In 1861, the southern universities had 9,000 students out of a total 16,000 in the whole Italy; in Naples were established the first university chair of Economics in the world, the first orthopedic clinic in Italy. The Neapolitans military hospitals were the best in Europe.
Neapolitan publishers were publishing 55% of all books published in Italy.
As far as culture is concerned, Naples had an high reputation: just remember that the theater S. Carlo is the oldest opera house in Europe, inaugurated on November 4, 1737 after just eight months from the beginning of its construction, 41 years before the theater of the Scala of Milan and 51 years before the Phoenix theater in Venice.
However, the situation with regard to mass education was not bright: at the time, its usefulness was not shared by all, in fact, was very strong school of thought that denied the opportunity of mass education.
It is important to remember some action whose aim was at promoting mass education: as early as 1768, King Ferdinand decreed the establishment of a free primary school for each municipality, open to children of both sexes and free of charge. In 1818 the Supreme Commission of Education confirmed the establishment of the free primary school whose burden was delegated to individual municipalities.
Unfortunately, these laudable initiatives of the central government clashed: in reality, due to the neglect from local towns and villages: out of 3094 municipalities obliged to provide popular education popular, in reality in 1084 lacked any training, in 920 were missing female school, in 21 male school. At the bottom line, only 999 were municipalities and villages in compliance with the law.
The first census after the unification, which brings as a reference date of 1861, highlighted an illiteracy rate of 78% (74% male – 84% female), with a maximum of 91% in Sardinia and a minimum of 57% in Piedmont and 60% in Lombardy; it was a shame for Italy as a whole, especially if you ‘comparison with 10% in Sweden, 20% in Germany and Austria, 31% UK, 47% in France, 75% in Spain.
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from this point of view was objectively behind, primary education had been neglected, and the illiteracy rate was 85% in Campania, Puglia and in 89% of 90% in Calabria and Sicily . Data are daunting, but not only for the southern part of Italy, the figure is daunting even for the most advanced regions if you read it in a European context. Today an illiteracy rate of this magnitude is only present in some African countries.
On the other side, we should take into consideration that the datum is not fully reliable: it’s quite difficult to consider reliable the data of the census in 1961, when there a civil war in the South and any collection of data on the field was not possible. Afterwards, during the ’60s, the schools in the South were closed for some years and this gives rise to further doubts.