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Religion and Society

Education as Paideia: a Proposal for our Time

The question of education has already been a subject for Oasis as can be seen from the last issue. After reflecting on traditions, which emerged, amongst other things, as a concrete setting for the inevitable cultural interpretation of every religious faith, to speak about education was not the outcome of a chance choice: education, as a first approximation, is in fact specifically that process made up first and foremost of good relations and virtuous practices, of the transmission (traditio) of an overall interpretation of reality, offered to an assessment of the freedom of the person being educated.



The survey that has been engaged in hitherto has not been able to conceal that the undertaking of education is in difficulty in almost all latitudes. This is certainly the case in the West where by now reference is openly made to an ‘educational emergency’ [1] and where not rarely the very idea of education seems to have been lost. But it is also the case in the rest of the globe. As the Algerian intellectual Mustapha Cherif, formerly the Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, wrote with critical lucidity in an article published specifically in the last issue of Oasis: ‘In the Muslim world…Society falls between the anvil and the hammer: there are the ignorant who censor society and level it downwards and there are groups that practise a mimetic approach based on immoral modernism.’[2] In many post-colonial societies the system of state and non-state schools has still not managed to assure mass quality education. And yet, Cherif goes on, ‘as regards the defence of its own sovereignty a country depends on its capacity to produce and assimilate knowledge.’[3] In many cases it is the linguistic question that becomes a mirror of the difficult relationship with modernity. What does it mean for a student to receive a humanistic and religious formation in his or her own national language and a scientific education in English or French? Does one not insinuate the idea that the two areas of knowledge are incommunicable, opening thereby the road to schizophrenic attitudes that facile artificial concordances between science and faith cannot hope to heal? Let us not forget, for that matter, that it is specifically the linguistic question that led us to decide to publish the journal Oasis in its singular editorial formula.



However, our goal is not to indulge in critical aspects nor to formulate dubious classifications as regards the respective gravity of the educational emergencies of the East and of the West but, rather, to offer some lines of approach.



Rediscovering the Breadth of Reason



To educate we need an idea of man and above all practice of the humanum. Not an abstract idea, therefore, but an idea inevitably linked to the integral and elementary experience of every individual. Redemptor hominis states with conviction: ‘We are not dealing with the “abstract” man, but the real, “concrete”, “historical” man’. [4] Unfortunately, however, the idea of man implicit in large part in current educational practice, certainly in the West but also at a global level, with respect, at least, to the formation of transnational elites, is increasingly that of a divided subject: on the one hand, it is said to be rational objectivism, and, on the other, in a complementary way, emotional subjectivism. Only the first sphere is said to pertain to education, which is thus said to consist in a correct transmission of information, techniques, abilities and skills. Education in this approach would thus become a synonym for training in the use of reason, for that matter reduced to its instrumental component. Outside the field of reason, and in the final analysis also of education, is said to lie, instead, the world of the affections, the exclusive dominion of a subject who constructs and invents himself or herself in an autonomy that tends to be self-referential and dangerously fragile. In addition, one should at the least refer to the fact that this dualistic conception of the human is increasingly giving way to an absolute positivism. That which, above all as a result of the amazing discoveries of the neurosciences and bio-convergences, refer back all the expressions of the emotional, affective and moral sphere to pure cerebral activities, which in the future could, according to some, even become artificial. We are thus confronted with a conception of reason limited to the empirical-instrumental sphere that does not take into account the detailed modalities by which the human logos is exercised [5] but which must be at the base of an adequate idea of education.



I usually refer to this by using the classical term ‘paideia’ which was made famous by the studies of Werner Jaeger but which is here taken up in a broad sense suggested by Maritain. [6] The notion of paideia, for Christians and Muslims, has the great advantage of directing us back to one of the two traditions which in different ways we share: the classical heritage and more specifically the heritage of late antiquity, when, that is to say, the dialogue between Hellenic thought and the Biblical message began to take form.



In the famous ethical tract composed in Persia in the tenth century by Miskawayh, ‘The Refinement of Character’, one can read: ‘The perfection which is particular to man is twofold, for he possesses two faculties, one of which is the cognitive and the other the practical. With the one he desires knowledge and the sciences and with the other the organization of things and their arrangement in order. These two perfections are the ones which were indicated by the philosophers. They said: “philosophy is divided into the theoretical part and the practical part. When a man masters both parts, he gains complete happiness”’. [7] This quotation could be equally at home in Athens, Alexandria or Rome, not to mention medieval Latin. It well illustrates that ‘Agreement of Two Wisdoms’ – Christian and Muslim – which in this, as in so many other fields, is not difficult to document.



