A COMMUNITY THAT EDUCATES:
A WINNING FORMULA
EdU – Benevento 2011
1. From fragmentation to unity
In a society dominated by information and communication, paradoxically the sense of alienation and fragmentation has grown so much that our times could be defined as an age of uncertainty and increasing individualism. Uncertainty, then, leads to ‘difficulties for many adults in identifying a shared meaning’, which hinders them from transmitting it to their children ‘so that they run the risk of growing without reference points, without someone who truly educates them for life.’ Not only education, therefore, is affected, but ‘the meaning of our being and becoming’.
And yet we believe it is possible to see ‘beyond’, have the view of one who does not live ‘skating on thin ice’ but sees life within a specific context of meaning. For this reason educational institutions are called today not only to fulfil the traditional role of cultural transmission, but also, in a responsible way, to work for a necessary change, guiding and supporting all possible progress towards a real and shared improvement in the quality of life. Education is a global challenge, we need to be aware of its urgency and the huge demand for resources, not only in financial terms but above all in the energy and the instruments – cultural, psychological and moral – necessary to rediscover the courage to educate.
But to meet this change education must always rediscover those ideals that shape the purpose of education, and which, as underlined in previous ‘educational meetings’, respond to the constant need for loving relationship within every person. The activity of the educator, in fact, is rooted in the first place in relationality, which is a primary characteristic of the what it is to be human, a constitutive purpose of a person’s being. Hence it is necessary to have a form of education that seeks to stimulate and foster the passage from fragmentation to unity in the self and in the self’s relation to others.
This sort of relation does not develop in a void, but it is encouraged or discouraged by a particular kind of environment and by the way that environment is structured. Looking at relationship as an objective, an itinerary and a means makes us then re-focus upon the context where it can take place: an environment containing ample space made lively by the community in the awareness that, among its many facets, the objective is to educate persons capable of entering into genuine relationships. The educator, in fact, can help those being educated to reach fulfilment as human beings capable of an authentic existence, in the dimension of us, that is, in the dimension of the community which must be constructed. And it is the dialogical principle, as Buber affirms, that gives basis and values to social dynamics and which makes it possible for the educating community to be a place where persons meet.
2. Towards a community that educates
There is an increasingly noticeable need and a longing for community, to use the words of the Italian title of a book by Zygmunt Bauman. This community should enable the transformation of ‘polyphony into harmony’ and so achieve ‘unity in diversity’. And we, educators, catalysts prophetically capable of setting out on new and alternative pathways, have to lay the foundation for a new cultural and social edifice, using, as suggested by Brauman, the most suitable building materials. That is, we should use the strength of genuine relationships, the commitment and responsibility of those who do not duck the task but rather are engaged day by day with devotion.
Such an edifice cannot be reduced to what goes on in school. It is necessary, as Dewey emphasizes, ‘to acquire the broadest point of view, the social view’, and to aim at ‘transforming each of our schools into an embryonic community of life’, a community open to learning, to its human context, to the world.
A community that educates, therefore, has meaning only if it is truly part of a wider community in which it is placed. A true ‘community education’ can only be such if it is able not only to articulate theoretically what it is to educate (from Latin ex-ducere, to bring out), but also if, in itself, it lives as a community of exploration and study and does this in an effective exchange with the wider community where it is placed, in all that it is socially, culturally, economically, politically and religiously. This finds its fullest expression in the concept of the ‘city’ which, in an educational sense, can be understood as the historical dimension of a community made up in essence of the bonds among persons and groups. It can, however, also mean an ‘ideal city’, where the bond is sharing in a common Ideal. From this point of view the radical crisis of education today is not only methodological, but above all axiological. Thus it is not a crisis of the means but of the content in terms of values; it is not so much a matter of ‘how’ but of ‘why’, the choice and the justification of its proposed aims.
