1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Suggested Reading: Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, The risk of education: Discovering our ultimate destiny

This text asks a necessary but oft neglected question in education: Just what is it that we want to ultimately achieve? Giussani unapologetically asserts in the first paragraph, “The fundamental idea in the education of the young is the fact that it is through the younger generations that society successively rebuilds itself; therefore the primary concern of society is to teach the young. This is the opposite of what currently happens” (p. 7). He proposes neither a return to some return to what is derisively called “traditional methods,” nor does he envision education as a means for “social progress.” Instead of separating tradition and criticism, he insists that both are necessary for an authentically human education. He does this through four movements. First, there is the insistence that teachers present the past to their students. Tradition, the past, becomes what he calls a “hypothesis of meaning in life” (p. 53). This is not as amorphous as it may initially sound: parents consciously or unconsciously communicate a view of life to their children. Second, the teacher must be aware that he or she bears within himself or herself such a “working hypothesis” and that the students will look to the teacher to help them verify the proposal veracity. If the teacher is existentially coherent, the students will look to this person as an authority. Third, “true education must be an education in criticism” (p. 9). According to Giussani, the student must “take this past [tradition] and these reasons [what an authority such as a teacher has said], look at them critically, compare them with the contents of his heart, and say, ‘This is true,’ or ‘This is not true,’ or ‘I’m not sure’” (p. 10).

These three elements point to a fourth: the risk of education. The risk is that the student may not see things as we wish he or she might; they may abuse their freedom. For Giussani, our love for freedom must outweigh our love for results. He observes: “Here, the situation of many educators, both in families and in schools, is painfully clear; their ideal is to risk absolutely nothing” (p. 82). His goal throughout the text is summarized in the Introduction, “What we want … is to free the young generation from mental slavery and from the tendency to conform, which mentally enslaves them to the forces in society” (p. 11).

In my opinion, this is precisely the kind of posture required for a new kind of school. It seems to me that Catholic schools may emphasize "tradition" without criticism or risk; public schools are good at criticism but no coherent tradition is proposed. With Guissani, the best existing elements can be brought together into a unified whole.

Now, how does one build a curriculum around this philosophy of education?

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