However, it would be ingenuous not to take into account the acquisitions of modern and contemporary thought about original structure (foundation). Specifically through them we can state that always and in all cases ‘something gives itself to someone’. This formulation acts only to cut to the bare essentials the classical belief about the intelligibility of the real and the ability of man to host it. From this point of view, the task of the educator is that of introducing the person who is being educated to an integral experience of reality. He or she will guide him or her in deciphering its meaning because in offering itself to my freedom reality shows that it already possesses its own unity and thus a logos to be discovered.[9]



An Encounter of Freedom



One could well illustrate the wealth included in this vision of paideia compared to an education reduced to mere training, that is closed because of an acritical reduction of the broad spectrum of reason to that question about ultimate things which, in line with the famous phrase of Comte, one should no longer pose.



Also of great interest, even though it is not possible to do this here, would be to explore what it implies for Christians and Muslims to believe that not only does reality give itself to the subject that hosts it but that it itself is given (or to use a more precise terminological term, ‘created’) and therefore refers back beyond itself to a First Giver. Another line of shared research could be the process of research in which is manifested a certain unification of the multiple which in the view of some refers back to an antecedent Unity which is not of a so-to-speak merely gnoseological character. It would be advisable to discuss the possible role of knowledge about God (I do not dare to say of theology because of the known difficulties of translating that term into the technical language of Islam) as an overall interpretative hypothesis of the real. Furthermore, we could explore what is the meaning of the fact that our being in the world is located for the subject in the chain of generations: within, therefore, tradition. It is evident that one is dealing here with ineluctable questions for the work that awaits us. It is clear that one is dealing with ineluctable questions for the reflection on education.



But as I have just observed, the emphasis on the capacity of a subject to host the intelligible real represents only one dimension of paideia. The other equally important dimension is its calling onto the stage the freedom, indeed the freedoms, of the educator and the educated which are always located within a fabric of social relationships. And here it is appropriate to speak about the educational risk. [10] Indeed, introduction to a unitary existential hypothesis about the real does not take place without a dual risk. The risk first of all of the person being educated who cannot call any truth ‘his’ or ‘hers’ if he or she does not do this with his or her freedom, as indeed Goethe brilliantly observed: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, make it your own, so as to be able to possess it’ (‘Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen’). [11] On the other hand the educator as well cannot get out of a self-exposition. The person who says ‘do that’ does not educate; this is done, instead, by the person who says ‘do this with me.’ Indeed, he or she communicates what is dearest to him or her and in doing this makes himself or herself, after a certain fashion, naked. Education – the Church has always taught – is a form of charity, an act of love where the educator offers the whole of himself or herself in witness to that truth that he or she lives as an adequate interpretative key of the real. In the final analysis education is thus generation and constitutes in all cultures an experience of paternity and sonship. For we Christians it has its roots in the intra-Trinitarian relationships – relationships that have the face of the singular experience of the relationship of Jesus with the Father and the Spirit.



When reflecting on this ‘encounter of freedom’ which constitutes the second dimension of paideia, we should recognise with great realism that religions, above all when they have acquired or have had imposed upon them the function of being a social glue, have not always known how to defend themselves from the temptation of seeing themselves as the bearers of a truth that is ‘so evident’ as to make completely extrinsic and thus superfluous the absence of freedom on the part of the interlocutor. Thus today it happens that whereas, at least at the level of transnational elites, the tendency is spreading to celebrate a freedom detached from any reference to truth-good, there is manifested, as an equal and contrary reaction, the impetus to uphold a truth that is said not to require the involvement of the freedom of the subject in affirming itself as truth. Truth would not be a vital gift but only a formal teaching. This is fundamentalism, a pathology of education as grave as forgoing a recognition of the objective ‘claim’ of truth. It can even come to use violence where a partisan spirit lacerates a community by destroying the political good of being -together: that practical social good on which the future of our plural societies depends.



It is often repeated, and not without good grounds, that the best antidote to fundamentalism and violence is education. We should, however, add: not any kind of education but an education that knows how to keep truth and freedom together. And this last in its personal dimension and communal dimension (including -therefore freedom of expression and criticism, even when this is painful, where necessary, and as regards religious freedom, conversion as well). Only an adequate anthropology, based upon I-in relation to God, with other people and with ourselves, will thus allow us to avoid a violent negative tendency, without giving way to an unsatisfactory agnosticism. And it is at this level, in my view, very much prior to the question of the exegesis of Holy Scriptures, which is so often evoked and yet central, that the decisive future of religions will be played out.



