t exist before, thinking about different worlds. Tomorrow a robot can give a fantastic concert like Mozart or paint a picture like Velázquez or write a novel like Joyce, Cervantes or García Márquez? I have many doubts about this, we can only make assumptions.
Does the war in Ukraine show the failure of European humanist aspirations?
Today we have imperialist powers that can cause damage in all parts of the world. Edgar Morin’s latest book, dedicated to his experience of war, talks about all the wars he has lived through, and makes us understand that even when in a war a clear and safe distinction can be established between good and evil, also in the good is the bad. Wars are always dangerous, they don’t have one who wins and another who loses. And today there are dangerous economic interests. Do the industries that produce weapons really have an interest in peace in Europe? Do the imperialist countries have an interest in favoring peace? I don’t think so. It’s very dangerous.
The jury says that you defend “values rooted in the most universal European thought.” Today that everything seems relative, what would those universal European values be?
One is that of human solidarity. It is enough to read pages of Seneca, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, to understand these values. We are only thinking of a Europe of banks, finance, trade, but we do not have a true Europe of culture. In Giordano Bruno’s time there was an idea of the strongest culture, Bruno traveled throughout Europe to seek freedom, to meet philosophers, scientists, and dialogue with them. He has a very inspiring phrase: for the true philosopher, all land is homeland. My homeland is the place where I can think, write and live in freedom.