Teacher with her Students. Flickr

Those Who Accept the Risk

What does it mean to be a “teacher” today? A conference with Julián Carrón marks 40 years since Fr. Giussani’s "The Risk of Education" was published. A discussion full of life and the reasons for life.
Ines Maggiolini

Math and Italian, science and foreign languages: in a word, the subjects. Then, the youth: not as an abstract category, but particular faces like those of Anna and Giorgio, Roman high school students, or Khalid and Franziska, immigrants who are trying to learn our Italian language and history. And in between, the educators grappling with an increasingly alarming crisis of education.
These are some highlights from a conference and discussion of Fr. Luigi Giussani’s The Risk of Education, first published 40 years ago. Much has changed since then, and yet–this is the claim made by the organizers of the “Free to Educate” conference at the Catholic University of Milan–this little book still has a lot to offer schools today.
The importance of the topic could be seen in the size and geographic scope of the meeting: there were over 3,300 registrants with participation from 60 schools in Italy and eight abroad (from Holland to Kazakhstan). The Aula Magna was packed with an attentive audience, teachers looking for their own “teacher” and road to follow so they can reach the hearts and minds of their students, because–and this was true at every latitude and longitude–“Ideas aren’t enough to reawaken the ‘I,’ to get us out of bed in the morning.”

Audacity. “If I had to summarize, I’d say that the originality of Fr. Giussani’s educational method is the method itself,” said Fr. Julián Carrón, the successor to the founder in leading Communion and Liberation. “And the method is experience, because this is where reality reveals itself, becomes transparent.” It’s not easy to let go of the security offered by rules and principles; it takes courage and audacity to ask students to verify the truth of what is taught for themselves. “In order to judge,” Fr. Carrón went on to say, “You must have a criterion: one that cannot be manipulated and that we find inside ourselves.” The President of Communion and Liberation referred back to the words of Argentine author Ernesto Sabato, who described the yearning and nostalgia for something infinite, something absolute that serves as the “invisible, unknowable background against which we compare all of life.”

From left, Luigina Mortari, Fr. Julián Carrón, Eraldo Affinati, and Francesco Valenti.

It is that same criterion that Fr. Giussani described as “the complex of needs and ‘evidences’ which accompany us as we come face to face with all that exists. These needs can be given many names. They can be summarized with different expressions (for example, the need for happiness, the need for truth, for justice, etc.). They are like a spark igniting the human motor.”
This brings to mind the faces of the students at Berchet High School in Milan, the first to whom Fr. Giussani proposed this adventure and friendship. In an unexpected way, they are much like the faces of the teens that Eraldo Affinati, author and teacher, meets at “Penny Wirton,” the free Italian language school he founded for immigrants. They are wounded by life, de facto orphans, or “spiritual lepers,” as he describes them. “In the face of their insecurities and fragility, what matters is being able to offer an experience of life more than communicating certain content,” he said. “In addition to accepting that a ‘son’ or pupil might take you somewhere you had not expected.”
A far cry from the safe confines of proficiency exams, technical or scientific writing, and mastery of skills... “Education is always related to the Mystery,” underlined Luigina Mortari, professor of Pedagogy at the University of Verona. “The fundamental questions of our existence and a deep reverence for life must be cultivated. Life must be examined, because we need to find the reasons for things, as Fr. Giussani suggests when he talks about an education to criticism.”

Omar and faris. Together, the participants outlined a relationship with young people that sees their restlessness as an opportunity rather than an insurmountable obstacle. “Adolescence is a critical phase, because it is a time when teenagers are seeking their own personality and identity,” Fr. Carrón explains. “In the time we’re living in, young people are certainly less ideological, but they are also more vulnerable. They are even embarrassed by their embarrassment in front of life; they’re uncomfortable with their discomfort. This is a distinctive mark of the epochal change in which we live. It’s not a lack of study skills or discipline, but rather a ‘structural weakness.’” One is tempted to go in two different directions in reaction to this existential discomfort: either creating rules and instructions to hold the uneasiness at bay, or writing it off as a psychological fragility. This was not the experience Fr. Giussani had with his students, as described in The Risk of Education. “What Fr. Giussani challenged educators to do was introduce the totality of reality through that uneasiness,” said Fr. Carrón. “No one can keep a teacher from looking at a student, with all of his or her symptoms, at the level of his or her ultimate irreducibility.” Surprisingly, it is precisely because these adolescents are, deep down, a mystery that they can be the first allies for educators. They are certainly not obstacles. This was the experience Eraldo Affinati had in accompanying Omar and Faris, two young men who came to Italy as children, on their return to Morocco. He had a moving encounter with the blind, elderly imam who had taught them to read and write in Arabic. For the Italian author, who is a student of the method of life and education of Fr. Lorenzo Milani, this demonstrated that the action of educating should never come to an end. “The teacher simply becomes a brother to his student,” he explained. “This is passing the torch.”
The same happened for Luigina Mortari in her research and work in forming educators. She described the “infinite patience with which you have to accompany young people in their search for what is good, including in themselves.” This because “one’s ‘I’ may be damaged, but it’s still there, judging; the sign of this is that one realizes he or she is dissatisfied,” Fr. Carrón clarified. “This irreducibility of the ‘I,’ which remains in spite of everything, is crucial for teachers and educators. No matter how confused they are, adolescents still have their hearts, and it is to this heart that educators must appeal in order to teach them to judge and to begin a journey.”
A journey that guides young people in relating to reality and to their surroundings, because otherwise–as the moderator of the session, Risk of Education Association president Francesco Valenti, underlined– the school and its educators have failed. “We need to let ourselves be moved by reality and those around us, to be open to the continual call that’s in the eyes of those around us,” Mortari said. “Our concern should be that the other realize all the potential in his or her being.” It is precisely in this “attentiveness to human relationships, guiding young people to find their true selves, their true names,” that Affinati finds the common ground between Fr. Giussani and Fr. Milani, two contemporaries that have been placed in opposition by an ideological reading of their educational methods. Today, it seems things have become more dramatic and complex: gang-related crime, high drop-out rates, an increasing number of young people not working and not in school, drug use, and the abuse of social media and virtual reality. Can The Risk of Education still help? “I don’t say this out of loyalty, but how could you run a school without having The Risk of Education as a reference point?” Fr. Carrón pointedly asked. “Fr. Giussani gave us the tools to face all these things, from apathy to ‘spiritual leprosy,’ because he placed an emphasis on what so often escapes notice: the questions posed by the adults, the educators. The true hope for these young people is that they find someone who can present an incarnate response to their difficulties and problems. No matter the historical circumstances, the first step is always discovering a presence that asserts itself, not to one’s brain, but within one’s life. In other words, only adults who are enthusiastic about the journey they are on will be able to infect their students with the same enthusiasm.”
This passion must permeate every detail in the classroom, because the encounter between a teacher and student takes place during class. The challenge is reawakening the “I” of each student through the way one lives (not through extra activities), starting with how one walks into the classroom.
“You can tell from the way that we explain physics or chemistry or delve into art history and literature whether our reason is a restricted rationalism that does not point to anything beyond itself, or if our gaze is one that, through the content we teach, opens us to the Mystery,” Carrón explains. For example, the time he took a class to the planetarium in Madrid and upon their return found the following questions from his students on the blackboard: “Who made the heavens and the stars? What is the meaning of all of it? What is its purpose?”