International Congress on Education
Castel Gandolfo, March 31 – April 2, 2006
IT IS LIFE THAT GIVES UNDERSTANDING
THIS IS WHY WE NEED A NEW SCHOOL OF THOUGHT
The theme I would like to briefly develop has to do with the following: we need to reach the point where teaching is life, that is, in which life is an expression of teaching and teaching is an expression of life.
Normally, from the teaching of notions one learns notions. In fact, one generally goes to school in order to receive “useful information.” Although information serves to open new horizons, it is not yet a school in the true sense of the word. Teaching, studies, school, cannot consist in the formation of reason alone; it must form the whole person.
I would like to offer some reflections on this subject by developing the following components: truth-goodness, intelligence-will, work-studies, community-knowledge.
Truth that is goodness
Studies should not be undervalued. When we are dealing with a subject we need to learn about all the efforts, achievements, even the mistakes that have been made throughout history, in order to find a solution. If we want to say something worthwhile, we need to study, to gather information and include footnotes; generally, it cannot be done simply by intuition.
However, we would like to point out here that it is not enough to be knowledgeable, to know many languages, to have access to state-of-the-art libraries, and so forth. In fact, there are people who with great effort have developed a vast culture on one particular problem but without having grasped the deeper sense of the problem, and therefore not able to say anything on the subject which is valid or new. Knowledge counts, but only secondarily. Science is useful, but it is not enough. Why?
One of the reasons can be found in the very make-up of reality. That is, in the fact that truth and goodness coincide ontologically. There is no truth that is not at the same time goodness. History took a dramatic turn when it was believed that to understand the truth revealed by faith, goodness and virtue were necessary, whereas the same did not apply to natural truth. Actually, truth and goodness coincide in both the person and reality, as presented, for example, by Plato and Aristotle, and in Judeo-Christian revelation. It follows then that the human person can truly understand in the measure that he or she is good and virtuous. And this is not a religious or pietistic principle, but a very profound truth that involves the whole person and all human knowledge.
The human being as one
If we look at the human being, we see that he or she is gifted with senses-intellect-will, but at the same time, we note that the human being knows through his or her faculties, that is, the human being as one even before being distinct.
This is another reason why we can no longer imagine a type of culture that involves only reason and intelligence in the modern sense of the word. The human being in his or her entirety must be involved, the human being with both body and soul.
To make this possible a new style of study is needed. We need to study by living out what we study, and not study only as an academic activity; otherwise, the “lessons” distance us from true knowledge.
We should study only as much as it helps us to carry out and clarify what we are living. This is the meaning of studies. It is something that should involve both intelligence and will simultaneously; indeed, almost more will than intelligence. It should be love driving intelligence more than intelligence driving love. This is not to minimize the value of intelligence, but rather, to give it its proper place and allow it to carry out its role in the best way possible.
Considering studies in this way should lead to becoming men and women, not only persons who are well-educated. Being learned simply in the sense of “mental ability” really means being ignorant. In other words, studies that are translated into life should form men and women who know how to live and to face all the problems of human thinking as problems that are personally lived, and not as problems to “study”.
Work as school of life
In this perspective of studies, work is not a waste of time because work is also a means of knowledge. It is not only a means for living, but it is something inherent to our being men and women, and therefore, also a means to know reality, to understand life: it is a tool of real and effective human formation. If I have a problem with a job I am carrying out, or if I have to increase production because otherwise the business will fail, I have to resolve these problems concretely, not in an abstract or spiritual manner.
When people do nothing but study, they can invent a philosophy for themselves and say that it is fine, that it is right. But when they have to make a machine operate, they cannot invent a philosophy: they have to make that machine work according to intrinsic laws that are what they are, but which have to be adapted.
Work gives us a sense of “the real,” it puts us in contact with matter, with the cosmos. Then we acquire the vital experience that comes from having to adapt to concrete matter and from trying to adapt it to us.
It often happens that if we give a vital thought, it is likely that those who do nothing but study will not understand it, whereas a housewife, a laborer will understand more. They work all day and do not have the abstract categories and schemes to filter through what we want to say and consequently, to misunderstand it. This is why these “simple” people represent the best “sounding board” to help us step beyond the books and empty concepts and find a thinking that is life, being, humanity.
A proof of what we are saying can be found, for example, in meeting laborers, farmers, fishermen, who through their experiences express not only the wisdom of their laborious contact with life and nature, but who are in some way able to also express the concreteness, harmony and purity of nature. Through contact with these people, we can learn certain values of human existence which no book could ever give us.
Therefore, our studies should not detach us from the working world, from the material world, but rather, make it become all one with us. For this reason a serious, productive, concrete job is needed. There, we will understand if we are well engrafted into what is real, if we are real. It is in contact with reality that the intelligence, spirit and being of a person is shaped, illumined and clarified. This highlights the risk people are exposed to today because of unrestrained media: the risk of replacing the real-real with a virtual-real. I do not say that these media achievements should be rejected. Rather, they should be set into a globally human horizon in which a solid, full knowledge of what it means to be a human being is capable of integrating without allowing oneself to be “disintegrated.”
Work succeeds in destroying a good part of what one has learned simply as notions, thus leaving within us only the measure of truth that was life, that was wisdom, the measure that became part of our being over and above all that we learned. Work makes us understand many important things: it also tells us that studies are not the only reality in life.
