THE NIGHT AND THE DAWN:
EDUCATION IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING AND HOPE
EdU * Padova 2012
1. The cultural and educational night
‘When precisely does night become day?’ An ancient Jewish story asks this question of a wise rabbi. People give answers, all either superficial or wrong. Clearly the right answer, which the wise man will be forced to give, is anything but easy or obvious.
The passage from night to day is a question that touches the world of education. We are in an age that interprets educators as having motives that are ‘of the night’ and that has elements of crisis we are tempted to avoid, at times simply shutting our eyes, as if this strategy could really protect us from the darkness of our context.
In the first place we need to think of teachers, whose profession exposes them to a risk of stress that is frequently undervalued but that must be taken into careful consideration. Recent studies have illustrated the significant phenomenon of burnout in connection to a profession that is anything but privileged (as it is often thought to be), in which ‘ordinary suffering’ is felt in increasing personal problems in relation to the students (who are so difficult to motivate), their families and at times even in relation to work colleagues. This is in addition to ‘structural’ and institutional difficulties within the world of the school, which is itself often overlooked, undervalued and lacks the adequate formation and support capable of improving the overall situation and helping teachers feel less isolated in their important and delicate task.
Difficulties, obstacles, failures exist and touch every aspect of our discussion. But often ‘we seek with every means to avoid such experiences’ and to hide them, using also ‘forms of hyper-protectiveness’ which look at life as ‘a downward path that is easy and comfortable to follow’.
The motives of the night, however, should be confronted, understood and lived with profound awareness. Only those who live in a ‘profound midnight’, as Nietzsche would put it, can pass beyond and be forewarned of the day.
Certainly, speaking today of crisis, suggesting the need to escape the tunnel, immediately brings us back to our tough economic circumstances. These are clear and alarming headline news and are the substance debates everywhere: in the bar, on television and in Parliament.
We believe that, before the economic crisis, there is a crisis in education, containing many basic questions, whose origins have deep roots, that have not yet received any good answers.
‘How can there be education after Aschwitz?’ Adorno asked, as have many others. This points to the dramatic impossibility of transmitting values in a society that mercilessly destroys life at the same time as it reasserts the absolute need to educate people so that such atrocities do not happen again.
How can there be education, we could add today, at a time of global crisis, characterized by increasing tensions, by religious extremism that rears its head in situations of conflict, wars and terrorism, by a social, economic and cultural crisis affecting many countries and continents, by a growing disintegration of reference points (whether they be cultural, political or religious) with the consequent uncertainty of values and the new generations’ absence of hope for the future? How can there be education in contexts that indeed seem to have lost all hope and that, for example, in their frequent slavery to a positivistic paradigm, maintain that various difficulties endogenous to the subject (‘interpsychic’) and endogenous to our social worlds (family, school and so on) are such that they exclude any kind of positive development, any capacity to be redeemed, to such a point that they lead to the notion that the human individual in effect cannot be educated?
The testimony that comes not only from so-called frontier territories but also from the everyday challenges of education within the family, in class, in society, often speak to us of being ill at ease – and this involves everyone, those educated and those educating (teachers, administrative staff, families) as well as educational institutions themselves.
Certainly the forms of this discomfort are so innumerable that it is impossible to analyse them in detail.
2. The responsibility of starting from the ‘micro’ level. The ‘stones the builders have rejected’
Precisely because we are involved in education, we are obliged to take on board directly this socio-cultural lack of ease permeating our societies. We do this when it presents itself to us at a micro level, in the actual lives of the persons we meet and who are entrusted to us, in the specific and unique situations that challenge us, in our interpersonal relations, in the small-scale worlds of our daily commitments, the family, the school, the little communities we are part of.
This maximum commitment at the micro level is what we wish to consider in more depth. It is here, in this necessary dimension, that it is possible to begin to pass from night to day.
Let’s think of those in difficulty, of children and adolescents we meet in the classroom, or who come to our houses or, worse still, who are holed up in their rooms or in tiny groups, in marginal places beyond the limits of what we too easily call ‘normality’. There are many stories, in schools too, of young people who have been scared and profoundly damaged and often neglected, forgotten or even cast aside. There are many ‘stones the builders rejected’.
At this point it is impossible not to bring to mind Don Lorenzo Milani and what he said of the ‘pieces’ that did not turn out right, the weaker, more vulnerable and at times clearly problematic elements, that are, instead, the corner stones of society. In his Letter to a Teacher [‘Lettera a una professoressa’] he said, ‘It goes without saying that the turner makes every effort to work a piece that has not come out well into one like all the others. You, instead, are experts in throwing away pieces just as you see fit. If each of you knew that, at all costs, you must carry all your students in all subjects, you would sharpen your wits to make theirs function.’
