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Religion and Society

Adaptation or Consisting in: an Anthroplogical Question

In the current context, education displays a ‘crisis of meaning.’We receive a great deal of education in behaviour but none in freedom.Society requires skills and efficiency and in exchange guarantees every kind of right or claim. The fundamental question is our vision of man.  

Education is by its nature an important synthesis of experience and brings out an anthropological idea that has been lived. But in the contemporary cultural context – which is by now Western at a global level – education has become a privileged setting of meaning and crisis and most of the time a setting for a crisis of meaning. A setting of meaning because it is in education that the unitary meaning of above all social life becomes clear. Education, indeed, is, overall, an inter-generational transmission of a human heritage that is seen as endowed with value and essential utility. But it is also a setting of crisis inasmuch as today it is universally true that educational processes encounter difficulties in achieving their goals. A factor in this difficulty is, for example, the erroneous locating of the educational-formative function in agencies that are not suited to that role but which, instead, function as effective and uncontrollable substitutes for it, such as the system of the mass media, the various sites and functions of the Net, following sports, musical culture, the very varied self-referential aggregations of young people, and so forth. All of these are situations where powerful forms of influence and conditioning accompany what is substantially the loneliness of the freedom of individuals; where, that is to say, hearts and minds receive a great deal of formation in behaviour and no education in freedom, and in relation to which the traditional educational agencies – the family, schools, and religious communities – conserve only a sectorial role, when this is not a marginalised one or even completely removed from the stage.



At a broader level, it is easy to see that the great planetary transformations of technological globalisation, and in particular those involving information and communications technology, biotechnology and finance, tend in themselves to privilege a cultural model of a technocratic kind which entrusts real power to very powerful elites and hands over the world and its peoples to the techno-structure and the ‘transparent society’ of communication and the performing arts, in relation to which the tradition of Western humanism would appear to survive as a noble residue in a niche to which the great religious traditions should refer in docile fashion.



In this (worrying but realistic) perspective education has no reason to exist other than as formation adapted to the function of this technocratic world which requires high levels of technical expertise, efficiency and creativity but low levels of primary sociality, ideological eccentricity, and alternative overall visions. To sum up: a formation in line with criteria of techno-scientific rationality which are supplemented in a complementary way by forms of affective emotionalism, the cult of relational spontaneity and generalised ethical permissiveness. Here we have two goals of contemporary life, that of technological rational objectivism ‘of the day’ and that of irrational subjectivism ‘of the night,’ which should be able to coexist through an apparatus of legal rules which act as mediation, as a progressive widening of the space of subjective permissiveness compatible with the functioning of the technocratic machine: a compatible expansion that coincides with the ‘progressive’ idea of ‘civil rights’ or ‘rights to freedom,’ as is normally interpreted by the legislation on divorce, abortion, the pluralism of family forms, genetic manipulation, euthanasia, and so on.



All of this is not an example of literature of the future along the lines of Orwell or Huxley: it is a trend now underway in the whole of the West (which can be seen for those whose eyes want to see it) whose coherent rationalisation would appear to be only a complete technocracy.



An Irreducible Reality



If this is the true state of affairs, it is clear that the possibility of educating should be thought about anew beginning with its original meaning (just as this is also true today of every relevant anthropological factor). One is not dealing, in fact, with improving or updating pedagogic methods but with deciding what the very nature and purpose of educating is; what is, that is to say, its anthropological meaning? First of all by deciding if it is meaningful to speak of education as the adaptation of the human individual to his or her human environment, therefore as a cognitive completion of skills and a practical completion of abilities, or whether educating, without taking anything away from its completion at an operative level, means, instead, helping the individual to have access to his or her humanity and to the completion of his or her identity and his or her relationship with the world. For this alternative to be consistent it is necessary, however, for belief in the irreducible reality of human subjectivity to be solid. But it is precisely this that is the radical point of crisis today, when a widespread psychological subjectivism is accompanied by an equally widespread epistemological and ontological denial of the subject-being. The uncertainty or the denial of subjectivity – as capable of truth, endowed with freedom and thus the bearer of a non-negotiable dignity – is the principle of anti-humanism to which reference has already been made and the origin of a substantial incredulity as regards the sensibleness of educating.



