Taking the "Risk of Education"

We publish Stanley Hauerwas' foreword to the second edition of The Risk of Education recently published by McGill-Queen's University Press. Hauerwas will be part of a panel discussing education at the 2019 New York Encounter.
Stanley Hauerwas

We publish Stanley Hauerwas’ foreword to the second edition of The Risk of Education recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Hauerwas is Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School and will be presenting the book at the 2019 New York Encounter alongside John Balsbaugh and Archbishop Christophe Pierre on Sunday, February 17, at 11:00 am. The new edition of The Risk of Education can now be purchased on Amazon for $15.95.

I find myself in an extremely embarrassing position. At least it is an extremely embarrassing position for me. I am one of those people who thinks it is better to have views than arguments. I suppose that view is a kind of argument if you believe as I do that arguments depend on judgments that, if they are really judgments, are not arbitrary. So, I seldom find myself without anything to say. Indeed, most people think I have had far too much to say because I am far too willing to pronounce on almost anything. My weakness is that there is almost nothing in which I am not interested. My strength is that there is almost nothing in which I am not interested.

I am, moreover, not only interested in education but, in particular, the kind of innovative suggestions Monsignor Luigi Giussani makes for reclaiming education as a Christian activity. I thought I would, therefore, have much to say about Giussani's book, The Risk of Education. But alas, I find myself in such fundamental agreement with him that it seems all I can do is say, "I wish I had said that."

In truth, I have said some of what Giussani has said in his book. I think much of my criticism of contemporary universities is quite similar to Giussani's critique of secular educational practices in secondary schools. So I fear what follows is no more than my attempt to show how some of my concerns about the kind of education students receive in the colleges and universities of America confirm Giussani's critique of secular education.

One of the reasons I find myself in sympathy with Giussani's work is that my reflections about education and, in particular, the education represented in the modern university has always been part of my project to reclaim the significance of the virtues for any account of the moral life. A focus on the virtues means you cannot easily separate what you come to know from how you come to know. Any knowledge worth having cannot help but shape who we are and accordingly our understanding of the world. Thus I use the description moral formation, rather than education, because I think all education, whether acknowledged or not, is moral formation.

This is particularly true in courses that are not officially thought of as "ethics." For example, consider the moral seriousness of medical education in comparison to the training seminarians receive today. Students in seminaries too often think it more important for them to take courses in counseling (after all that is how you help people) rather than to take courses in Christology. In medical school, however, no student gets to decide whether she or he will or will not take anatomy. If you are going to be a doctor, you will take anatomy or give up your ambition to be a doctor. Anatomy may not sound like a course in ethics, but the kind of work young physicians are required to do if they are to study anatomy, I think, is rightly described as moral formation.

The intellectual and moral seriousness of medical education compared to seminary education can be attributed to a set of cultural presuppositions that are crucial for how we understand the training of students for medicine and for the ministry. Quite simply, no one believes in our day that an inadequately trained priest might damage their salvation; but people do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them. Thus, people are much more concerned about who their doctor may be than who is their priest. That such is the case, of course, but indicates that no matter how seriously we may think of ourselves as Christians we may well be living lives that betray our conviction that God matters.

In his book, The Restructuring of American Religion, Robert Wuthnow observed that one of the trends in church life in America in the second half of the last century was the increasing growth of the laity who had college educations. He notes it was extremely rare in the 1950s for Baptist, Lutheran, or Catholic churches to have more than one in seven who had gone to college. Methodists and Presbyterians might have had a ratio of one to four. By the 1970s at least one person in four had been to college in most denominations, and in several the college-educated were a clear majority. He suggests these "proportions would likely have been even larger had it not been for the fact that college-educated people fled the churches in droves in the 1960s." It seems, at least if Wuthnow's study is correct, that the single best indicator of whether as a person ages they will be identified with a church is determined by their having gone to a college or a university.

There are many reasons that may account for this development. The social unrest of the 1960s associated with Vietnam or the change in sexual practices during the same period may have created the conditions that led many to think the church was irrelevant to their lives. No doubt the relation between college education and the increased earning power of those who have gone to college had and continues to have an effect if you believe—as I believe we are required to believe by the Gospel — that being wealthy is a disability for anyone who desires to be a Christian. I am sure no one factor is sufficient to account for the loss of membership in the mainline Protestant Churches in America.

