Is It Still Possible To Educate?

By Giuseppe Savagnone

The great problem discussed nowadays is not “how” to educate, but “if” it is still possible to do so. The environment in which family life and school life develop seem to impose models and suggestions that are stronger than the input from parents and teachers, dominant in a different time. However, we must acknowledge that in this education crisis there is also a weakening –if not, in fact, a loss - of the ideal coordinates where education used to find its own significance and the conditions for its success. Our objective here is to identify some aspects of that weakening and to, at least, suggest a way to overcome it. Our thoughts focus on the school, but to some extent, they could also be linked to the family. 

Education implies three fundamental dimensions for hu-man beings: to “belong-to,” to “be-with”, and to “be-for.” This refers to, respectively, to being generated by and dependent on something or someone that existed previously; to coope-rating with others and being available to them; to regarding ends as elements endowed with truth and value to the point of being able of giving direction, a “sense” for life.

Nowadays, in the field of education, especially in the school context, there is a crisis that can also be one of growth. And so, it certainly gives these three dimensions a problematic character.



“Belong-to”: the importance of narration

We see in today’s society a generalised loss of memory and a tendency to break away from our roots. Yet, it is precisely in contemporary hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer) that tradition is revalidated as an indispensable condition for building our future. Certainly, tradition is not simply the past, but a vital relationship among all three dimensions of temporality. Loss of memory also annuls the ability to intelligently interpret the era in which one lives, circumscribing it to the a-historic immediacy of moods.

This is especially evident if we think of a subject that is closely related to what was referred to above: narration. Our experiences cannot be reduced to a mere succession of specific events. Indeed, a fact that is isolated from its context is not a fact anymore, but a mere physical phenomenon, which needs to be granted meaning from the history in which it is inserted for it to be a fact. Without the logos of the narration, which implies the past-present-future bond, there are not even significant experiences, even though there can be the illusion of living many. These are experienced, however, as dot-like flashes, lacking a relationship that assigns them value. They are not able to become history.

Nevertheless, we cannot learn to tell our own history to others or to ourselves if we do not listen at the same time. In a different era, the family would gather round to listen to the grandfather narrate his past experiences uncountable times. Young people today spend hours playing video games, which fix them in an eternal present.

The school's main activity is precisely narrating. Its pro-grammes are mainly made up of stories: from literature, art, philosophy…

However, this is only valuable in the case of a true tradition, which, to be so, does not need to limit itself to safe-keeping the past, as we mentioned, but to establishing a vital relation-ship between past, present, and future. Otherwise, it is only archaeology. This is usually the risk taken by our schools.

In fact, tradition, to be so, needs for each generation to vitally reclaim it, updating it every now and then and reinterpreting it in the light of its own cultural context. This is precisely the school’s function. It should be the place par excellence where this critical re-appropriation of the past can and must be institutionally conducted.



Masters must be brought back

To “belong-to” is not a purely cognitive fact, but also an existential one. In our society, apart from the memory of the past, the sense of having been generated is also lost. We live in a society in which the father has been “killed,” understanding this as the elimination of all dependent relationships with somebody who came before us and whom we acknowledge as having authority over us.

Authority has a very bad reputation today – to the point that those who have it try to get rid of the responsibility of exerting it – because it is systematically confused with power. But there is a great difference between both: power is the capacity to physically, economically, and socially coerce, while authority is linked to origin. If it operates in the present it is because authority has a past. The Latin verb augere means “to cause to originate,” “to make grow,” and from it comes the noun auctor, “author.” Authority, unlike power, is not a mere fact, but a quality based on the history of the relationship between people and linked to the fact that somebody helps somebody else be born.

Thus, authority is bound to education. As Latin etymology suggests, e-ducere, “to conduct outside,” is a metaphor for the action that facilitates birth and has its model in Socratic maieutic.