Education does not have anything directly to do with the metaphysical identity of the subject, although it pre-supposes it in essential terms, but is concerned with his or her historical future, that is his or her appearance in the world, given that man, as a spiritual reality, does not become himself in an automatic way but needs other ‘whos’ who are able to help him on his journey towards himself. Education as education of the person exalts the ‘singular’ centrality of man, something that is very valuable in a society that is increasingly dominated by the anonymity of techno-structure.



What, therefore, does educating mean as a primary anthropological relationship? What is its specific object? What one specifically educates in is experience, engaging in experience, engaging in it in an authentic way and in line with truth. There is experience if there is unity of experience, as unity of what has been lived, unified and qualified by the conscience and as unity of meaning, that is to say as experience referred to a meaning that is able to give meaning, that is to say so as to inscribe all the contents of experience into a greater order. Experience, therefore, as a synonym for aware living inasmuch as it is endowed with meaning and provided with internal connection and direction. Hence the fact of experience is never neutral but always has a ‘value,’ that is to say it concerns the agent as a whole, as subjective totality at stake in his or her engaging in experience. The nexus between experience and meaning is given by freedom, in relation to which one decides upon the value of what is experienced.



A Very Close Connection



Engaging in experience, however, is not self-sufficient. The ability to engage in experience is original to the human subject but at the same time it also needs to be activated. The subject must in a certain sense be generated to his or her experience: experience in all its human complexity has an essential generative significance: only experiences provokes experience and thus generates man in his capacity to engage in it. Only experience already underway provokes new experience and enables man to engage in it in his own and different way. For this reason, nothing can take the place of the activating and communicative capacity for a living synthesis of experience which is addressed to others so that they are able to engage in their experience in their turn. Here the trusting component of engaging in experience is brought out. In this there comes into play the inevitable dialectic of recognition between subjects, the establishment of their identity, the determining of their freedom, and the risking of their trust. The educational relationship belongs to this anthropological universe as a normal and specific initiative involving the activation, cooperation and stewardship of the skill of experience, addressed first and foremost to the new generations.



If generation is the primary meaning of a human relationship, then there is a very close connection between generation and education: education is that action by which parents, for the first, implement that promise which they made to their child when they brought him or her into this world (G. Angelini), and adults attest to the value of the world that they hand on to subsequent generations (H. Arendt). In the same way as in contrary fashion when procreation does not continue in the educational act, it is denied: procreating is not the first act of generating but a gesture of abandonment.



Education, therefore, needs to have at its base an elementary experience of positivity, of simple and good relationships, in which esteem for man is tangible, compassion for his pathway and his troubles, a strong hope in his resources – relationships, therefore, of creative trust. The welcoming that is practised in the educational relationship cannot take place, therefore, other than in the light of a sense of the super-abundance of existence, as a result of which one can say that existence is a ‘good thing.’ This explains why authentic educational relationships become indelible and unforgettable in life. And it confirms, in opposite fashion, the fact that when Benedict XVI spoke about an ‘educational emergency,’ he detected its ‘roots’ in a ‘crisis in trust in life.’[1]



One can thereby understand better why education is a question of capital importance for the man of globalised technological society who needs roots of vital experience in order to activate and make grow his humanity, which would otherwise be threatened.



An authentic educational relationship is established between personal subjects who can appeal to an openness of minds and hearts which is an openness of intelligence and desire at the same time.[2]



Education can but be education of intelligence and for intelligence. For intelligence first of all as activation of the intellectual capacities for listening, questioning and understanding and thus of the rational capacities for reasoning and arguing which should avoid blocking the mind at the kaleidoscope of information, at the virtual imagination, at ICT communication, and at a rationality that is only analytical and calculating, without taking anything away from the utility of these things as instruments.



