1. The problem of education includes both the moral question as well as a civilisation’s identity
In the last few decades, Western culture has increasingly viewed education as an essentially technical problem, focusing primarily on methodologies and processes whereby skills can be passed on and results evaluated. It is obvious that this has increasingly overshadowed a more fundamental question, namely the contents and purpose of the educational process. More to the point, the process that enabled the moral discourse to break away from pedagogical concerns goes further back in time but is of equal importance. Ethics abstractly looks at values and disvalues, good and evil, right and wrong, disregarding almost entirely the fact that the conscience and capacity to act of the people for whom all that has meaning can develop only in an educational process that is a lifelong experience. Leaving aside all this basically means developing a moral discourse that rests on a sham, namely the existence of rational and free beings (for example) in whom rationality and freedom are simply seen as ideological “assumptions” rather than hard-to-reach goals. Once this reciprocal divorce is settled, the problems of education and morality appear to be one and the same. In both cases, albeit with slight differences, the issue becomes one of how human beings can develop and consolidate their capacity to do good because for them, birth and growth (in body, mind and feelings) are not mere accidents, but are the way life becomes.
In turn, for every civilisation, education is the crux of the matter. In educating one’s children, a society projects its own idea of morality, which ultimately is about its identity. Cultural development obviously falls within the purview of this concept of morality, as the ancients knew, since they placed intellectual virtues at the top of moral life. Perhaps, intellectually, this is too much, but it is without a doubt less dangerous than the opposite exaggeration, which is to rid the moral discourse of all concerns about intellectual training.
2. A civilisation’s health is directly correlated to the investments it makes in the field of education
If a civilisation can last more than the space of a generation, it is only because it can regenerate itself, first in biological, then in moral terms. This is the main proof that the problem of education and the identity of a civilisation are one and the same. A civilisation that cannot (or thinks it cannot) pass on its fundamental contents is a civilisation in decline. The energy and resources that a civilisation invests in education are the surest measure of its vitality; conversely, failure to do so is the surest sign that it does not believe any more, or enough, in its future. This does not mean that a crisis in education automatically means a loss of interest in one’s own future. For example, many problems in the educational process may stem from the mutual interference of equally valid concerns like the search for excellence and their greatest possible diffusion, or the focus on content and methodologies, or even the desire to transmit the richness of the past and spur individual creativity.
Still, obvious errors and the inability to face with intellectual honesty the issue of how to fix the problem are signs of a breakdown, not of the educational “sector”, but ultimately of the civilisation of which it is the expression. Many in the Western world are engaged in thinking this aspect through (for example, why illiteracy that 10 per cent of French youth, why in North America Asian students are more readily admitted in scientific departments than local students, or why young people who arrive in Italian universities are more often than not functionally incapable of writing correctly, etc).
3. Conflicts between educational models must be confronted with a reflection upon our own history
If in the field of education, each civilisation reflects on what it thinks about itself, the problem of conflict between educational alternatives appears to be all together both more and less difficult to cope with. It is more difficult because it is hard to find a solution, other than an illusory one based on some technical balancing act or pragmatic compromise, because education is not just a tool in the service of something that can be decided elsewhere and independently. It is easier because all it takes for a civilisation to find a solution is to reflect upon its values, as well as the motives its various components have to live together, in short, its history, and to include that history (including its various parts and biases) in an educational project.
In light of this point of view, we must call attention to a curious but crucial paradox. The fact that an educational commitment is one that determines the future of a civilisation does not imply that it must be determined by an idea of that future. In reality, only totalitarian regimes imagine they can teach the future and propose a “new humanity” (whether in the guise of a political-economic utopia, a return to real or imagined origins, the dawn of “new rights”, and so on). Creative civilisations never expect to teach the future, only the past.