Unlike non-human animals, a person is not born just once in the act of biological generation. Man is by nature a cultural animal and needs culture to be able to completely acquire his own character. If he goes to school, he does it not only to learn, but also to be born. School can only still educate if there are “masters” in it, i.e. people capable of exercising authority and thus of contributing to the “birth” of their students. It is not about going back to certain past authoritarian practices. For the teacher’s authority to subsist, it is essential to ack-nowledge that, just as in any birth, the object of the process is not the obstetrician, but the child. The need for a dialogue that admits a true reciprocity arises from this. The current challenge is to save this dialogue, with all the freedom and authenticity that it entails. At the same time, this dialogue recovers authority, with all the respect that comes from the “disciple’s” act of listening to his master.

“Be-with”: the crisis of affiliations

In our society, binding affiliations are evaded. The individual relates to others, but his increasing autonomy allows him to change paths and company at any time.

This is evidence of the crisis of the very idea of community. For it to be real, a cooperative action must be established and directed towards a shared objective. It is not enough to have a coordination that seeks to attain similar ends. For instance, when organizing a poker game or a tennis match, everyone wants the same thing (to win), but only one will be able to effectively accomplish that objective.

There is an abyss between having similar ends and seeking a common objective. The limitations that characterize a society exclusively built on this first level of relationships among people are evident. Here we observe dramatic effects on the family, where often each individual develops their own project of self-realization, so that the bond is at risk of a crisis every time there is a clash between similar subjective ends. Something comparable can be said about the way in which many conceive political community. True community only exists if it goes from coordination to cooperation, i.e. if it exists in order to attain an end that is truly common, so that none of the participants can achieve it if the others do not. This means that there is a reciprocal responsibility that goes beyond mere coordination. A poker player has nothing to reproach his peers for if they make mistakes nor is his responsibility to help them. In fact, if personal success depends as much on the effort of others as on personal effort, it is normal to pay attention to the frailty of the other and strive to support him.

In addition to that, in cooperation, participants give life to an action that they would have never been able to perform individually. Thus, the harmonious climate of a family or class arises from individual behaviours. However, it is something more than these behaviours in isolation or the sum of them, given that the subject is not one or another member, but the family or school community as such. It only takes one out-of-tune string to ruin a symphony.

The school as community

Currently, there is a risk of forgetting that the school is a community. Our education system has a character that is increasingly individualistic, maybe in order to achieve ‘personalization.” In the logic of an “educational offer,” there is a multiplication of activities and opportunities offered to students looking to satisfy their requirements, using the most sophisticated media (computers, audio-visual instruments, trips, instruction). But this offer does not propose goals that give meaning to these media or teach how to put them into practice. A contemporary school runs the risk of becoming a huge supermarket. Everyone goes in looking for whatever serves their own subjective self-realization project, without liaising with anybody in order to make the project happen and not even suspecting that the school institution can be the place where values that guide their own lives can be discovered.


No community can be born from this. The clients of a supermarket (“clients” is the new term to talk about students) lack deep shared bonds. They have similar goals, but they neither answer for the others nor generate a common action that overcomes each individualism.

A school conceived in this way is instructing egoism. Because of this, it is not a good laboratory for members of society and it does not prepare young people for democracy, which is centred in the search for the common good by each member.

In this regard, we shall recall what was written four hundred years go by the English poet John Donne (1573-1651): “no man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am invoked in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Only if this perspective is adopted can the school find its special role again – in a world of solitudes and masses – as an educating community.

“Be-for”: true and false tolerance

There is a lot of insistence today, also in schools, regarding the value of tolerance. Young people are warned against all self-claimed truths that generate violence. The Inquisition and totalitarian regimes are brought up as examples. Nobody says that without aspiring to truth and confidence in the possibility of knowing it Socrates, Galileo, and Martin Luther King, on the one hand, would not have existed, nor would philosophy, science, and human progress, on the other.


There is a tendency to repeat that everyone has their own truth. This would mean that no truth exists. In this way, tolerance, which was originally born to guarantee the individual’s freedom to search for truth, has insensibly become a resignation from it.

Such ambiguity makes dialogue useless and impossible, as it excludes the existence of a common ground for confrontation. Therefore, today we are witness to the crisis of that “public reason” that should constitute the basis for responsi-ble citizenship. Certainly, in the concept of “public” we find an aspect that is linked with knowledge: “Everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everyone (…). For us, what appears to be – seen and heard by everybody else as much as by us – is reality” (H. Arendt). Public, in this sense, is whatever that is not reduced by private, inexplicable, and individual experience, and it can, in turn, serve as the basis for a common discourse. Only in this way can an individual’s interests and feelings converge in a wider design, capable of orienting life in community. This meaning of “public” is naturally extended towards the political aspect, where the term signals the sphere where individuals build a common good.