Logically, we should not consider only manual labor as work. First of all because just as manual labor involves our freedom and knowledge, similarly, also intellectual work done well can in some way involve all our being. And then it also takes work and sacrifice to learn the notions needed to do a better job and apply what we study. Work is also the human effort involved in reading things that are hard to understand, or in learning a difficult language in order to read certain authors. Those whose job it is to study, must do it well.
Clearly, all this holds true only for those who not only want to be educated, but who want to say something. Work is an essential part of studies precisely because it is life that gives understanding.
Sociality and knowledge
Another fundamental dimension of the human being that has decisive consequences for studies is his or her sociality. If we say: “man is social by nature,” we are expressing a truth that has enormous ramifications on all levels, including that of knowledge.
In the first place, it means that truth is reached “as a body, together,” and so we must always be open and allow ourselves to be completed by the truth of others. All the more so today when no one can have an all-encompassing knowledge.
However, we would like to underscore that not just any kind of “teamwork” is sufficient, nor putting together many ideas, a lot of knowledge, in order to find a synthesis. It is not possible to take a number of dead elements and to come up with something alive. A genuinely superior and new synthesis can only be brought about by people who do not remain on the abstract level but who are themselves fused in unity. The profound communion that Jesus came to bring among people is the source of an always new light. A profound unity with God and with others sheds new light to face each problem. We need both culture and unity in order to go beyond disconnected theories and reach a higher synthesis and certain intuitions which are in some way new and original, imbued with human and divine wisdom.
A culture of the masses
A school set up in this way would also resolve a very timely problem: often school, especially for higher education, has been envisioned as a school of the elite, that is, as a school for some men and women, but not for all. This is the way specialized schools began: it seemed easier to go ahead with the so-called learned and intelligent. In reality, it was an alienation from the true humanity in which only some aspects were developed.
Instead, we should bring about (perhaps it is a dream, a utopia, but I think it should be historically possible) a culture of the masses: to succeed in generating a culture that is profoundly culture, the most elevated and authentic culture, but that can be assimilated by millions of people, communicated to millions of people. This might well be the impasse of today’s universities!
We need to arrive at an intersubjective culture, but above all, at a form of communication and expression that everyone can understand. Otherwise, it is not culture: it is the culture of only one part of humanity, but it is not the culture of the human being par excellence.
Of course, this does not mean that everyone will know everything. We can make a comparison with the Gospel, in the sense that it is made for all men and women; similarly, a true culture must be good for all people. Either we are able to give the human being to the human being or we will give only abstractions, formulas to a handful of people who do not represent humanity.
The genuine and great ancient culture was followed by the crowds. The great Greek tragedies, or the Odyssey, the Iliad, the great poems… were they for a school of the elite? No, the people resonated with them, the people lived them. And today, we wonder: how did they do it? The people related to them precisely because it was a genuine culture, because it expressed humanity.
We can say the same of St. Paul. Someone might ask: how was he able to say such elevated things to the people who were certainly not educated? The point is that we have a mistaken idea of ignorance. Those letters were addressed to people who were humanity, those words were universal and they expressed humanity; they communicated things that everyone understood because they were the very life of men and women. Men like Augustine and Chrysostom gave exegetical talks to the crowds. Why? Because there was this real and true humus which was genuine culture and which expressed “being humanity.”
If we are able to speak not only for a few people, for the museums, for an abstract humanity, but in a manner that can be understood by everyone, by living people, by the real humanity, by people who live in today’s world, with today’s needs, with today’s intelligence, then and only then will we be able to bring about a genuine culture.
Genuine things are for everyone, they are made for everyone. This universality of understanding is one of the signs for determining if what we are saying is our own invention or true wisdom. This does not mean that the thinker need not face the difficulties, the hardness of thought according to its laws; that he or she does not experience what Hegel referred to as the “fatigue of the concept;” but then everything should be digested as much as possible in communion, in the gift of communication.
Books can become bad companions if they distance us from life and from being in order to transfer us into abstract and difficult categories, while only in the heart of humanity – whose intelligence tends basically to truth – do we have true wisdom. Besides, Jesus is in humanity, especially there where it is crucified. It is in suffering, in sorrow that we find wisdom.
Certainly, we must accept the challenge that is presented here: to give back the human person to humanity. An abuse of technology has led to consumeristic forms that have blurred the being-human of human beings. We need to bring today’s person back to this. And we have a great ally: the unalterable humanity in human beings which nothing and no one can destroy.
The new teaching
In conclusion, it is a matter of passing from a plane of studies in the sense of abstract notions and learning, to studies based on another concept of the human person and culture. A “unified” person who has value not for what he or she possesses or knows but for what he or she is. A culture understood as being, as life, as depth, as human-divine wisdom.
It is not easy to bring about a school of this kind because it is a school that must come from life, not by thinking about it or by planning it abstractly.
What counts, then, is not to complain about the past or to believe that we will succeed. Human beings are linked to the future, and perhaps what we long for will be lived more fully by others in the future. But we must begin to live those realities if we really want to build something. We must begin to bring about this new school in an authentic communion of life, where formation is human, full, total, that involves our whole being and determines our lifestyle, our existence forever. Life alone gives joy, peace, and a type of knowledge which books cannot give. This is understood not by those who are detached from being, not by those who base their lives only on a culture of notions or abstract reasoning, but by those who in reality are committed to living in this way.