That said, however, I think it would be a mistake not to take seriously that what many learned, or thought they were learning, in colleges and universities led them to abandon Christianity. That students took course after course in which there was no discernable connection to Christian claims about the way things are surely created the conditions that made the conclusion that Christianity is at best irrelevant, and at worst false, hard to avoid. In other words, I suspect that many people who leave their Christianity behind after they have gone to college do so because they have been created by God to desire the truth. Yet that desire has been formed by knowledge that seems to make it impossible for them to think that what Christians believe could be true. At best they assume the church may be important for spiritual or moral issues, but those spheres of life are not considered to be about truth.

The strategy of many Christian colleges and universities, both Catholic and Protestant, unfortunately served to underwrite the presumption that the "Christian" part of education did not have to do with "truth." What made a school "Christian" was not the content of the courses, but a concern for the "whole student." Student life, therefore, became the locus for any expression of Christianity. The relegation of strong religious beliefs to the "personal" side of life in modern universities reflected the distinction between the private and the public imposed on the church by liberal political regimes. Christian theologians aided this development by underwriting what Douglas Sloan identifies as a two-realm theory of truth. Such a view distinguished the truths of science—which are thought to be objective and impersonal—from the truths of faith, which are then called subjective, grounded as they are in feelings, convention, or "common human experience."

These attempts to forge a "peace treaty" between the Christian faith and what was assumed to be more objective modes of knowledge are increasingly being called into question. Unfortunately, the critics that are challenging the forms of knowledge that so dominate the contemporary university are not drawing on the resources of Christian theology. As a matter of fact, the challenges too often seem to make problematic whether we can know anything at all. The critics of modernity frequently only underwrite the fragmentation of the university curricula. As a result, Alasdair MacIntyre observes:

What the Catholic faith confronts today in American higher education and indeed in American education more generally is not primarily some range of alternative beliefs about the order of things, but rather a belief that there is no such thing as the order of things of which there could be a unified, if complex, understanding or even a movement toward such an understanding. There is on this contemporary view nothing to understanding except what is supplied by the specialized and professionalized disciplines and subdisciplines. Higher education has become a set of assorted and heterogeneous specialized enquiries into a set of assorted and heterogeneous subject-matters, and general education is a set of introductions to these enquiries together with a teaching of the basic skills necessary for initiation into them, something to be got through in order to advance beyond it into the specialized disciplines.

MacIntyre makes clear he is not against specialization—because any discipline, even philosophy, cannot do its work well without detailed investigations. Yet in modern university curricula, every course threatens to be an introductory course, because the faculties even in their disciplines cannot agree on what needs to be learned first to make later learning possible. As a result, every course a student takes has to begin with a beginning that from the student's perspective is constantly changing. This is particularly true in the humanities; but given the increasing specialized character of the individual sciences, these are beginning to suffer the same fate as well.

From MacIntyre's perspective, the fragmentation of the curriculum makes it all the more important that Catholic universities recognize the significance of philosophy for any serious education that has any pretense to inculcate in students the skills necessary for those who would love the truth. According to MacIntyre, philosophy is the discipline committed to the inquiry necessary to understand how the disciplines that make up the university contribute to, but cannot themselves supply, an understanding of the order of things. So a Catholic University cannot be such if it does not require students to study philosophy not only at the beginning of their study but also at the end.

Yet of equal importance, according to MacIntyre, is the study of theology. Catholic teaching rightly maintains that the natural order of things cannot be adequately understood by reason if reason is divorced from the recognition that all that is has been brought into being by God and is directed to the ends to which God orders creation. What is learned from nature about God, MacIntyre notes, will always be meager as well as subject to the human limitations and distortions resulting from our sinfulness. Yet it remains the case that "universities always need both the enlargement of vision and the correction of error that can be provided only from a theological standpoint, one that brings truths of Christian revelation to bear on our studies."

I am fundamentally in agreement with MacIntyre's account of the challenges facing us if we are to think seriously about what it means to reclaim education as a Christian enterprise. So I have nothing but sympathy for Giussani's attempt to help us see why and how Christians must reclaim education as a task of the church.