If there no longer is a truth that can go beyond the subjec-tive game of individual preference, the possibility for an ethic community vanishes. In other words, there cannot be a shared heritage of values capable of generating civil coexistence. Individuals retreat to a private world, where their conscience decides without any objective control, often on the basis of moods and emotional impulses. Contrasts are only linked with interests, not deep conviction. The effects of this involution in political and social life are visible daily. Society does not have shared goals to guide it anymore.

Schooling needs truth

In sum, what is left is a “mush” of stimuli and suggestions, a sort of “primordial soup,” where all ideas and experiences drown and become devoid of their absolute value. This is the only explanation usually given, and it is not of a plural character, but imposed in a more totalitarian way the less aware the consumer is of himself. It is necessary to say that those that are more exposed to that “brainwashing” are young people.

Paradoxically, however, this way of stating things, justifying them in the name of respect for freedom, annuls freedom itself. It is literally understood as the equivalence of everything. If in fact an idea and a behaviour can never be considered valid in themselves, but only on the basis of subjective and flawless preferences, why would one have to believe or do one thing instead of another? In these con-ditions, how can we be amazed by the fact that so many young people are not able to believe in something or choose certain options?

Very frequently, the school has ended up adopting this type of pluralism as a model, but this is a sort of suicide. While it is possible to instruct when staying at the level of the media, there is no education without establishing objectives, that is, without assuming goals deemed more valid than others. If the only end of education were tolerance as a resignation form truth and the value of anything that is not tolerance itself, there would only be nothing.

A sceptic school only produces conformists

Fortunately, the school’s dynamic forces the violation of these boundaries. Having different disciplines already implies that there is an inescapable reality check, independent from subjective preferences. No teacher or student could expect their “truth” trump the laws of thermodynamics or the result of the battle of Waterloo. There is something else, anyway. If there was no difference between true and false, in what name could the school decide to help these young people to unmask the illusions of advertising, the lies of propaganda, the acceptance of fashions, the fanaticism of fundamentalisms, or the superstitions of magic? If there was no difference between what is real and what is not, between what is valuable and that which is less valid, on the basis of which criteria should critical sense be acquired and exercised? A purely sceptic school would be destined to produce conformists who are willing to absorb, with superficial passiveness, the conditioning of all trends and slogans in circulation.

The school is not really public and open if it is reduced to an empty container, in which differences are drowned in the primordial soup of the equivalence between purely subjective positions. A public school should be capable of provoking and embracing diverse convictions in order to confront them. In a logic of autonomy, only in such a way is it possible to build shared horizons of meaning that are the ultimate end of the efforts of education. 


"The Raising Interest On Saint Thomas Aquinas In China"

“Although it may seem strange to many people in the West, contemporary Chinese scholars find Thomas’s thought not simply fascinating, but of enduring relevance”. William Carroll, converses with HUMANITAS REVIEW about his impressions of the positive reception of academics in some Chinese universities of the Thomistic philosophy.

 Portrait of Matteo Ricci s.j. Anonimous, 1552 - 1610

Portrait of Matteo Ricci s.j. Anonimous, 1552 - 1610

Thomas Aquinas’s commitment to the importance of reason and its universal role in defining what it means to be human makes him an attractive thinker for contemporary Chinese scholars. Speaking of the ways in which Thomas’ understanding of the relation-ship between philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences, he dis-cusses how these can be used to disentangle contemporary confusion about the philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology.

After your three trips to China (2013, 2014 and 2015) and one to Taiwan, what is it that has raised the interest of Chinese Scholars on St. Thomas’s philosophy?

- So far I have spent over ten weeks in mainland China, plus two weeks in Taiwan, where I have invited by Chinese universities to speak at Thomas Aquinas’ Creation and Contemporary Science.

