Information transfer and skill-building can be reduced to bloodless method, and “critical thinking” is often little more than cowardly and corrosive skepticism, but education as personal formation draws on a sense of dignity and honor. “Liberal education is the counterpoison to mass culture,” Leo Strauss said in 1959, daring his listeners to stand apart. The challenging pedagogy of Plato’s Republic can’t begin before beastly Thrasymachus is humiliated, and Aristotle’s opening survey of opinions about happiness dismisses pleasure-seeking with a sneer, not an argument. Certain ideas and behaviors are beneath us. Do you have what it takes to rise above?
If the inculcation of worthy values and virtues starts by pushing against shameful ones, what happens when such acts of discrimination are stigmatized, when untrained democratic souls misinterpret the honorable service of superior judgment as the tyranny of arbitrary power? C. S. Lewis’s 1943 lectures on “the abolition of man” tease out the dangerous implications of modern philosophies—so pervasive as to infect grammar-school books—that neuter the crucial, judgment-making, spirited part of the soul, the “chest” that integrates and dignifies head and belly.
The mid-twentieth century, which experienced dehumanizing ideas and events across the globe, seems to have been especially fertile ground for reflection on the nature of education: in addition to Lewis and Strauss, this period produced now-classic reflections on education by Dorothy Sayers, Simon Weil, T. S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Mortimer Adler, and various “Great Books” champions. Germany had Josef Pieper, France had Jacques Maritain—and in Italy there was Luigi Giussani.
Giussani’s experience as a student and teacher made him especially attuned to the rhetorical challenge of helping young people mature in faith and reason. Born in 1922, Giussani was not yet eleven when he entered seminary. His Christian vocation was formed through his adolescence, and he continued working with youth for much of his life. Ordained a priest in 1945 at age twenty-two, he began teaching that same year in the minor seminary he had attended. In 1954, at age thirty-two, he started teaching religion at a classical high school in Milan.
During thirteen years as a high-school teacher, Giussani helped grow a youth branch of the political movement Catholic Action. He left the Milan liceo in 1967; after the political upheaval of 1968, what had been known as “Student Youth” forged an independent identity as “Comunione e Liberazione” (Communion and Liberation, or CL), now a worldwide ecclesial movement. (Giussani and his work were loved by Pope John Paul II; and upon Giussani’s death in 2005, he was eulogized by the man who, seven weeks later, would be named Pope Benedict XVI.)
Giussani had other theological works to his credit by 1977, when he published “The Risk of Education.” His reflections on the conditions of teaching adolescents had been maturing for years, his influence guaranteed an audience, and the topic, so close to his heart, made this destined to be regarded as a signature work. Still, it is hard to believe that this text, taken on its own, would otherwise have gotten much attention. It is not so much a book as a loosely structured meditation, prefaced by some autobiographical context (“Introductory Thoughts”), and with only three very lopsided chapters (the first more than twice as long as the other two combined).
Publishers don’t seem to know what to do with it. A 1995 Italian edition added an additional author’s Introduction (rebranded as a “Preface” in the new translation under review). It also appended five additional “chapters” of “Clarifications” (together not as long as the original “Chapter 1”), which were included in the previous 2001 English translation by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia. But these were omitted from a 2010 Italian edition, and from the current translation (which also includes no information about the history of the text). Some future critical edition will no doubt try to make sense of the various repackagings of what is, at its heart, essentially a long essay.