Tradition and Authority in Luigi Giussani’s Educational Method

by Margarita Mooney

For the past several years, I have assigned Monsignor Luigi Giussani’s The Risk of Education as the final book in a seminar I teach on liberal arts education. One student’s response to Risk of Education echoed what I felt when I first picked up a book by Giussani, just a few years ago. She remarked that “Giussani uses common words in uncommon ways, which is strange.” Pausing, she then continued, “But it’s also compelling.”

Giussani, the Italian Catholic priest and founder of Communion and Liberation, isn’t playing language games. Rather, the unconventional ways that he defines terms like tradition, authority, reason, verification, and provocation are actually challenges to implicit assumptions about the person and community that are expressed in our use (or misuse) of language. Thus, Risk of Education isn’t only a model for educators. It’s also a critique of modernity—and a sketch of a way forward.

Together, students and I unpack the meaning of the key terms in Giussani’s book. His vision of education awakens students to the greatness of the educational endeavor, the nobility of the mind, and the desire for authority and tradition to guide and ground one’s freedom. This grounding enables students to make further explorations while still feeling connected to something bigger than oneself.

Embodying a Tradition

Take, for example, one of the recurring words in Risk of Education: “tradition.” For the students I teach, tradition evokes something static, maybe even sterile or sterilizing. But Giussani describes tradition as an initial explanatory hypothesis. This beginning point becomes the grounds from which a student can explore and test new information. Tradition gives meaning and coherence to information as it is learned and tested.

“Authority” is another term that Giussani uses in a surprisingly compelling way. Rather than being something imposed on a passive recipient, Giussani explains, authority is a coherent embodiment of tradition. For Giussani, authority isn’t abstract; it’s personal. A humanistic, person-centered education begins with the teacher himself or herself being aware that to teach is to bring one’s entire personality into the classroom. When a teacher steps into a classroom, he or she is not just transferring content to passive recipients. Teachers do not simply facilitate discussions among people who already have the truth inside themselves, or measure learning outcomes on particular skills. Teachers personally embody a tradition, a way of seeing and thinking about the world that guides students in how they experience and test out ideas in their own lives.

It’s important for teachers to acknowledge that we communicate with our students through our being, our presence, our gaze, our wonder, and our excitement at the educational endeavor. To take that responsibility seriously is to embrace the most important part of education: awakening the desire in our students to embark on the quest for truth. This awakening must be truly personal, a communication of desire from teacher to pupil.

The Integration of Living and Knowing

Because humans are made to desire the truth, Giussani explains, we must exercise our reason to examine the totality of human experience. Some students have been told that their personal experience always gives them unmediated access to truth without the necessity of authority and tradition in a lived community of persons. Other students have been told that their personal experiences are irrelevant to what they are learning—that learning the scientific method must somehow be separated from questions of meaning, being, purpose, and our final ends as human beings. Both extremes deprive students of experiencing a coherence between thought and action, being and doing, facts and values.

Giussani’s understanding of experience is not subjective in a strict postmodern sense of the term, which would imply that every person’s experience is so unique and different that it is incommensurable with others’ experiences. Nor can Giussani’s understanding of experience be reduced to simply the sense perception of material objects. Rather, experience matters for Giussani insofar as students must seek to know the truth for themselves, verifying in their own lives what authority and tradition teach. Without this personal verification, one can’t reach certainty about knowledge. Examining the totality of one’s experience is thus crucial for assenting to the truth.

Teaching students to use their faculty of reason as a tool for endless theorizing or abstract word games distorts the very nature of reason, which is meant to lead us to assent freely to the truth. When the knowledge produced by the scientific method becomes divorced from truths about the final ends of the human person, students have no tradition from which to judge the proper use of human discoveries and inventions. Morality and ethics become divorced from reason, and are therefore seen as subjective, arbitrary, and imposed.

Students who have been exposed to a deconstructionist view of truth-seeking, a strict fact–value distinction about knowledge, or a relativist view of all morality, feel enlivened by Giussani’s understanding of reason as combining tradition, authority, and experience. As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his foreword to the 2019 revised translation of Risk of Education, all knowledge is supposed to shape how we live, and how we live our lives should shape how we think. Morality, ethics, and science aren’t strange bedfellows; they are great conversation partners.

The integration of living and knowing produces internal coherence. It allows students to stand in a tradition and communicate to others with wonder and joy the truths they have learned, using their knowledge to further the human good.

