Educating so that Desire May Live

The Risk of Education was presented in London, with the interventions of the mathematician and physicist Peter Hodgson, the Anglican theologian John Milbank, and Fr. Carrón.
James Scoular

Thursday, May 24th saw the presentation of The Risk of Education in central London by Fr. Carrón; Dr. Peter Hodgson, mathematician and nuclear physicist; and Professor John Milbank, from the Department of Theology and Religion at Nottingham University. Two hundred people filled the magnificent Civil Engineers Hall at One Great George’s Street. With the names of eminent engineers from past times emblazoned on the walls, it was a fitting location to talk about education.

Chris Morgan introduced the evening, reminding everyone that while education is about teaching the young, first and foremost it is each one of us who needs education–or we have nothing to communicate to anyone.

Dr. Peter Hodgson, who taught math and physics for over 30 years at Oxford, spoke first. He noted that education is a person-to-person encounter–the teacher must communicate something of himself. It is therefore a cooperative endeavor where the student wants to learn and the teacher faces the challenge of the student’s questioning because he is more concerned with finding the truth than defending his position. Dr. Hodgson gave a lovely example of a foreign postdoctoral fellow who came to the UK to study and went to ask him what he should do–expecting to be given instructions on what research he should carry out to fit in with his new supervisor’s own career aspirations. He was amazed to be told “just go and do some good physics.” He later told Dr. Hodgson this challenge to understand what “good” meant in physics was the turning point in his career.

A Christian origin
Dr. Hodgson went on to explain that all modern science is based on a Christian view of the world. Science presupposes that there is an order to matter and the universe and that man is able to understand it through his reason. How strange that this is usually taken for granted and the Christian origin is either ignored or even denied.

The Oxford nuclear physicist finished by noting three problems with current education. First, a lack of trust in professionals which leads to the government requiring more and more paper work to be filled in to benchmark the performance of one university against another. He said, “They don’t trust the teachers to teach properly but seem to trust the controllers to control properly!” Secondly, a general lack of discipline revealing a lack of recognition of authority. Thirdly, a lack of desire for truth–leading to relativism: one person’s theory is as good as another’s and so everything is reduced to opinion. He concluded that these problems arise when the educative method proposed by Fr. Giussani is ignored.

Professor Milbank spoke second. In addition to lecturing in the Theology and Religion Department of Nottingham, he is the founder of the Christian movement, “Radical Orthodoxy.” He reminded the audience that if reality is not suspended from something greater than itself–from God–it is reduced to nothing. Failure to recognize this has led to the secularization of education and to its reduction to the teaching of rules rather than the pursuit of truth. He noted that this ends up with students being skeptical about everything or seeking certainty and refuge in forms of fanaticism.

Professor Milbank stated that if one only relies on reason, there are so many possible and competing explanations for the meaning of reality that reason becomes bewildered. Ultimately, it ends up in nihilism as no explanation seems adequate. It is here that Radical Orthodoxy sees the key to reason as lying within Christian tradition as a hypothesis with which to face everything.

Facing the challenge

Fr. Carrón started his talk noting that we are facing a challenge. This is seen, for example, in the young who seem to be passive, with no real interest in anything, and adults who seem to have nothing to offer. There is a real crisis in humanity. Usually, we try to respond to this with a moral effort, as if recalling people to ethics and rules was sufficient. With so much confusion surrounding us the question is: Is there something new that can respond to this situation? What is it that makes a person move?

In The Risk of Education, Fr. Giussani quotes the Jesuit theologian, Josef Jungmann, who stated that education is “an introduction to total reality.” The method he sets out is an attempt to answer this challenge.

Instructions are not enough
Fr. Carrón gave the example of a child in front of a new toy. It is almost a crime to give a child a toy without the instructions, as he remains frustrated in front of it. How much worse to bring a child into this world without giving him the meaning of his existence!

The problem is children are not born with “instructions” under their arm. But the Mystery who makes us puts us in a context, a people, a tradition which is the hypothesis with which to face reality. Without this proposal that comes from tradition, a child is lost–as he is in front of the toy with no instruction manual.

However, simple instructions are not sufficient to face life. We need someone who is close to us, who shares our life, who makes us want to follow them because of a human attraction. In this attraction, we recognize authority. Fr, Carrón said what we need, above all, therefore, is a witness–someone, some people, we follow, not because we have to but because we are struck by them and want to learn from them, imitate them. An authority like this is what makes us grow. A true authority awakens our reason to look at what we desire and challenges our freedom with the proposal of an answer.
Fr. Carrón concluded that this is the unheard-of claim of Christianity. The Mystery did not leave us alone but became Man, became a human presence that attracts us. The proposal of that Man was very simple, a challenge which we have to verify personally. To the first disciples, John and Andrew, He simply said, “Come and see.”