Seriously Engaged in One’s Own Life

In an interview in 2000 with an American teacher for her doctoral thesis, Fr. Giussani explained what motivated his educative proposal. A method that no technique can replace

edited by Holly Peterson

In November 2000, Holly Peterson, a researcher at the University of San Francisco, presented her doctoral thesis entitled “Relationship of the educational pedagogy of Luigi Giussani to the American high school of the twenty-first century.” This study sought to investigate the educative vision and critical methodology of Fr. Giussani. In examining his pedagody, the author focused on the particular relationship between teacher and student, and on the foundation of this relationship. Finally, the study assessed the applicability of the Italian priest’s pedagogy to contemporary American education, exploring the possibilities it can offer to the debate on education reform in the United States of America. The thesis included an appendix with an interview with Giussani, in which the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement further clarified the data that emerged from the research.

In The Risk of Education you wrote that your pedagogy is applicable for teachers of all faith backgrounds. What personal experience prompted you to make that claim?
I have always asked my students at school and at the university, and even those whom I have met in subsequent years, to compare what they hear, the judgments they read, and even the ideas that I have communicated to them, with their own elementary experience, with the needs and the constitutive elements of their humanity. I never asked them to accept my words as truth, but instead to learn this method, because it is only in this way that the essence of intelligence is in action. In my educational work, I have always sought to respect this method which I consider essential for anyone in education who intends to be true and honest with themselves and with those they teach. Only in this way, in fact, can the educational relationship become a source of freedom, a possibility for true understanding and an authentically critical conscience. Thus, the content of an education cannot be communicated except by its relationship and correspondence to life’s needs. For this reason, the one who educates is “constrained” to always remain young, that is, to always be wide-open to reality, and to always feel the newness of the words he uses, even if he has been using them for many years. This method and purpose of education forced me to demonstrate how Christian faith is pertinent to life’s needs, and even an exaltation of rationality. I felt this was very important in my first years as an educator when during the “raggi”–the meetings we used to have at school for reflection on one’s human experiences–there were all kinds of students, from atheists to Jews to Protestants. We were interested in taking our own humanity seriously, in going to the depths of the original reality that is at the depth of each one of us, in the comparison with a proposal that could give more reasonable sense to lived experience and the needs one feels.

When you began writing in the field of education, were you aware of what was going on in the American school reform movement?
My first writings about education were, for the most part, contingent upon meetings and conventions. Thus, I spoke to those I had in front of me with the awareness of what was given to me and of what I had in my heart that could be an answer to the questions and desires of those young people. I was often aware, however, that their way of thinking and moving was strongly conditioned by the secular and Marxist culture in which they lived that in various ways underlined the importance of success and the power of human energy in life–with every hope resting on this. Strangely, both positions were influenced a great deal, also with regard to the conception of education, by the pragmatist American culture. I have often cited John Dewey not only as the herald of “social efficiency,” but as a school leader whose influences can be seen today in our most contemporary educational theories. During my time in the United States, in the early 1960s, I participated in study groups dealing with educational problems, and, on occasion, as a point of reference with a pastoral view point. After some time, I became aware that the problem of education was entirely focused on the technology to adopt and on the tools to use, but at the expense of forgetting the subject and, therefore, the point of departure. Instead, as all of Christian history teaches, education is not essentially a question of methods or of the instruments a community uses, but a question of the community itself, and the truth of the life of the person who educates. To become fixated on technology and methodology is a grave error of perspective that empties the dynamic of education.

In Porta la Speranza [Carry the Hope] you wrote that a crisis in youth is always a crisis in education. Can you explain why?
I said two distinct things. In the first place, I was referring to youth as that moment in the history of every man in which, in some ways more specifically than in others, he relies on the tradition he belongs to, on the conception of life, the values, and the convictions that his parents, as well as his environment, has transmitted to him. The metaphor of the young person with the backpack on his back, who, at a certain point, places it in front of him and begins to dig through it looking for that which is good, makes this passage clear: youth is a moment of verification in which the one who is becoming a man must become aware of what is good for himself, what is true and just, so that he adheres with awareness and decision, abandoning that which is not helpful or expressive of a certain time and circumstances. This “crisis” is not negative but positive, as it allows one to be aware of what he receives and assists him in holding on to what is valuable. But there can be a “crisis of youth” in particular historical moments (as was seen in the 1960s and repeated in later periods in even more dramatic terms), where there appears to be a dispersion and abandonment of one’s self. In this case, the young are deprived of the possibility of being themselves and of possessing a valid and certain criteria for judging and choosing. The environment, or as we say today, the dominant opinion, has gotten the upper-hand, invading the conscience and homogenizing everything according to the dominant and determined power of the moment. When the strength of the environment is not adequately disputed, it is not easy for the young to grow in a true way. Neither is it useful to pull them out of the environment, having them rigidly follow ways that are traditionalistic and schematic. It is necessary to be engaged with the young in the struggle to take nothing for granted, to take nothing as obvious, to become aware of everything, to look for the reason for everything so that what is heard and seen is judged and evaluated, and to even create something new by going beyond the conventional. In order for this to happen, however, there is a need for an adult figure who has valid convictions and allows the young to compare their current reality to an explanative hypothesis, not so much from the practical or moral point of view (which is a consequence), but from an ideal point of view. A generation of adults that is deprived of convictions cannot transmit anything but anxiety and disappointed self-expectations.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for educators as we begin the 21st century?
It is the same as the last century, that of being true, of being men that live their lives to the extent that they are able to communicate it to others. The question for the educator is not so much “What must I do?” or “How must I act?” but rather “What am I?” What one is does not depend on him, but on the truth, the fullness, and the strength of what he has met, of what he has been given. From “what one is,” a new presence can be born, a life of continual renewal and a continual proposal of a greater horizon for life, even to the point of details. Only in this way, when the ideal is presented as pertinent to life and is discovered concretely, can one have the strength and boldness to orient the young to great ideals, to the greatness for which man’s heart is made and vibrates. If there is great confusion today over particular consequences, clarity will not be found by insisting on the consequences, but instead in a return to what lies at the origin, to that which the young, for the natural simplicity that they still possess to some degree, know as true and worthy of esteem. The rest, almost by itself, will come and will be accepted with a seriousness that is aware and mature. It is this that makes “the daily heroic, and the heroic daily.”

After more than 50 years as an educator, what piece of advice would you give to a teacher who is just beginning a career in the 21st century?
To be seriously involved with one’s life. The one who seeks daily the answer to his own human need, with truth and passion, verifying the value or lack of value of his conception of life, cannot but communicate it to others, and almost naturally he is an authority for them. This involvement is also translated into an involvement with one’s tradition, with the richness that each one has been launched into reality with, and that is communicated with newness. Nothing of the past can interest us again if it is not lived in the present, in some way and by someone. This is the great temporal category of education.
In addition, one must always be educated. Everything that I have said and written has been born completely of an experience, born out of dialogue with others.
Finally, one must be certain, that is, be honest with themselves and truthful with others. It is not possible to build anything if not on something that is certain; it is not possible to educate if not communicating the depth of truth that has already become experience in our own lives.