The story he tells in the introduction to the 1995 edition of The Risk of Education, about his first confrontation with students that did not believe matters of faith had anything to do with reason, is a wonderful example of why education matters and it matters for moral formation (p. XXXVI). I think Giussani, moreover, is right to insist that faith is "the supreme rationality" (p. XL). But to so argue means you have to confront, as Giussani did, the deceits of modernity represented by people like Professor Miccinesi; that is, the teachers of the students who think faith has nothing to do with truth or this world. I fear Professor Miccinesi, moreover, is a prime example of the challenge Christians face in education today. The problem quite simply is that the secular have become so stupid that they do not even recognize they do not and, indeed, cannot understand the commonplaces that make the Christian faith the Christian faith.

So I find myself in profound sympathy not only with the general argument about education Giussani makes, but also with the finer grained arguments he uses to sustain his overall perspective. That may seem strange because I am a Protestant; that is, a representative of that form of Christianity that according to Giussani separates "faith from following." Yet unfortunately, I fear Giussani's characterization of Protestantism, at least the Protestantism that now exists, is correct. Put differently: Protestantism now names that form of Christianity that in the name of reform tried to separate the "essentials" of the Christian faith from the contingent. The result was to turn Christianity into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by the church. As a consequence of this separation, Protestants found themselves in modernity without resources to shape a way of life that can resist the forces that threaten to destroy any robust account of Christian "following" necessary for the education of young people as Christians. I fear this is particularly true of the most Protestant country yet founded; that is, the United States of America.

The Materiality of the Faith and the Difference It Makes in Education

The comments made in this last paragraph, however, bring me to the most important challenge Giussani presents for those of us committed to education as moral formation in America. Giussani sees quite well that education is not possible if you restrict education to the classroom. This is particularly true if we are to sustain Christian education. Giussani puts it this way:

The Christian fact is permanent throughout history. It has a structure that nothing can change because it is a definitive event. Nevertheless, the Christian who lives out this event, in dealing with the cultural, social, and political conditions of his times—unless he lacks intelligence or is totally slothful—cannot help but judge the prevailing ideas and structures from the point of view of his lived faith. As a result, the desire to create an alternative culture and alternative structures is unavoidable.

Though I am often accused of being a fideistic, sectarian, tribalist, I think Giussani is exactly right that the Christian faith requires expression in the everyday habits of life. This, of course, is but the outworking of Giussani's claim above that faith requires a "following"; that is, the "recognition of Christ, our love for him shaped by the parameters of time and space in which his event reaches us." Moreover, Giussani's insistence that faith is the highest form of rationality is a correlative of his claim that the Christian faith must be embodied in the practices of a community that will inexorably find itself in tension with the world.

I am aware that I may seem to be making Giussani’s viewpoints sound very much like some of the arguments I have made about the necessity of the church to distance itself from the world in which we now find ourselves. But I trust those who know Giussani better than I do will correct me if they think I have misunderstood him. Yet I think my agreement with Giussani provides me with the means to say why I think some have so misunderstood the kind of claims I have been making about why it is so important that the church not accept in liberal societies its relegation into the world of "spiritual." I fear my anti-Constantinianism has led some to think that I have tried to convince Christians to give up on the world by becoming "pure." Nothing could be further from the truth. The church that must exist, if the kinds of arguments I have tried to develop are to be intelligible, must be what Giussani says it must be; that is, a material reality shaping the equally material realities of politics, recreation, art, buying and selling, "personal" relations--in short, the whole of our lives.

I think this has particular importance for how we think about education. If, as Giussani claims, to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real, then the content of what is taught by Christians may appear quite different from secular subjects. MacIntyre rightly argues that what students have to learn from the standpoint of a Catholic university is that education in physics, history, or economics is incomplete "until it is to some degree illuminated by philosophical enquiry, and all education, including their philosophical education, is incomplete until it is illuminated by theologically grounded insight." Yet I think Giussani is suggesting an even stronger case than that made by MacIntyre. For if Giussani is right about the fact of faith requiring an alternative culture, then it is at least possible that the very content of physics, history, or economics shaped by such a faith may be different.

I need to be very clear about what I am saying about how the practices that comprise the Christian faith may shape the material conditions that make what Christians mean by physics quite different from what physics might mean if it is produced by those who do not share our faith. Am I really suggesting that there might be something like a "Christian physics" or a "Christian economics"? I can only say, "It depends on the character of what is meant by physics or economics in the societies in which the church finds herself." Christians can never fear what we have to learn from honest investigation of the world, even if such investigations are undertaken by those who have no identification as Christians. Yet neither can Christians assume that knowledge of the world is a "given" to be uncritically accepted by them.

