17 May 2003

thoughts on giussani

(from comments I made at the IIC)

There is much in The Risk of Education that resonates with me as Christian philosopher, teaching at a Catholic university. Thinkers such as Gadamer or Hauerwas, as well as various kinds of postmodern thought, have stressed the way in which we are all situated within particular communities and narratives, which inform our experience of the world and from which there is no possibility of ultimately extricating ourselves. Indeed, being traditioned in these various ways is necessary for the possibility of knowing anything at all.

We can thus understand the Christian narrative as one that can "out-narrate" others, but does so from the standpoint of a community and practice in which that narrative can be shown to be more attractive, to call forth an almost aesthetic response from the human subject. In this way, Christ is known as Lord.

Having said this, I must also address what I see as a possible terminological or theoretical difficulty with regard to some of the ways in which Fr. Giussani (or perhaps his translator) expresses himself, as least in terms of how he is likely to be understood by an American audience. While The Risk of Education strikes me as somewhat less tightly argued and organized than some other books by Giussani, that is not my primary concern. Rather, I worry that the terminology of "experience" and "verification" could be profoundly misleading, at least within certain contexts, particularly within certain pragmatist, subjectivist, consumerist, and positivist tendencies within American philosophical thought and popular culture.

Within that context, for instance, "experience" is too easily read as "my own personal experience" and so can function as a means by which belief-systems are commodified and subjected to the whims of the sovereign consumer. Likewise, "verification" can take on an empiricist tone, in which raw sense data must be compiled, organized, and experimentally proven.

Now, I think I know what Fr. Giussani intends by these terms and that his intent is something more pre-cartesian, not limited to the horizon of the individual subject, but situated within actions, events, community, and dialogue by which reality can be truly encountered, unveiling itself to a properly receptive knower, in an event which is as ethical and aesthetic as it is epistemological. The ontology presupposed here is therefore more Thomist and personalist than modernist. Still, I think the way in Giussani (or, again, perhaps his translator) brings this perspective to expression in The Risk of Education is liable to be misunderstood.

Finally, setting aside this more theoretical difficulty, Fr. Giussani’s educational perspective raises several practical difficulties for me as an educator. First, the contemporary university is not conducive in a number of ways to the kind of educational vision Giussani proposes. Students are ill-prepared for college level work, curricular requirements regiment course content, academics tend toward overspecialization, and teaching loads preclude the kind of time commitment one would like to give. As a result, excessive classroom time is taken up attempting to equip students with some of the most basic academic skills. Broader perspectives and deeper questions of meaning are pushed aside by departmental and curricular demands. Professors with narrow specializations often lack the wider knowledge and training in their fields which are necessary to open larger questions. And increased course loads and administrative roles for full-time faculty, along the proliferation of adjunct teachers, place demands on time that could be otherwise spent cultivating community.

Second, universities—even Catholic ones—do not often embody the kind of respect for traditions that Giussani suggests is necessary, lacking any kind of institutional cohesion. The problem is not so much one of actual relativism or skepticism in the classroom, since most college professors do possess clear commitments and agendas, which they communicate to their students. Rather, the difficulty is the fragmentary nature of the modern university in which respect given to particular traditions and beliefs in one classroom may well be undermined in another. Thus, students receive mixed messages, without the tools and stability to discern where truth may be present. And so, as Giussani suggests, skepticism and relativism can ensue.

This difficulty is particularly pressing when it comes to the Christian claim, which, along with other forms of life, is reduced to simply one claim among others. This is particularly disastrous when this kind of ideological competition is taking place in the context of a modern liberalized universal reason that tends to tame and police theological narratives, relegating them to the realm of the individual, privatized, internalized, and moralistic, rather than (what is understood as) the realm of truth.

Finally, returning to something I mentioned in passing earlier, it is often very difficult to foster the kind of community that would be necessary for Fr. Giussani's vision to function fully. The kind of interpersonal connection between teachers and students, dialogue and friendship, supported by the wider educational community, which Fr. Giussani seems to suppose, is one that is difficult to attain, though one does occasionally and happily find it emerging, despite barriers. Ideally, I think, a Catholic college would intentionally and proactively shape itself into a spiritual community, an ecclesially formed society, and would do so in ways that go beyond just requiring courses in religion and philosophy or an emphasis upon service-learning, however important those elements may be. Still this kind of fostering of community does not easily happen. Individual professors can do their part, but without wider institutional support, the project falters, even if as teachers we do what we can to remain connected to and rooted in the spiritual resources of our own parishes.

Even with these sometimes daunting difficulties, I would hope that books like Fr. Giussani's would contribute to a discussion of these topics in educational circles—particularly Catholic and more broadly Christian ones—in a way that would actually come to transform our educational practice. The Risk of Education constitutes a challenging and important part an any such discussion.