To educate and to educate oneself in rationality means to have a sense of truth and at the same time to know how to remain in that condition of uncertainty that the complexity and the specificity of knowledge involves. Specifically a sense of truth helps us to maintain dialogue with questions and issues and bear the burden of difficulties.



The Reawakening of Affectivity



Education can only be education in desire and of affectivity. Not as a question that is separate from reason but as an always active dimension of the entire life span of experience. From this point of view, as well, one is dealing with educating first and foremost in desire, reawakening within affectivity its profundity of desire for good and human good in its fullness in which all people, according to their sensitivity, culture and history, communicate. Education, therefore, in affectivity to govern oneself in this breadth, depth and range of human desire, against the tendency of an emotional affectivity uprooted from desire and its own reasonableness; affectivity, therefore, that is episodic and erratic, frenetic or depressed, and whatever the case weakened in its propulsive energy of the whole of the human and debilitated in its capacity for relationships. An affectivity, therefore, restored to itself, that is to say to its capacity to be a tie, where identity and difference search for reconciliation with one another, as in the paradigmatic case of sexual identity/difference, and to its capacity to love in an intense, stable and generous way.



Education can only be education in freedom and of freedom. First of all as regards preaching on man, which, on the one hand, encourages and exasperates the search and the upholding of freedom, above all at an individual level, and, on the other, culturally proclaims neuronal, mental and social determinism. A contradictory message which seems to have been made specifically to motivate a sort of collective neurosis, launched to pursue the impossible, with heavily negative effects above all on young people. Educating in freedom means first and foremost not making speeches about freedom but engaging in an experience of freedom, as an appeal directed to freedom and at the same time testing it in the space of educational relationships. Educating freedom means to free freedom from the disastrous idea that it is only and exclusively power of choice and not the capacity to adhere to good as well: capacity for relationships with the other’s freedom. Without the right dialectic between these two forms of freedom, experience oscillates negatively between the authoritarianism of good and the arbitrariness of will. Education in/of freedom is also essentially education in the relationship between these freedoms and an experiment in their coexistence. For this reason, a living educational process is always to a certain extent part of an educating community to which it always refers. In addition, educating in freedom means forming its aptitude for sociality according to its virtues (loyalty, initiative, service, solidarity, etc.) and according to its natural ‘political,’ local, national and international openness. Indeed, it is not possible to be educated in freedom without perceiving the connection that it specifically has with the freedom of other people and all other people.



From all of this there emerges with a certain clarity that educating implies a complex anthropological structure made up of a relationship composed of tradition, authority and freedom. In it the authority of the educator is a function of a proposal and coherence which mediates between freedom and tradition, between the capacity for understanding, for criticism and adherence of the person who is the subject of the educational initiative, and the hereditary patrimony of knowledge and values, customs and practices that give content to education and also provide the criteria of value of the function of authority.



The internal equilibrium of this structure is decisive for the quality of the educational undertaking itself. In a socio-cultural context such as we have now, indeed, pedagogic humanism is threatened both by a tendency to make everything serve the idea of a subjective freedom, that is to say a libertarian subjectivism conceived of in opposition to the tie that the goods of the patrimony of tradition bring with them, and, as a reaction to this, by the opposite tendency which accentuates the functions of tradition and authority to the detriment of freedom (in various forms of traditionalism authoritarianism and fundamentalism). The educational relationship, which is authentically generative of mature human subjectivity, needs a wisdom that constantly recreates the dynamic equilibrium between its fundamental functions. Practical wisdom that is an integral part of the patrimony of a culture of education, whose thread of historical continuity, it is to be hoped, will not be broken.




[1] Benedict XVI, ‘Letter to the Faithful of the Diocese and City of Rome on the urgent Task of educating youngPeople,’ 21 January 2008.



[2] Cf. La sfida educativa, (Laterza, Rome/Bari, 2009), chap. 1.


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