Education is freedom

Yes, It Is Worth the Risk
An Experience Offered

Georgetown University in Washington, DC, hosted on April 4th-5th,the conference on The Risk of Education. A report on two days of dialogue among fifty university professors

By Michelle Riconscente

Most of this weekend’s visitors to Washington, DC, came for the blossoms on the cherry trees that line the National Mall. But for the fifty theologians, philosophers, and educators gathered at the Georgetown University conference center, the reason for the trip was, instead, the planting of a seed: the thought of Giussani in the soil of the American educational context.
Dr David Schindler welcomed the elite group of intellectuals, who represented a range of Christian traditions and universities from the US, Canada, and Europe, with his own enthusiasm for the event, and then read a personal greeting to the conference penned by Fr Giussani himself. Schindler then introduced Dr Stanley Hauerwas, the first of three speakers to present reviews of The Risk of Education.

A serious scholar and formidable critic
Named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine in 2001 and Gifford Lecturer (the “Nobel Prize” of philosophy, natural theology, and religion), Hauerwas, a United Methodist theologian, is well established as a serious scholar and formidable critic. Thus, his hearty enthusiasm for Giussani’s thought was not to be taken lightly. Witty and down-to-earth, sporting blue jeans and a Texan accent, Hauerwas prefaced his comments by expressing “fundamental agreement” with the themes of The Risk. “It seems all I can do is say, ‘I wish I had said that.’”
Focusing on the university setting, Hauerwas underscored many of the points central to Giussani’s concept of education, beginning with the importance of reclaiming virtue. “You can’t separate what you know from how you come to know it. All education,” he insisted, “is moral education. Particularly courses not thought of as ‘ethics’ courses.” Echoing Giussani, he traced the problem in education to “the presumption that the ‘Christian’ part of education did not have to do with the ‘truth.’” Thus, religion was increasingly relegated to personal life, so much so that the necessity of the mediation of the church was lost.
From this introduction, Hauerwas spoke of the need for education to have an expression, or “materiality,” in everyday life, and to embrace the whole of life. As Giussani writes, Christian education goes beyond a mere patching up of the fragmentation present in current educational settings (where students go from one topic to another without being helped to grasp their meaning), to the proposal of alternative structures and cultures. Hauerwas explained, “Giussani is suggesting an even stronger case than that made by MacIntyre” for why the teaching of physics, economics, and history would change when approached from a Christian understanding.

Experience: the central point
Intense discussion followed, sparked by Paul Griffiths’ comments on the institutional setting and Giussani’s emphasis on experience. “Experience” in particular was to be the central point of debate throughout the conference. From the beginning, Giussani’s insistence on experience has been repeatedly met with fear of subjectivity, in which the judgment of the individual would override tradition. This concern was raised among these scholars, as were questions about how one might live Giussani’s educational proposal in a secular environment.
The discussion, which continued over dinner, was striking for both its intellectual and its human quality. Indeed, throughout the conference, friendship was evident in the way the remarks were shared, not as superficial tolerance of others’ views, but as among companions engaged on a journey to understand Giussani, our context, and ourselves. Rather than returning to their rooms or escaping for strolls in the neighborhood, many opted to stay together in the evening. Guitars emerged from car trunks and hotel rooms and the hearty singing of American folk songs wafted throughout the conference center halls.
The following morning, His Excellency Angelo Scola presented a paper via video, in which the theme of experience was again taken up and expanded upon. In his comments to launch the discussion, Dr Mikhail Waldstein underscored the objective basis upon which Giussani insists on experience in the educational process. Thus, the meaning of “elementary experience,” the “verification” process, and the importance of a “unifying educational hypothesis,” all themes central to Giussani’s The Risk of Education, joined “experience” at the center of inquiry throughout participants’ morning reflections.

Jay Carter and Katherine Tillmann
Among those who eloquently intervened was Dr Jay Carter, whose work explores the narratives of Black Christians like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Carter, provoked by Giussani’s insistence on experience, raised implications for understanding the Black experience in America. “There’s a way, from the phenomenological aspect of experience, to get at a dogmatic understanding of it.” It is a hypothesis that the objectivity of experience proposed by Giussani illumines (perhaps not coincidentally on the weekend marking the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination).
Gracious, intelligent, and thoughtful, Dr Katherine Tillman, an authority on the work of Cardinal Newman, drew parallels between the great Cardinal and Giussani in her talk. Through numerous and moving cites from their works, she illustrated the striking resonance between the two men, focusing her comments on the themes of tradition and the personal influence of the teacher. The themes of tradition and friendship were thus brought to the fore in the ensuing discussion. Dr Patricia Alexander, Professor of Educational Psychology, whose work involves preparation of teachers, intervened with fervor and sincerity. “I want us to talk about what Giussani says and what can carry over into the education of tomorrow’s youth. I want to be the kind of teacher talked about in these pages. But you must help me.” Tillman concluded the session as she closes her “Great Books” seminars with undergraduate students, suggesting and requesting questions which remain open and which represent the need for continuing the dialogue.

In the end two testimonies
After hours of lively debate and a closing panel discussion, all were invited to freely participate in a final discussion with two additional invited speakers: Tom Tobin, a public high school teacher, and Dr Holly Peterson, also a high school teacher, whose doctoral work examined the implications of Giussani’s thought for school reform in the United States. Even after two days of seemingly endless discussion, participants amazingly flocked to the meeting room, where there was standing room only as these two classroom teachers, seeking to live Giussani’s educative proposal, shared their experiences from the “front lines.” Speaking in particular about educating in a secular environment, Tobin described the awareness and tension of the teacher toward the method of educating proposed by Giussani. He emphasized that this attention is possible for him through a friendship with other teachers, with whom he meets weekly to read and discuss The Risk of Education. The enthusiastic stream of questions for Tobin and Peterson was so continuous that the moderator had to intervene to send everyone to dinner.

Beauty and Drama of music
As you may imagine, the discussion continued through dinner, silenced only by wonder at the beauty and drama of Bach, Schubert, and Rachmaninov which resounded through the dining room as Maestro Christopher Vath performed at the piano after the meal. In his closing remarks, Schindler expressed his gratitude to Fr Giussani: “[The Risk of Education] is a presence among us which is itself an event, the depth of which has evoked this quality of discussion and further participation in the event.” Beauty and gratitude: a fitting finale for a weekend marked by testimony to the profundity of Giussani’s educational proposal, and a flourishing of thought and implications for America that will endure long after the cherry blossoms have abandoned their branches.