(L-R) Blakely, Brown, Albin, and Savorana. Photo by Amy Hickl.

The Life of Luigi Giussani: Test Everything, Retain What's Good

On March 12, Savorana joined in on a panel in Los Angeles, California, alongside Kristi Brown, Jason Blakely, and Nancy Albin. Read the full story.
Amy Hickl

Elon Musk, Sophia Amorosa, George Lucas, Venus Williams, Spike Lee, and Luigi Giussani. On March 12 Giussani’s face surprisingly appeared on the wall of the General Assembly in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, among these prominent cultural figures, pointing from the beginning to his fresh and relevant contribution in this moment we are living.

The evening’s first speaker, Kristi Brown, pursued this theme of illuminating juxtaposition as she told the audience a “tale of two educators,” discussing the similarities and differences between her own life and Giussani’s. Brown, the chair of the music history faculty at the prestigious Colburn Conservatory of Music, noted that both she and Giussani teach and attempt to understand their students within “a messy, real-world context” that can be factious and full of ideologies. Like Giussani, Brown expressed her desire to surpass the societal dichotomy and “work for a way forward that isn’t caught in that dialect between ... two sides.”

As a music educator, she has seen that despite the world of classical music being an apparent locus of beauty, it is also a great place to learn about the dysfunctions of human behavior. Her students face great pressure, and many measure themselves only as the sum of their musical talents and abilities. Brown also perceived that the world of classical music “tends to sometimes make a claim of a universal beauty that is immediately apparent to everybody. And if it is not apparent to you, there is something wrong with you, [rather than with] what is being performed. This assumes that beauty has an automatic ethical influence. Listening to a piece of classical music will not automatically make you a better human being.” We too fall into presumptions that we are somehow more moral, more aware, or more human than others. “These are claims but they are not automatic.” What is needed is an education, and the provocation is to go about educating following the method that Giussani gave us.

Brown noted that trying to replicate the specific initiatives that Giussani created in the past is not the path forward. “The question arose again: [what] … in my work, in what I love to do as a music historian, can be the means of an expression of a Christian education? Simply put, do I have to talk about Christ in my classroom in order to be authentically present?” The path forward consists in following the method that Giussani used, not in repeating in a 2019 Los Angeles classroom the same lessons that he gave decades ago in Italy.

What does following the method look like? Brown explained, “The thing that made [Giussani] great as a teacher, that made him so attractive as a teacher to that group of students at that time … was that he was so unusual. He was completely himself. [His students even] thought he was a little weird, but he was completely himself. And he was a breath of fresh air. He was talking to them they said in a way that no one had spoken to them before. ... He was seeing where the vacuum was ... and he was responding to it. You can’t just artificially recreate that in your classroom. You have to actually see what is there.” And in order to be able to see what is there, one more thing is needed: to take your own needs seriously. “I want to be aware of myself in that moment, that I would take seriously that relationship [with Christ],” as Giussani did. Christianity is an openness to everything that is good. In fact, Brown challenged the audience to follow the advice of St. Paul: “to test everything and retain what is good.

The second speaker, Jason Blakely, illustrated St. Paul’s advice concretely. A writer and professor of political philosophy, he walked us through Giussani’s response to the provocations of the 1960s in Italy. While in the United States we celebrated flower children and calls to end the Vietnam War, Europeans were fleeing the formalism of their Christian practice for the ideologies--sometimes violent--of the left and right. Blakely drew parallels to our own time to propose a way to face our own social and political challenges. In speaking of what he described as an “armed formalism” that is present today, he noted that our notions of belonging to certain groups consist mainly in checking off the correct boxes. In our idealism, we find “disciplinary societies” to join, not an actual shared life together.

Blakely then turned again to Giussani for the path forward. In facing formalism and its consequences in his day, Giussani responded with humility, seeing both as calls to conversion. He took from the revolutionary spirit a growing desire to live with authenticity, similar to the Bob Dylan lyrics, “Well, I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.” Giussani intuited a need to return to an authentic Christian experience, the only one capable of identifying with the human all the way down to his experience, according to Blakely.

Author of The Life of Luigi Giussani Alberto Savorana commented on the extraordinary fact that, despite having died fourteen years earlier, Giussani’s life has such relevance for a professor of music and a professor of political philosophy in 2019 Los Angeles, and noted that Giussani offered his students a friendship that helped them live better. Savorana explained that “this is why Fr. Giussani was an unusual person,” not because he was “some kind of superman” but because of the different way in which he faced life and the people around him. This different way of facing things is offered to us today through his witness.