For example, if you believe, as MacIntyre and I do, that usury is a practice that Christians must avoid, then how the knowledge called economics is understood may well be different from the understanding of those who do not share our views about usury. Or if you think that force can only be justified on just war grounds, then how you understand the relations between states may be very different from the assumptions of those that assume some form of a balance of power model is necessary for pursuing those research agendas called international relations. Or if you believe, as Christians do, that creation is a more fundamental notion than nature, that may well make a difference in the kind of distinction you think necessary between the study of botany and biology. Surely, for Christians who believe all that is created has purpose, the attempt to understand life mechanistically must be questioned.

MacIntyre is quite right to stress the significance of helping students acquire the intellectual skills necessary to see the interconnection between subjects, but I am suggesting that the very content of what is taught cannot be avoided if Christians are to take the "risk of education." The problem I think is that Christians in modernity have not been what Giussani says we must be; that is, people who create alternative cultures and structures. As a result, we have taught forms of knowledge in Christian schools that cannot help but undermine how Christians should understand the world in which we find ourselves.

For example, consider the implications of Giussani's almost throwaway observation "Fortunately for us, time exists, which makes us grow old" (p. 51) for how medicine, and the sciences that serve medicine, should be understood. I think there is no denying that the current enthusiasm for "genomics" (that branch of science which allegedly will make it possible to "treat" people before they become sick) draws on an extraordinary fear of suffering and death incompatible with Giussani's observation that luckily time makes us grow old. Our culture seems increasingly moving to the view that aging itself is an illness, and if it is possible, we ought to create and fund research that promises us that we may be able to get out of life alive. I find it hard to believe that such a science could be supported by a people who begin Lent by being told that we are dust and it is to dust we will return.

For Christians to create an alternative culture and alternative structures to the knowledge produced and taught in universities that are shaped by the fear of death, I think, is a challenge we cannot avoid. Moreover, to educate our children in such an alternative culture will mean that our children cannot presuppose that the education they receive will make it possible for them to be successful actors in a world shaped by an entirely different culture. For Christians to educate our children for the world in which we now find ourselves means providing them with education which will put them at risk. But at least they will have some chance to resist the lies that are assumed to be true because they are taught in university classrooms.

The Culture of Democracy and the Culture of the Church

As I suggested above, some may think I am over-reading Giussani's suggestion that Christians should try to create an alternative culture and structure that shapes how we educate. Some may well think I have made Giussani sound as if he is advocating a more radical position than he in fact has. However, in my defense, I want to end by calling attention to Giussani's remarks on democracy. His discussion of democracy is part of his argument that education is impossible without the recognition of the other. Such a recognition, he suggests, makes possible the dialogue necessary for me to come to a better understanding of who I am. But it is equally true that dialogue is impossible if we enter into it without having some self-knowledge (p. 78). We simply cannot begin any serious dialogue if we think we must begin by compromising our convictions in order to reach a common understanding.

Democracy is often defended as that form of social and political life that makes dialogue not only possible but necessary. Yet Giussani argues that the relativism that the "prevailing mentality" so identifies with democracy makes dialogue impossible. He even reports that a "well-known university professor" dared to say to a select audience in Milan that "Catholics, for the very fact that they are Catholic, cannot citizens of a democratic state. Catholics claim to know the truth, the absolute. It is, therefore, impossible to have a dialogue with them, and, therefore, also impossible to co-exist democratically with them" (p. 80).

Giussani does not say if he agrees with this judgment, but he clearly thinks that the values and practices often identified as democratic are in tension with the culture he thinks necessary to sustain Christian education. Giussani has little use for the "values" taught in the name of sustaining a democratic ethos. Indeed the very language of values—that is, the assumption that the moral life consists in subjective desires—is an indication that the language of economics has subverted serious moral judgments.

For example, Giussani rightly calls into question any education that is based on the assumption that a person has total autonomy. He clearly does not think that we ought to teach in a manner that allows students to make up their own minds. To attempt such an education, as he puts it, only leaves the teenager at the mercy of his likes and dislikes, his instincts, deprived of any standard of development (see p. 32). Giussani observes that an education that assumes the autonomy of the student cannot help but be one based on fear of confrontation with the world and as a result produces people incapable of dealing with a world gone mad.

