EdU Catania/Milano 2010


Those words that

are life and that

immediately inspire

you to live


There are many relationships between the word and education. It is sufficient to think of the definition of humankind as ‘word’, used for example by Freire, Don Milani, Buber and Ricoeur. It is a human characteristic that suggests and confers dignity upon the living being as such,[1] but that at the same time puts into light the barbarism of twisting the word to serve violence, falseness and shallow discourse.[2] It is a word, therefore, seen as a consubstantial act, the voice, the expression of a person. It is a word that, today, is often overused and noisy, that does not manage to dig down deep and create the mutual space necessary for listening dialogue, for reflective thought and the search for truth.

                How can we rediscover the value of the word when people are tired of words? How can we restore its value and clarity, its true expressiveness, its meaning? Perhaps this question contains also one of the greatest challenges to education today.

                Educational studies[3] too are articulated by means of their typical forms of discourse, with theories that are reference points that educators ought to know better. This knowledge is needed because of the implications these theories have for educational practice and, vice versa, for the influence of practice upon theory.

                What we wish to do now, however, is concentrate our attention upon the typically relational nature of education. In practice, word and education are two inseparable axes of the education which is constitutively founded upon the relationship of educator-‘educatee’.[4] From this comes the fact of the word being an instrument of the educator’s activity, while it is also the means which the one being educated goes about self-expression, building an individual identity, participating, planning and creating. And when communication is spoilt or breaks down, it is not only that ‘I deeply lose self… but the other also becomes ‘alienus’, and I in turn becomes foreign to myself and alienated.’[5]





                Developing a genuine educational dialogue today is difficult in the current global village,[6] which is bombarded with an infinity of words but always less capable of comprehending them and communicating. It would seem, therefore, more urgent than ever to have a serious and shared reflection that gives proper place to the value of words and the meanings they carry and that knows how rediscover the word as an instrument for reuniting what is often fragmented.

                People today, more than ever before, need a word that does not ‘truss them up’ but that makes them free. They need a physical and mental space, where knowing and the ability to bring into relationship, and come themselves into relationship, can open up to ‘true comprehension’ of other possibilities and meanings, to a new ‘light’[7] that illuminates and unveils meaning.

                It is above all by means of the word and the witness of others that persons can find themselves, their specific identities and the courage to open themselves up to the meaning of life. As Plato emphasizes ‘in that which truly serves the soul, with regard to the just, the beautiful and the good, only in the word of the teacher is there clarity, fullness and seriousness.’[8] This word knows how to offer creative instruction because it truly instructs in an awareness ‘that is certainly not communicable in the way of other forms of awareness, but … as a light that is lit by a spark being struck… It is born in the soul and by the soul it is fed.’[9] It is the same truth that becomes present in the process of communication as a predisposition of the soul that invests the whole existence of the dialogue partners.

                The word, therefore, educates not only in the measure that it is a ‘shared construction of teacher and pupil’, but also through a life focused on love and on knowledge as the love of truth.





To speak like this demands a close relation between theory and living practice and is matter that touches all the subjects involved, and in first place the educator. As Paulo Friere emphasizes, ‘the teacher who truly teaches’ is convinced that ‘to think correctly is to act correctly.’[10] The secret of authoritative and so effective teaching, which functions as a ‘living guarantee’ of what is taught, is in the teacher’s daily life. It is displayed in gesture and speech, in taking the risk of joining in, and this goes from the teacher’s ordinary behaviour to the educational content of the discipline he or she exercises. So far as the one being educated is concerned, what is learnt is how to connect speaking and doing, indeed, the inseparable interconnectedness of word and life, and he or she feels like someone who truly takes responsibility for acting in the right way.

Thus relationship – between word and life, educator and those educated, and among educators – is life’s own field of action, and it is what further strengthens the bonds between people. This is why the concept ‘word’ implies encounter, the means through which human beings are invited to come out of their condition of muteness and being closed in on themselves.[11] If on the one hand a human being receives the gift of humanity initially through the word, on the other hand it is via the word that human beings cultivate, rediscover and increase their sociality and culture and build up a community. A community, thus, develops to the extent that the dynamics of shared participation, which is constitutive of social life, manage to build and rebuild a people and a culture open to dialogue.[12]




The topic of communication recalls the issue of listening.[13]

Carl Rogers says, ‘The first simple feeling I want to share with you is my enjoyment when I can really hear someone.... When I say that I enjoy hearing someone, I mean, of course, hearing deeply. I mean that I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Sometimes too, in a message which superficially is not very important, I hear a deep human cry that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person.’[14] All the value of silence lies here, in a knowledge that comes out of an encounter.

                We could ask ourselves, then, what would be the authentic attitude of an educator?