At the school of philosophy at the University of Wuhan they have a Thomas Aquinas Study Centre, which has been in existence for about twelve years, and among other things they are doing translations of Thomas, from Latin into Chinese. Their first work was a very small philosophical treatise by Thomas called “On Being and Essence”, a me-taphysical treatise. I was surprised to discover that a number of graduate students were concentrating on what they call Western Philosophy.


- How did St. Thomas's reach China? Are there any records to tell us how long his philosophy has been in the East?

- In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit missionaries trained in Thomistic philosophy and theology went to China. It was them, that introduced the thought of Thomas both implicitly and explicitly. They entered into some kind of dialogue with Chinese scholars, but not so much about philosophy, that was important initially, but about science. They brought with them some western scientific advances, the telescope among them.

The Chinese calendar was crucial for establishing all the rituals; political, economic, social, of the year in China, and it was important to get the calendar right, when eclipses would occur, and so forth. The Chinese Emperor was particularly upset with his own scholars not being able to get the calendar straight. The Jesuits brought with them a better way of understanding the calendar and used their astronomical knowledge to work on the reform of the Chinese calendar. 

They learnt Chinese and wrote an elaborate catechism for Chinese scholars, explaining Christian beliefs, and in this catechism he uses Thomistic theology and philosophy. However, there was much tension within the Chinese imperial court with these foreigners, so although initially they were reasonably accepted, then there was a backlash. In the 18th century, with the suppression of the Jesuits by the Pope throughout the world, their missions nearly ended. It was not until the late 19th century that you begin having Christian missionaries coming again.

-  If it was science that first introduced these scholars into their western culture, how was it that they moved on to Aquinas metaphysical thought?

- Their interest was not so much in metaphysics, but on ethics. The Chinese intellectual traditions emphasize ethics more than any other area, so Thomas and Confucius share important notions of natural law. It was the Thomistic understanding of natural law in particular and ethics in general that raised the interest of these scholars.

- Considering the much longer Eastern cultural and philosophical tradition what has attracted their interest in the Western philosophy, which is very recent and is nested in a Christian tradition?

- Well, once again, it is the notion of superiority of ethics, that Chinese philosophical writers have been thinking, writing about ethics in a sophisticated way longer than the West. But I think, philosophically, we have a lot to learn from the rich Chinese tradition in ethics. I think, similarly, they have a lot to learn about metaphysics, and my Chinese colleagues recognize that. For some time, there has been some kind of prejudice in China against Western thinkers who were religious but now there is more openness about Thomas Aquinas in many of these departments of philosophy and other departments in Chinese universities than is often the case in the West.


- To what extent is Western philosophy something they can relate to their philosophies?

- There are different views about it. But on both sides, there is a belief that Western philosophy has its own principles and procedures, while the Chinese one has its own principles and traditions, and that therefore we really should not mix them. The philosophical reason why they cannot be mixed, and is that the philosophical systems or ways of thinking are embedded in long, cultural traditions.

There is that general notion that you study Western philosophy as it were at a distance, and this is not so unusual for Western thinkers; we often have the same kind of view. Historically, the first interest in western philosophy was in German philosophy, German idealism, again, Marx, Engels, etc. And then, by studying Marx and Engels, discovering Immanuel Kant, and then after that coming forward Heidegger, and so forth. The first example of Western philosophical traditions in contemporary China comes from the German academic world, and any of these scholars, who are trained in the West, have gone to German universities to study German philosophy. But now, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, for example, or Plato, are relatively new areas. New areas including primarily Anglo-American analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of the mind. So that is another area of interest in China. 

- When we think of St. Thomas’ philosophy, we are talking about a metaphysical explanation of Man, of nature and of the universe. How does Aquinas’ metaphysics relate to the Chinese philosophies in these respects?

- The notion of human nature in the Chinese and the Western philosophical traditions can only be compared and contras-ted if we have a good understanding of human nature. The example that I use when I am confronted with this question in China is geometry; this science has its origins in the West with Euclid, but we do not have Western geometry and Chinese geometry. We do not have western physics and Chinese physics. Now, it might very well be the case that in the natural sciences and the natural mathematics you are abstracting yourself from a lot of different features of the world, but I think that in principle, there should be no reason why we cannot talk about metaphysics in an analogous way to be talking about physics or mathematics. In fact, that is what I am now working on with Chinese scholars. I am trying to find points of contact between Aquinas’ and their philosophies, which are not ethics. This is relatively easy since a fair amount of work has been done about it, but not in metaphysics. This is much harder since there is not a strong tradition in metaphysics within Chinese philosophy. What is crucial here is that I am working on the notion of creation.