We educators have entrusted to us this commitment ‘at all costs’, that is, this need of ‘sharpening wits’ with all teaching means at our disposal, so as to bring out the precious stone that is in each student. This sharpening of wits leads to understanding the inner disquiet, that existential suffering, which is expressed in the difficulty of acting as a personal subject, capable of taking the lead, in the complex web of relationships of me-you-us-and-the-world. There are those who are victims of a lack of motivation, of the capacity to take the lead, who think of themselves as nothing, victims in an overwhelming world that crushes any sense of self-worth. And there are those who, on the other hand, act out an omnipotent role where only ‘I’ exist, in a narcissism that annihilates the other, the world. In both cases such imbalances of identity and relationality provoke frustration and various forms of aggression towards oneself and towards others in an attempt to have control and influence over oneself or over others in the world… setting up a vicious circle of misery that generates misery, provoking, ultimately, the fragmentation of the ego, of interpersonal relationships and of social belonging. These are issues that we find in our families, in schoolrooms, in towns which, apart from anything else, are affected by the difficulties of multicultural cohesion and by the traps to personal identity connected with relational pathologies present also in these environments.
There are many ‘extreme situations’ that challenge us and which, as Paulo Freire says, present educators with ‘generating issues’ that need to be read with intelligence and approached, as Freire also says, ‘with impatient patience’ – that is, ‘patience’ inasmuch as educational accompaniment must be concrete, so that any of those living in any such misery can find in themselves and in relation to the educator the strength to react and to find new ways ahead, and having that capacity of getting into synch with the other which knows how to wait and to go at the right speed for the situation; and ‘impatient’ in never lacking the lively desire for change, to reach the goal.
‘Impatient-patience’ is required of the educator also in respect of self, of one’s own shortcomings, of the lack of success one has had to face, and of the structural difficulties of the system.
3. Dwelling in the limit: ‘extreme educators’
The imperative to ‘dwell in the limit’ has been suggested by Chiara Lubich among others. She links this with the choice of the Jesus who lived his forsakenness, the peak of his love, on the cross. In her reflection on education in Washington, D.C., she affirms that Jesus forsaken, the Man of Sorrows, ‘points to the “limit without limits” that should characterize our educational work, demonstrating the extent and intensity it must have’ and he makes us see, therefore, ‘the “limit without limits” of our responsibility to help and to educate.’
Thus the educator is called to be a ‘specialist of the limit’, even a ‘specialist of the extreme’, as affirmed by those French scholars who have recently published an interesting work whose title translates as Educators of the Extreme: the Possibility of Education Tested by the Real. These authors emphasize that in education there are many objective situations that are ‘extreme’, which test ‘the violence that characterizes them as a result of the difficulties of the children and young people involved, of the complexity of the surrounding circumstances and of the multiple needs demanding a response.’
We should remember that ‘It is not always the educators who have to face extreme situations, but it is nonetheless true that every educator tries to go to the extreme of what he or she can do.’ In fact even if ‘setbacks are an essential part of educational activity’, educators do not let themselves be defeated by setbacks, by lack of success, because even in these ‘extreme’ situations their educational activity ‘could possibly function, could possibly not give up, could possibly fulfil its hope’.
The educator, thus, does not hold back. He or she is ready to listen with empathy, which means ‘I realize that the other is in pain … in a ‘new’ pain, belonging to the other, that I have never experienced’. From precisely this profound participation in the other, such empathy takes on board, assumes the other’s suffering, the other’s vulnerability. It does not let itself be overcome by the temptation of avoidance, falling into indifference or other forms of negligence. It does not desist, but it does resist because it knows that this, even though extreme, kind of resistance allows the other to find re-existence. It does not close itself into a comfortable immunity (immunitas) but it takes on itself the other, the others, the community (communitas). Communitas is the opposite of immunitas.
People committed to social and educational advancement give witness that this is how to rebuild unity out of fragmentation, to redeem what seemed to be lost, to give back citizenship to those who feel excluded, and to bring about the rebirth of community where it seems that all is dominated by the gloom of individualism.
4. The ‘vulnerable educator’
It is better to be torn by the barbs and spines of the community than to try to protect yourself in the sterile asceticism of irresponsible indifference. To educate a ‘vulnerable other’ it is thus necessary to have a ‘vulnerable educator’, an ‘expert in wounds’, an expert in the difficult struggle of education.
In reality, the suffering of many (thinking especially of young people, of adolescents) is the lack of ‘vulnerable educators’, people capable of introjecting fragility and sharing the pain of others.
This is what Luigi Zoia, the well-known psychoanalyst, affirmed when he wrote La morte del prossimo [The Death of Neighbour]. He said: ‘After the death of God, the death of neighbour is the disappearance of the second fundamental relationship for human beings. They slip into a fundamental solitude. They are orphans in a way that has no historical precedent. This happens in the vertical dimension, as their heavenly Parent is dead, but it is also in the horizontal dimension, because their neighbour is dead. They are orphans wherever you look … The lonely person falls into depression and, in a vicious circle, those who are depressed lack the strength and motivation to seek out and meet their neighbour.’
