Published: Sept. 11, 2016 By

Valerio Ferme elected president of largest U.S. Italian studies association

For much of the 21stcentury, study of the humanities has been derided by high-profile pundits for allegedly failing to prepare students to compete for employment in a technology-driven world, resulting in declining enrollment and public support.

Valerio Ferme

Valerio Ferme

Scholar Henri A. Giroux puts it this way: “Welcome to the dystopian world of corporate education, in which learning how to think, appropriate public values, and become an engaged critical citizen is viewed as a failure rather than a success.”

But Valerio Ferme, professor of Italian and associate dean for the arts and humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes that a liberal arts education not only prepares students to adapt to a constantly shifting economic landscape, but also enriches their human experience.

“People now change jobs often, requiring completely different skills in 10 years. (Humanities) students have the skills that allow them to move between jobs and not become obsolete,” says Ferme.

“The added benefit of the humanities is that they also allow us to be lifelong thinkers, and dreamers think and dream of the possible and impossible.”

But he also believes that some blame for the oft-cited crisis in the humanities rests with academics and “what we have done in our fields. At times, we have become involuted, drawn inward toward subfields and particular, narrow questions. These are valid and spur our research, but they don’t always interest our students as much. We need to get back to the big questions, which are the hook that draws students’ interest and engagement.”

Ferme’s vision of broader relevance and outreach is one reason his colleagues recently elected him to a three-year term as president of the American Association for Italian Studies, which focuses primarily on literary pursuits. He stepped into the job in June with the goal of advancing an expansive, ambitious agenda.

One thing that’s starting to creep up in publications like Forbes (magazine) and The Wall Street Journal is that many businesses are looking for arts-and-humanities majors who are trained in the soft skills of critical thinking, oral and writing abilities, empathy and cultural knowledge.”

Among his immediate goals: collaborating with other culture, arts and academic programs, both Italian and non-Italian, whether local, national or international; meeting with officials at the Italian embassy in Washington, DC, to foster relationships with other cultural institutions and organizations around the nation; and working more closely with the American Association of Teachers of Italian, which places a greater emphasis on pedagogy, about ways in which to promote “everything Italian in this country.”

“Advocating for Italian studies is at the top of my agenda, but I also believe collaborations are important, to show strength. (The AAIS) has been run well, and from a financial standpoint, we are healthy,” he says. “But I want to look for ways to be more visible and more vocal, to create a bigger buzz for what we do.”

Ferme brings that same sensibility to his teaching at CU Boulder, designing courses that appeal to a broad cross-section of students.  Take “La Dolce Vita: Why Humanities Matter, Italian Style.”

“With Italy, we are talking about the birth of humanism,” he says. “Students don’t even realize how much they do and think is related to that culture and history, going back hundreds of years.”

Ferme also teaches a course on the Italian-American experience and would like to delve deeper into the history of the Italian presence in Colorado.

“A lot of people don’t realize there was a very strong Italian-American community in the mining industry at the turn of the century, and that high schools in Pueblo still today teach Italian among their foreign languages” he says.

Ferme’s early academic career was focused in part on the provocative subject of Italian fascism. His first monograph explored the role that translators played in subverting the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini during the mid-20th century.

“Everybody thinks of Italian fascism as sort of sweet little sister or brother to Nazism,” he says. “But Italy had concentration camps, and many people died. It wasn’t as brutal (as Nazism), but it was real.”

With his current work translating an Italian scholar’s book about Mussolini’s concentration camps, Ferme finds himself re-immersed in a controversial subject at a time when some critics have tossed around the “f-word” (fascism) in describing presidential nominee Donald Trump.

To Ferme, that’s an overstatement. But there are, he says, similarities between Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, the brash business tycoon who served as prime minister of Italy for nine years, to whom Trump is often compared.

“I do think Trump might have styled himself somewhat after Berlusconi. Today, people like someone who comes across as non-prepped and non–polished by political machinery, but also connects with certain values that are at the core of a national history. … An outspoken leader has long held an appeal in Italian politics. One need only think of the millenary history of outspoken Roman emperors, Renaissance princes and, closer to us, Benito Mussolini.”

“Berlusconi provided that link with the past for a while in Italy,” he says, “even if his brand ran out. It is possible, without making value judgments, that Trump feeds into similar sentiments and national representations.”

In the end, Berlusconi was ousted not so much because people were less fascinated by him, but because his fiscal policies were not sound and his personal foibles caught up with him.

“But, as is the case for Trump,” Ferme says, “personality is a great part of Berlusconi’s appeal. It behooves us to appreciate his role in the public arena, and understand the nature of his appeal.” 

That might be fodder for a future course, Ferme says. But for now, he’s firmly focused on promoting Italian studies and working to undermine criticism of the humanities. He’s even writing a document for parents of prospective students, explaining why the arts and humanities matter.

“One thing that’s starting to creep up in publications like Forbes (magazine) and The Wall Street Journal is that many businesses are looking for arts-and-humanities majors who are trained in the soft skills of critical thinking, oral and writing abilities, empathy and cultural knowledge,” he says.

“The humanities are important, both practically and idealistically.”