The Risk

According to Giussani, provocation is another necessary element for education. If students don’t question the coherence of a tradition, then they can’t go through the process of verification of knowledge necessary to know the truth and to commit one’s life to living according to those truths. Criticism is a drive to discover what is valuable in an idea and to explore what about that idea corresponds to one’s own experience of reality. Allowing students to engage in this provocation is why Giussani calls his educational method a risk. Teachers must love the freedom of their students as they engage in this educational process of verifying a tradition, and students must love the embodied authority—a person or a living tradition like the church—that breaks open (but does not break down) their way of reasoning to make it coherent with a way of living.

In many of the educational settings in which I have taught or studied, authority and tradition in education were hardly ever discussed. Reason, provocation, and verification were implicitly or explicitly expected to guide education, but no concrete embodied tradition was upheld as an authority or a set of guideposts for the use of my reason.

Long before I read anything by Giussani, I sensed that the fields in which I earned my credentials (psychology and sociology)—fields dedicated to studying the human person and society—were insufficient to guide me in deciding how I wanted to live. Without yet having the vocabulary to describe what I was doing, I was seeking tradition and authority.

Through years of study and reflection, I discovered through my own experience the very tradition I had been raised in. I found the intellectual coherence and personal coherence I so desired through my reading of the Catholic intellectual tradition—especially Catholic figures like John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Like Giussani, all of these figures attempted to take the good from the modern understanding of human freedom and integrate it into a coherent Catholic tradition that emphasizes community, truth-seeking, beauty, and our final purpose: to know and love our creator and his creation.

Person-Centered Education

Giussani’s view of the human person as mysterious, connected to the infinite, and worthy of dignity was the central guiding concept behind all of his life, writing, and teaching. Giussani’s method of education seeks what Jacques Maritain called the true end of education: the awakening of the inner dynamism of each person. In our burnout culture, characterized by creative fatigue, we need hospitality and charity in the search for truth. We seek the certainty needed to stand in a tradition and speak with an authority that respects the freedom and mystery of each person.

Many students are attracted to Giussani’s notions of authority and tradition in education simply because it’s more authentic to stand before a young person and humbly say, “I’ve found something I’m eager to share with you, and I want to provoke you to go on your own journey for the truth,” than to implicitly or explicitly deny that teachers, mentors, and other role models are speaking from tradition with authority. This kind of authority—the kind that loves the mystery of each human so much that it wants to guide each soul in the use of the great gift of freedom—is not a burdensome imposition. Rather, it’s a helping hand on the arduous journey of knowing one’s own purpose and place in the world.

If the end of education is the formation of the whole human person—awakening our amazing capacity to know, calling us to live fully immersed in reality, and instilling in us a love for truth—then freedom, risk, mystery, charity, and hospitality must be the pillars of the educational process. We must reject deconstruction, word games, virtue signaling, political correctness, scientism, and empiricism.

Today, the powers of fragmentation in American society are affecting all institutions of civil society. Politics, the family, education, and the church are all suffering. Perhaps that is why Giussani’s bold assertion of the need for tradition and authority resonates so much with the generation of American students I teach. A liberal arts model of education acknowledges that our knowledge begins from somewhere, from some tradition: a core body of ideas and authors that is like what James Bernard Murphy calls “Velcro.” This core enables us to venture out into new areas of study and have those ideas stick to something, not shoot off in endless unconnected directions.

Giussani was clearly speaking from the Catholic intellectual tradition, as do I. But in my own work as a teacher with students of diverse Christian faiths, other faiths, or no faith at all, I have seen again and again that to acknowledge my own tradition as a starting point for dialogue is a much better way to connect to people from different traditions. To deny that I have a starting point at all, or only to admit so-called neutral visions of the human good that really come from Enlightenment philosophy as my starting point, is not authentic.

All of our talk about diversity, inclusion, and tolerance in education may flow from an appreciation for the inner mystery of each person and a longing for communion with all other humans. But that communion can’t flourish if we deny the centrality of the search for truth. In our burnout culture, characterized by creative fatigue among so many high achievers, we need hospitality and charity in the search for truth that will lead us to the certainty needed to stand in a tradition and speak to others with an authority that nonetheless respects the freedom and mystery of each person.

This essay was adapted from remarks delivered at “Seeking a Path Forward,” an event sponsored by Crossroads Cultural Center in New York City on March 9, 2019, as part of the book tour in support of The Life of Luigi Giussani, written by Alberto Savorana. It originally appeared in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and is republished here with gracious permission.

Dr. Margarita Mooney is an Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. She teaches classes such as philosophy of social science, resilience and suffering, religion and social theory, and intentional communities. In 2016, she started Scala Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reinvigorating classical liberal arts education.

Header Image: photograph by Jon Balsbaugh, used with permission

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