In Il gesto di Ettore [Hector’s Gesture], Zoia maintains that this state of being orphans is closely linked to the absence, which is often the result of indifference, of an adult, of an educator, of a father. He writes, ‘Children know of their father’s desire for them to be comfortable, but they do not know of his desire for them to be truly human beings … The father is absent not because, like Ulysses, he has gone to join the struggle of war, but because he refuses the struggle of building relationships.
Genuine education is thus a matter of shared vulnerability: living intensely the vital ‘educational struggle’ – which brings to mind the creative identity-building in the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, with God, a struggle that represents all the details of the ‘educational struggle’.
The education’s real strength can be seen in this profound meeting with suffering. Here the other’s wounds become ours, and genuine encounter leaves, as for Jacob, an identifying wound that gives new birth, a sign that in itself is a lesson.
In her words and her life, Chiara Lubich pointed out to us the secret of this suffering-love. She taught us the importance of dwelling in the ‘wound’ par excellence, that is, the forsakenness Jesus experienced on the cross.
Remaining in this exceedingly uncomfortable position, our being this wound-love that comprehends and heals every wound, is truly the secret of the redemptive work that is education. It is the key of hope, the dawn, the true passage from the night to the day.
At the end of this reflection, we can therefore take another look at the Jewish story we began with, and we can bring it to a conclusion. The story asks us to abandon paradigms born of desperation and to embrace those of the dawn, that is, the paradigms of fraternity:
An old rabbi asked, ‘When precisely does night become day?’
‘When you can distinguish a dog from a lamb?’
‘No,’ said the rabbi.
‘When you can distinguish a date from a fig?’
‘No, no,’ he said.
‘Then when does it happen?’
‘When you see the face of any other person at all and you recognize your brother or your sister. Only then does day begin. Otherwise, it stays night in your heart.’
(Service international de documentation judéo-chrétienne, 3/1992, p.12)
5. From the lecture given upon receiving an honorary degree in Education
From night to day… it is at once a powerful and a daily experience. It is born of the discovery that the other person is not meaningless for you, out of the depth of encounter that knows how to overcome the barriers so as to penetrate deeply into the pain of the other and make it your own.
In a passage from her lecture given upon receiving an honorary degree in Education, Chiara Lubich offers us a model, Christ on the cross, who took to himself all the questions of human beings and cries out his ‘Why?’
We will listen to it directly from the video.
And then another point: Jesus who cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
Jesus forsaken is our secret, our key idea, in education as well. He points to the ‘limit without limits’ that should characterize our educational work, demonstrating the extent and intensity it must have.
But who is this Jesus forsaken whom we have decided to love in a preferential way? He is the figure of those who are ignorant (his ignorance is the most tragic, his question the most dramatic). He is the figure of all who are needy, or maladjusted, or disabled; of those who are unloved, neglected, or excluded. He personifies all those human and social situations, which more than any others cry out for education in a special way. Jesus forsaken is the paradigm of those who, lacking everything, need someone to give them everything and do everything for them. Therefore, he is the perfect example, the ultimate measure of the learning subject, who manifests the educator’s responsibility. He indicates to us the ‘limit without limits’ of the need for education, and at the same time, the ‘limit without limits’ of our responsibility to help and to educate.
However, Jesus forsaken – who went beyond his own infinite suffering and prayed: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk 23:46) – also teaches us to see difficulties, obstacles, trials, hard work, error, failure and suffering as something that must be faced, loved and overcome. Generally we humans, whatever our field of endeavour, seek to avoid such experiences in every way possible. In the field of education, as well, there is often a tendency to be over-protective with young people, shielding them from all that is difficult, teaching them to view the road of life as smooth and comfortable. In reality, this leaves them extremely unprepared to face the inevitable trials of life. In particular, it fosters passivity and a reluctance to accept the responsibility for oneself, one’s neighbour and society that every human being must assume.
For us, instead, precisely because of our choice of Jesus forsaken, every difficulty is to be faced and loved. And thus educating to face difficulty – which involves commitment on the part of both the educator and the one being educated – is another key idea of our educational method.
 R. Casanova, S. Pesce (eds.), Pedagogues de l’extreme. L’educabilité à la preuve du reel, Est Ed., 2011, pp. 11-23. Of particular importance is the Preface by Houssaye.
 L. Zoia, La morte del prossimo (Turin: Einaudi, Torino 2009), pp. 13-14.
 C. Lubich, ‘From an address during the conferral of an honorary doctorate in Education, the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 10 November 2000’, in Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings (London and New York: New City and New City Press, 2007), 221-2.