The rationalism that underwrites assumptions of autonomy "forgets and denies the basic dependency of the self. It forgets or denies the great, original surprise that is evidence" (p. 48). Ironically, the rationalism often defended as necessary for the sustaining of democratic societies can have the opposite effect. Rather than educating students with the openness required for ongoing inquiry, it makes students feel unprepared to know how to go on because they can see no connection between their previous education and more advanced subjects. Skepticism is the result, creating people who believe that the life choices they must make are arbitrary.

Ironically, such a people are incapable of sustaining democracy because as Giussani observes,

Skepticism is a basic mindset that endures, and the way people move beyond it in practice is by crossing into fanaticism. That is, they cross over into the uncompromising affirmation of one-sidedness. This same situation applies to students who keep their previous religious and moral views even after their unprepared passage through this violent conflict. This is because, to avoid giving up their views, they cling to them, practically barricading themselves into a fortress of prudence or of fear, which, in any case, is totally without openness toward what they consider to be a hostile environment. Other young people, equally unprepared for the clash, react by turning their backs in an uncritical rejection of all the religious instruction they ever received, without ever seriously examining it, giving in to the fierce urge to shake it off. (p. 38-9)

I think it is not hard to see how Giussani's characterization of the results of rationalistic education provides a quite accurate analysis of what has happened in America. Those in the "religious right," for example, attempt to protect their religious convictions by supporting "democracy" but thereby fail to see that the form of life they are supporting often has the effect of undermining their faith. This occurs because they are forced to compartmentalize their lives, assuming that "faith" must be protected from the rationalism they rightly think is dominating the wider culture. Their very defense of Christianity too often makes the Christian faith appear to be a counter-rationalistic system. I often think the people in the "religious right" are like canaries in coal mines. They rightly see something is wrong, but they fail to see that their own account of the Christian faith has been shaped by their enemies.

Alasdair MacIntyre's account of compartmentalization nicely complements Giussani's analysis of the results of how rationalism leads to skepticism. MacIntyre observes that

the graduates of the best research universities tend to become narrowly focused professionals, immensely and even obsessively hard-working, disturbingly competitive and intent on success as it is measured within their own specialized professional sphere, often genuinely excellent at what they do; who read little worthwhile that is not relevant to their work; who, as the idiom insightfully puts it, "make time," sometimes with difficulty, for their family lives; and whose relaxation tends to consist of short strenuous bouts of competitive athletic activity and sometimes of therapeutic indulgence in the kind of religion that is well designed not to disrupt their working lives.

Such lives are compartmentalized in at least two ways: (I) it is assumed that an individual passes through various spheres each with its own norms, so the self is but a collection of different roles which (2) makes it impossible for the individual ever to view her or his life as a whole.

The fragmentation of the curriculum, therefore, becomes the institutional expression of the compartmentalized character of modern societies necessary to legitimate the form of life thought necessary to sustain democratic societies. For it is assumed that the kinds of lives produced by modern university curricula will be critical of everything, believing in nothing. Yet, if Giussani is right that skepticism is the breeding ground of fanaticism, then it is by no means clear that the rationalism that is the ideology of modern democratic regimes will be successful.

Modern democratic theory has been an attempt to give an account of democracies as just, without the people that constitute such a society having the virtue of justice. Of course, liberal democratic societies do form people in certain virtues (e.g., cynicism), but they seldom do so explicitly. The kind of training in virtue liberal educational practice involves cannot be acknowledged, because the neutrality that allegedly is required for education to be for anyone makes it impossible to make candid that any education is a moral education. It is unclear, however, if the kind of fragmented selves such an education produces are capable of being habituated in a manner necessary to sustain the virtues to form people of character.

These are obviously large issues, but they are at the heart of Giussani's account of the kind of education required by the Christian faith. I think, moreover, he is right to suggest that the education he is advocating can provide a more defensible account of democracy than that based on the rationalism of modernity. Indeed I find it quite interesting that Giussani, like Pope John Paul II, is not afraid to say that what is required if we are to live in peace with one another is a "civilization of love." (Encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, section I, no. 10)

To suggest that nothing less than love is at the heart of our contemporary challenges will no doubt be interpreted by many as an indication that Giussani has lost touch with reality. But that is the case only if you think the God Christians worship is not the God of Jesus Christ. Because as Christians we find our lives constituted by the confidence God gives us that the truth matters, we can continue—as Luigi Giussani argues we must—to take the "risk of education."