It would seem that there is an increasingly clear need to ‘promote a true educational community that offers an alternative model of living together in contrast to standardized and individualized society’ and which gives space to ‘a way of being human rooted in reciprocity, which before existing as a cultural artefact is capable of being made concrete in daily practice.’ It is a community that functions less as a static institution, but it is more a ‘vital network of relations among persons’ and ‘a space needed for its own fulfilment’ that ‘starts from communion between two people and is developed through a variety of relational and organizational forms.’
The same idea is expressed in a wonderful and meaningful African proverb: ‘To bring up a child you need a whole village.’ But what village are we constructing? What is, as Plato would say, the panthakū, the whole place? – meaning by that the whole place that educates well or badly, builds or destroys, according to the value system that characterizes it.
It is the task of educators today – taking into account the critical gaze of the teacher – to ask themselves about the basis upon which they are building the community/village. That is to say, to ask about, as it were, what are the criteria of habitability in the reality proposed and acted upon.
3. Towards communion-based education
The development of a human being, therefore, demands a whole variety of elements from a wider context than just the educator-educated relationship; it demands a community. This asks us to accept the partial nature of our points of view and, as a result, have the ability to identify all useful educational resources and strategies and, from a practical perspective, manage to consider some of the basic things needed for a shared project.
Looking at the community as if it were a plurality of persons to be educated urges us to discover, know, value and effectively promote intercourse among the various potentialities of this shared space, of this ‘common field of experience’. The school itself becomes, therefore, a living community not as a result of bureaucratic or informal contacts, but through personal and living relationships among all involved, which means not only those with direct educational responsibility within the school but also with all who make up its mini-society.
Looking at each person as an essential element of this mini-society leads to recognizing the enormous dignity of each, seen as a unique and unrepeatable personal subject who is fully expressed in a mutual I-Thou relationship that comes to maturity through a healthy educational relationship. Following Dewey’s insight, individuals are called to think of themselves within the group and see themselves from the perspective of their social relationality. A meaningful image often used by Chiara Lubich to describe the elements that make up the relations within a group is that of tiles, the pieces forming a mosaic. Each one must be itself, living, active, free, self-aware and, at the same time, each must be aware of the others and of the relationships that bind all together and give meaning to the whole.
For this to happen we must be able to have genuinely reciprocal relationships, and this means growing in the art of hospitality. This art is difficult. It demands a dynamic to-and-fro capable of invitation to the other, going out to meet the other, supportive being with the other. The art of invitation to the other requires authenticity and acceptance of the other in the other’s diversity. The art of going out to meet the other implies listening, decentralization, desire to know, to understand, in a word: empathy. The art of supportive being with the other leads us to a concrete and responsible educational encounter, to a phase where we have to move to action, working together, planning together, in a co-operative building of the world together. We need as Freire says, ‘to give a name to the world,’ to give it the identity it deserves, beginning with that educational act which gives identity to the ‘Thou’, the person we encounter in relationship, an act that Martin Buber defined in a powerful word as ‘struggle’. It is a struggle, however, where we do not strive to come out as winners or losers but as winning together.
In a similar way, it is clear a community is formed if it is based upon mutual understanding and solidarity among its members, and it follows also that we cannot educate fully without such reciprocity and a thorough participation in a series of actions that, although distinct, are also planned, guided and verified by the community. The human being, therefore, is completely fulfilled in civil and social life, in the life of the community. This means that, now more than ever, it is in our educational, social and cultural interest to work together to create a common space where no one is excluded. Being actively directed towards unity, in building a community, thus, is not only a matter of seeking peaceful and constructive relations between people. It is a law inscribed in every single thing made explicit in interpersonal and social relations. Chiara Lubich sees the basis of this in the pattern of relations characteristic of the Trinity.
This brings about a synthesis between the concerns of educating the individual and the concerns of educating the community. It is a synthesis that seems to be entirely in keeping with the ideas of those who, despite their different points of departure, throughout the history of educational theory (philosophers and educational theorists such as Buber, Mournier, Lévinas, Derrida, Freire, Capitini and Don Milani) have insisted upon the importance of education for the construction of a society based on genuine relationships.
