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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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