Appreciating and Promoting Civil Society



Having thus addressed in outline the two fulcrums around which the educational undertaking revolves, it should be added that their correct organisation also depends today on the way in which it is governed by state institutions. Indeed, both in the Euro-Atlantic world, in particular in continental Europe, and in countries with Muslim majorities, for historical reasons which it is not possible to explore here, it is above all governments that take responsibility for the management of instruction and the organisation of national school systems. The way in which they promote education thus ends up by being an important index of how they understand the relationship between civil society and the state and in particular the relationship between the state and religions. The concern about education that I have pointed out is also a symptom of a more general travail of public life.



Above all there are two distortions that state institutions can induce in the educational process. On the one hand the tendency to privilege freedom – understood as pure freedom of choice – to such an extent as to believe that only an approach of strict neutrality can ensure the expression of all the subjects involved. With the pretext of not damaging the rights of anyone, what is held up ahead of us is educating those receiving education without offering to them a synthetic hypothesis for the interpretation of reality. But this method is not only illusory, given that separating the worldview by which the teacher interprets reality from the ways by which he or she proposes the discipline that he or she teaches is inconceivable, it also involves failure because it is fatally destined to weaken the very capacity for learning of the student. All knowledge, in fact, springs first and foremost from an affection that is able to move the faculties of reason (of memory, of perception, of projection, of induction, of deduction, of logic, etc.) On the other hand, the danger of indoctrination is always ready to spring upon us. Precisely because many government directly run instruction they are never exempt from the temptation to impose official teaching to the detriment of the variety of subjects present in society.



However, these final observations do not seek to discourage the involvement of state institutions in the educational process. Indeed, the outcomes of an absolute freedom of education could be rather uncertain and problematic, as is demonstrated in some Muslim countries by the case of radical madrasas that have arisen beyond any public control. The action of government should, rather, be transferred from the direct running of education and instruction to a promotion, and possibly control, of the subjects present in civil society and freely involved in the educational undertaking. Where at an anthropological level education can be described as a fascinating interweaving of freedom and truth, its most complete expression at a political level is achieved through freedom of education. This measures the readiness of the state to perform its function of being a promoter and guarantor of vital civil society in which people and all the intermediate bodies, beginning with families, can exercise, amongst others, the primary fundamental right to instruction and teaching. This dynamic of freedom, where it is effectively supported, even only in a partial way, already demonstrates evident benefits. Various experiences underway in Euro-Atlantic countries and in Muslim countries document, for example, that encounter between men and women of different cultures and religions is often much more advanced in schools and universities than in the rest of society. This is a tangible sign that education, if adequately understood, constitutes one of the high roads by which to direct in a positive way the contemporary process which mixes peoples and civilisations.



[1] I refer the reader in the first instance to the ‘Letter to the Diocese and City of Rome on the Urgent Task of Education’ of 21 January 2008 by Benedict XVI and to the recent report/proposal La sfida educativa (Laterza, Roma/Bari 2009), of the Committee for the Cultural Project of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.



[2] Mustapha Cherif, ‘A Reform Against Violence and the Loss of Meaning’, Oasis 11 (2010), p. 55.


Ibid, p. 52.



[3] Ibid, p. 52.



[4] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, n. 13.



[5] Cf. Jacques Maritain, Distinguer pour unir ou les degrés du savoir (Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1932). Cf. S. Muratore, ‘Prefazione dei curatori’, in B. J.F. Lonergan (ed.), Insight. Uno studio del comprendere umano (Opere 3, Città Nuova, Roma, 2007, XXI, n. 1).



[6] Jacques Maritain, Pour une philosophie de l’éducation (Fayard, Paris, 1959).



[7] Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Miskawayh, The Refinement of Character, a translation from the Arabic by Constantine K. Zurayk (the American University of Beirut, Beirut, 1968), p. 36.



[8] Angelo Scola, ‘Quale fondamento? Note introduttive’, Communio, 180 (2001), p. 16.



[9] Cf. Id., Ospitare il reale. Per un’idea di università (Lateran University Press, Rome, 1999).


Of great contemporary relevance is the brilliant: Luigi Giussani, Il rischio educativo (Rizzoli, Milan, 2006).



[10] Of great contemporary relevance is the brilliant: Luigi Giussani, Il rischio educativo (Rizzoli, Milan, 2006).



[11] Johann. W. Goethe, Faust I, vv. 682-683.