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between creation understood philosophically -in the discipline of metaphysics- and creation understood theologically. As he develops his philosophical account of creation, which he will use in his theology, but which has an autonomy on its own, he employs philosophical categories from Aristotle, the Greeks and the Platonic tradition. So, because there is for him a concept of creation which does not depend upon faith, Thomas is able to find in ancient Greek philosophy resources of considerable value. 

My argument is that if Thomas’ thought can cross centuries and cultures, it should also be able to cross into Chinese culture and Chinese philosophical traditions, and just as Thomas learns from Aristotle, so he could learn, from Taoism and Confucianism.

Therefore contemporary Chinese scholars trained in their Chinese philosophical traditions could find in Thomas Aquinas a dialogue partner because he is not speaking, first of all, as a Christian. He is a theologian, but he is a philosopher too, and one can distinguish his philosophy from his theology. His philosophy can speak to Muslims and Jews, so it should also speak to Confucians and neo-Confucians, etc. That is what I am trying to do now in China; to find entrance points in Chinese philosophy, by means of questions about the ultimate origins.
  Many people think that Chinese metaphysics only deals with big cosmological questions, and cosmology is not crea-tion; cosmology deals with natural science, the questions of the physical origins. But creation deals with origins in a more ultimate sense and whether or not that more ultimate sense, can make sense in the Chinese intellectual context is what I have been working with Chinese scholars to try to find.

- Can we say then, that their ancient traditions have a philosophy of nature and of creation?

- No. That is the point. The problem is that the word ‘creation’ is used in so many different ways. People think that the Big Bang is the creation; it is not creation. Because, for Thomas Aquinas, creation does not mean temporal begin-ning, it means ontological dependence. So whether or not the universe is eternal or has a beginning concerns the kind of universe we have, not whether or not it is created. That sense of ultimate origin is simply not explicit anywhere that I can find, anywhere within Chinese philosophical traditions. And of course some people say you will not find it anywhere in ancient Greek philosophy either; that is a uniquely monotheistic notion, or at least it has its inspirations from the monotheistic religions.


And Thomas approaches the question of ultimate origin philosophically, open to reason alone, that in principle should be able to be communicated in different cultures, in different times, in different places. The way we approach these questions does differ by culture, time and place and language, and you have to take all those conditions into consideration. But that does not mean that in principle we cannot get at the truth of things. Some Chinese and Western scholars say that the Chinese language is unable to express the notion of Being and Existence, and this has to do with how radically ‘othered’ Chinese language is. I mean, Greek and Latin and modern languages differ, but they do not differ in such a radical way as, say, Chinese or Japanese differ from Western languages. So, how can you capture in the Chinese language something like the notion of cause of existence?

And then, even the notion of Nothing. Then, there is the question: is there a kind of absolute nothing which creation talks about? One of my books on creation and science has been translated into Chinese, and it has been published, but there are still problems with words. We had an intense a debate among the four or five people, graduate students I got to work with, all well-versed in Western philosophy, about what Chinese words to use. Largely, because there is no tradition of talking about this and therefore no words that could be used.


- Then you mean that, in addition to the conceptual approach to the issue of the ultimate cause, there is a linguistic barrier as well?

- Well, there are already some words about Lord, about God, which are translated as creational, but I think a neologism would not really help. Matteo Ricci had the same problem, and he said “this notion of Lord of heaven in ancient Confucian thought, this is what we mean by God”. So that gets fixed, at least for the Chinese in the Christian tradition. But there are fundamental linguistic issues about how language captures these concepts. I mean, if you just take Hebrew, how two verb tenses in Hebrew compare to 21 or so verb tenses in Greek, what does that tell us about Hebrew and Greek thinking? I do not know much about the problems of the Chinese language, but I do know that there are such problems. And the very notion of ‘cause’ is a problem.

