A true scholar and politician
Ugo Mifsud Bonnici is not a man of heroic stances, but one of some particularly difficult seasons. He took over the Ministry of Education at a time in Malta’s political history when intellectual obtuseness, encouraged by the education ‘reforms’ which had been wrought over the previous 15 years, had become rampant.
During an interview held at the University’s Faculty of Laws earlier this year he recalled that one of his declared priorities in 1987 was restoring to the University the humanities, which had all but ceased to exist. He has always been passionate and forceful in his defence of the need for all students to acquire a knowledge of a Classical language, and with the language, the philosophy of that civilisation.
“Latin is a foundation for the future,” he said. “My conviction is that Latin and Greek are important, first of all, as languages. Whenever I chance to look at a thesis by some lawyer, or listen to a speaker at a symposium, I realise they have not been through the discipline of the classics.”
We bring up the relationship between the humanities and genuine political consciousness. Minister of Education for seven years, President for one difficult term, he has allowed himself to be inspired by the great Cicero who said: “To know nothing about the past is to live forever like a child.”
Mifsud Bonnici said: “When you open Cicero, you get glimpses of his great thinking. For example, this morning, I read this beautiful concept: ‘one should not brag about the fact that one was elected, but one must render account for what he did with his election’.”
But what about the contemporary state of education? Is not the real crisis now the worldwide crisis in education, and will education for economic growth and the concept of efficiency work against the humanities and arts as ingredients of basic education?
Dr Mifsud Bonnici disagrees. “The classics give you an enquiring mind that is constantly bent on bettering its own performance, and the humanities increase the efficiency of the greatest economic resource – human beings.”
But has education in Malta lost its way?
“We have, unfortunately, during these past 50 years, removed the basis of what has made Maltese society,” he said. “People who have not studied philosophy have no real basis for the principles of politics. Even the notion of human rights is a philosophical concept.” He recalls that in the past all professionals used to have a grounding in philosophy.
I mention that many universities in the UK have made deep cuts in funding for the humanities and how university education is being recast along growth-oriented lines. But his reaction is thunderous.
“Don’t speak to me about following the British example. We resisted English dominance for a long time; then, when we were on the brink of independence, we embraced them completely and removed many of our own traditions, as well as all remaining traces of continental influence.”
The conversation takes a different turn. He is suddenly inspired by the word “discipline” in the context of learning Latin and Greek, and animatedly takes up one of his favourite themes:
“Discipline is so important... In Maltese, we have the beautiful word ‘rażan’. It means ‘restraint’... or ‘temperance’... or ‘measure’, although measure is more of a Greek than a Latin concept.
But it is at the mention of Ovid and the Alexandrians that Mifsud Bonnici’s poetic self really takes the upper hand, and for a moment, the stern minister, the phlegmatic President, the rigorous scholar is eclipsed, as he launches into the sublime verses he has long learnt to love from Catullus.
“It is so important to know what happened in Greece and Rome because that is the basis of the law we are using today.”
But what about his vision for the future of the University? What about this dismal and ominous prospect ‘education for profit’?
“The University does not exist simply as a teaching institution. It also has a function to serve the country,” he said. “For example, it produces leaders for the country. In this sense, educating for the future is the great step forward.”
The former President comes back to Malta: “What I would want to see done is the publication of some of the notes given by professors, say in 1880 or 1910... because it gives you a measure of what a real university it was.
“I remember with gratitude the group of law professors who taught at the Faculty of Laws at this time: Victor Caruana Galizia, Felice Cremona, Ninu (Sir Anthony) Mamo, John Cremona, Joseph Ganado, Joe Xuereb, Edwin Busuttil, Hugh Harding, Ċensu Gatt, as well as those in the humanities: Edward Coleiro, Gerald Seaston, Joseph Aquilina, Giovanni Curmi, as well as reverend professors Saydon (Biblical Studies) and Grima (Philosophy).”
He continues: “We have extended the definition of classical languages to include Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. It is very inspiring to find that Latin and Greek both derive from Sanskrit.”
We start discussing translations of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and he is quite moved in recalling that his father had on his shelves an Italian translation of the Bhagavad Gita, side by side with translations of the Russian novelists which, as a young student, he had devoured.
But inevitably, he takes the conversation back to Cicero, the eminently human, passionate, lovable, incorruptible yet vulnerable, greatest of all orators.
“I cannot try to imitate Cicero while lecturing (law students).”
We thank the former President for his support in our work to infuse new life and vigour into the study of classical languages and in restoring to men, through the study of classics, the knowledge of their inner self which they have all but forgotten.
He waves away our words with characteristic brusqueness and departs suddenly, acknowledging my thanks by quoting the opening words of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, just before his towering presence disappears through the secretary’s office, leaving us to mull our short but intense exchange.
His enthusiasm at the official launch last July of the Malta Classics Association (of which he is Honorary President) was undisguised, as it has always been while he was at the helm, in one of the most troubled periods for education in Malta’s history.
He remains a true scholar and a true politician, measured in his words, wise in his judgments, consistent in his ideology and sublime in the philosophy of Socratic Greece and Republican Rome which has always inspired him.
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