4. Towards a shared project
We firmly believe in the importance of this vision, that is, of the foundational nature of this dialogical-communitarian understanding of what it is to be human. And we know that our insistence upon this basis for education finds ample confirmation in what is discovered by educators, involved in the widest range of commitments, when they come to know one another as they gather from different parts of the world. They are unable to accept easy answers with regard to teaching methods but, rather courageously, together they seek a solid theoretical foundation that makes sense of their educational work and experience.
The first interpreters of this art of reciprocity-unity ought to be, each in his or her own way, parents, teachers and educators in general. From the most practical point of view this requires several conditions as the foundation for a shared project, for instance:
· the recognition of common areas of commitment;
· the affirmation of the specific value of each person or group-institution;
· the search for freedom as a right and, at the same time, of solidarity as a task;
· respect for differences and openness to them as a resource within a shared outlook and values
The family can truly be the ‘primary social capital’ strengthening the ‘primary and base-level trust,’ that is, the intrinsic closeness of ‘I-You-Us’ present in the microcosm of solidarity within the normal run of daily life. And the school too, from the earliest years, can be drawn into this primary role though teachers capable of giving a witness to healthy educational relationships. But we need also to recognize the importance of a ‘secondary social capital’, namely, the natural tendencies to association, networks of families, sources of ‘belonging’, of ‘secondary and contextual trust’, of living in the same place. We refer here, obviously, to the (social-intercultural) educational strategy of networking, and to the need, also from this perspective, of decentralization, of going towards the other, of forging links between people.
A significant experience that we ourselves have had with other educators is using and disseminating the use of the ‘cube of fraternity’, the ‘cube of peace’ or the ‘cube of love’. This promotes a fully conscious and shared choice to put into practice (in family life, in the classroom or at school) a motto that stimulates attentiveness in relationships with the other. (They are mottos such as, for example, love everyone, be the first to love, love your enemies, love your neighbour as yourself…) This simple but effective approach, as many attest, brings about a real change in the group and in individuals. On the one hand, the harmony of the group grows, the social atmosphere of the institution improves and, on the other, quite apart from any other benefits, individuals ‘grow’, and they come capable of decentralization, of understanding the other’s viewpoint, of resolving conflict and of building genuine relationships.
There are other things that have the same effect. Some have proposed to the class group that it should take on the commitment of working in solidarity with others, whether they be far away (children or schools in need because endemic poverty or for the victims of war or natural disasters) or near at hand (older people in the same town, and so on). Still others, especially important in a multicultural context, have sought to help people come to know one another more deeply and to generate relationships of trust and respect among members of the same school community. They end up drawing in all the members of the community, teachers and non-teaching staff, young people and parents. Some of the most significant of the experiences in this area will be presented at the afternoon session of this meeting.
There are many studies in the broad field of how to develop a sense of community. They have innovative methodological approaches and educational strategies, some of which are very much in tune with our core proposal. We can refer here to the initiatives and to the research, such as the Economy of Communion, that, on several occasions, we too have been part of and to which we have contributed with publications on several topics, such as: pro-social education, learning as service, the educational role of networking and intercultural dialogue… These, and other tracks we can follow, are things that we can use as a focus for sharing in a deep conversation with one another, seeing them also in relation to the many experiences we all have.
For us the new word is Unity. It is a word that should not be understood as monolithic uniformity but rather as pluriformity, respect for each person, the integration of all thoughts, ideas and individual perspectives into one humanity and into new possibilities to transform areas of disintegration and conflict into spaces of integration and reciprocal relations.
In the opinion of the English sociologist Anthony Giddens, the overwhelming power of consumers and of individualism has transformed towns and neighbourhood, the vision of the ‘nation’, the representation of what is ‘past’ and of what is ‘modern’, while everywhere new sensibilities and divisions emerge among peoples and cultures. (See A. Giddens, Le conseguenze della modernità (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994).)