For example, I was talking with a professor from Peking University, which is probably the N°1 university in China, when trying to explain the cause of existence, the many different senses of cause, I said “why is it that you people here in China do not have an adequate sense of cause?”, and he told me “why are you in the West so concerned about cause?”

- If their explanation for the universe is purely scientific, is there any room for a philosophical theory about creation, non-creation, finitude, beginning or end? Can they take up the notion of something that transcends the mere matter?

- When you talk to Chinese well-versed scientists in contemporary cosmological speculations, they are intrigued by this. There is a sense of wonder whether the notion of an absolute beginning to the universe makes much sense in ancient Chinese traditions. And that is similar, of course, to contemporary cosmological theories. They are intrigued by the fact that, for Thomas Aquinas, whether the world has a beginning or not, does not change the fact that it is created.

Thomas thinks an eternal universe is just as much a created universe as a universe which has a beginning; he distinguishes the question of beginning from the question of being created. Now, he believes that the universe has a beginning, because that is the traditional interpretation of the Genesis, but he knows that the universe could be eternal and created. In fact, he thinks the universe is not eternal. So, separating questions of temporality from what it means to be created makes it particularly attractive, I would think, to anyone who were to think that the universe does not have a beginning.

All kinds of theories about cosmological beginnings or lack of, for Thomas are not yet creation, that is like theories about the Big Bang. Theories about the Big Bang have nothing to do with creation, because there might very well be something before the Big Bang. The Big Bang might be the beginning of the universe we experience, but we cannot know and we could not assume that it is the absolute beginning, and that is Thomas’ point. I call this sometimes, when I give lectures, ‘the error of beginnings’. It is the beginning of all sorts of errors. Once you make creation and temporal finitude necessarily connected to one another, you get into lots of problems, and it is the genius of Thomas to distinguish between the two. And again, I think we must go out against any kind of view of Chinese philosophical traditions other than ‘traditions’ with a wide variety of differences. If a Chinese scholar was to say “but what does Western philosophy say about this subject?” Well, which Western philosophy? So, similarly, we are talking about a longer history of philosophy in China than philosophy in the West.

- In this regard, can these Chinese philosophers, and scientists, see this difference St. Thomas makes? That a scientific approach is compatible with a philosophical one?

- We live in a culture, both East and West, which is heavily scientific. So there is a view that the only access to reality is through the natural sciences, not through philosophy or theology, etc. And that is a view which is a long-standing power in the west and to some degree in China as well. I have met some Chinese scientists, but they function in their own world, not unlike scientists in the West.   I gave a lecture on contemporary cosmology and the metaphysics of origin at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Then, they were much intrigued about my point that philosophy students should study the natural sciences. Because not to know the natural sciences is to cut yourself off from a kind of philosophy of the concrete reality. And analogously that natural scientists should study philosophy, because if they do not, they have a narrow view of their discipline.

I was asked to go back to give a lecture to their medical students. I spoke to about 100 medical students about philosophy of nature and the study of Medicine, and the extent to which, if they are committed to a mechanistic and materialist view of nature, they are not going to be good doctors. I said that I do not want my doctor to be a materialist who thinks that I am nothing but a complex machine, and I said “I hope none of you think that either”. I found that the medical students were not particularly different in their attitude and their knowledge from students of the sciences in Oxford or anywhere.

- These scholars seem to be open to Thomistic philosophy, but not so much as to take a step the Western thought, specifically Christianity?

- I think Thomas Aquinas is, in a way, off the radar. He is a medieval Western thinker, so I think that for the people who make the political decisions, who are different from those who make the academic decisions, this does not seem particularly challenging.

It is also important to remember the distinction Thomas draws between philosophical and theological analyses. Although he is a theologian, he does grant an appropriate autonomy to exclusively philosophical thinking. It is Thomas’s philosophy, not his theology, that I discuss in China. 

When talking about Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics of creation and contemporary biology I raise the rhetorical question “Why should we look to Thomas Aquinas on the questions of creation and science?” and say that the principal reason is that what Thomas Aquinas says is true, and that is a pretty good reason.

Interviewed by Paula Jullian.