In the first place it is to offer a word of welcome, where we are ready to ‘make ourselves one’ with a person who is other. It is humble insofar as it is able to free itself of prejudices and preconceptions. It is not mere communication, but an attentive gaze, as Simone Weil affirms, ‘where the soul empties itself of everything of itself that it contains in order to welcome into itself the being that it sees, just as it is, in its truth.’[15]

This education of listening thus requires knowing how to live with the void, with no immediate response, with the non-perfect comeback from the one we teach, that is, the person born of our rules and procedures.[16] It is not so much a matter of opting for a facile form of education that has a passing grasp of the values we offer, but of a respectful and wisdom-filled coming together, an active hearing.




                So far as education is concerned, this has important impact upon the process of formation. The main reason for this is that the possibility of speaking and of being heard is a mirroring dynamic fundamental to the development of awareness and of conscience. Rogers says, ‘I feel a sense of satisfaction when I can dare to communicate the realness in me to another. This is far from easy, partly because what I am experiencing keeps changing every moment.… But when I can communicate what is real in me at the moment that it occurs, I feel genuine, spontaneous, and alive.’[17]

                We must admit that there many people who talk about themselves. But when talk is experienced as part of a dynamic of gift there is an effect that goes beyond simple personal enrichment. This reason, as Chiara Lubich emphasizes, is that if it is true that one who speaks is enriched, it is also true that the listener benefits,[18] and a certain reciprocity comes into being ‘in such a way that the message is not perceive intellectually alone, but it is also participated in and shared.’[19]

                Like this, sharing experiences though talking allows a continuous transmission from one person to another of interpretations of the world and of values, in a deeply absorbing process of mutual learning. This kind of talk by its nature is typically relational. Nonetheless, it does not exclude, but rather it demands an interpersonal dialogue that each of the dialogue partners should learn to have within the self, in the intimate and inner space of each, as a necessary exercise of the self-reflective capacity.




                We are considering, then, a word that knows how to educate thought. It is a word-meditation, that gives space in the midst of a great deal of data to the complexity of human relationships. We need gaps where it is still possible to think, speak, have a voice. Today we are often oppressed and imprisoned by a quality of thinking that tends put to together a host of images and a host of correct ideas, but without any unifying mind behind them that develops not only critical but constructive thought.

                It is above all through the word-that-is-reciprocal that ‘insight’ comes. This gives rise to a new light by which teachers and students discover that they are connected, and perceive possibilities, intuitions and horizons never seen before. It is a process of continuous restructuring, not only at a cognitive and affective level by also spiritually. This great complexity is confirmed by recent studies in the neurology of learning, which employ the metaphor of light to describe the phase of discovery and the motivations connected with it.[20]

                St Thomas Aquinas, indeed, affirmed that the true teacher is not the one who tries to reassure you by giving you arguments to demonstration things, but the one who lights up in you the desire for research and who lets you explore the answer. For Freire, furthermore, a decisive factor was that everyone can participate in developing culture though the exercise of the word. In this sense, we need to be educated to take up the word, aware of the risk this brings but attentive also ‘not to confuse true and false prudence, so that we get bogged down in a despicable silence.’[21]





Without imaging that it is possible to be exhaustive, we can draw attention to some points that to some extent sum up a possible educational programme, in particular:


- being aware that human and professional witness is the primary ‘word’, often neither written nor even spoken, by which the educator transits knowledge and values;[22]

- being competent in the use of an authentic educational language. This cannot ignore a skilful relational dimension, which means attention to those being educated. What this demands is constant care for the quality of what is taught and adapting teaching methods to the learner’s ability, but especially it demands a constant attentiveness to the various signals given out, even without words, by those being educated;

- giving special care to positive communication[23] through words that can motivate, encourage and sustain learning;

- increasing the organization of classes into learning communities, facilitating the process of discovery, both individually and in groups. From this point of view, attention should be paid not only to dialogue guided by the teacher, but most especially to the ‘sharing of knowledge and experience’[24] from those who contribute to the conversation through a competent, constructive and intelligent use of the word as the practice of truth and, at the same time, as a way of achieving a relationship of unity;

- sustaining those who are taught by witnessing to one’s own personal and communitarian identity, and at the same time not being trapped in any kind of ethnocentricism. This means developing dialogue, the understanding of the languages and identities of others from the standpoint of citizenship and of fraternity in a global family;

- encouraging reflection on the meaning of thought and action, knowing how to avoid both a lack of organization and sensationalism. It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate the ability to keep proper records, to build an argument, to interpret accurately, not a just as an exercise in gaining power over others but as a means of being mutually responsible.[25] Following this approach, then, thinking and speaking ‘out of love’ can become a genuine act of service[26] for the person and for the common good.


In practice the lengthy process of learning the skills of the word (in the sense that it goes on for the whole of life) consists in making people aware of the potential but also of the limitations of their own representations and understandings of reality and of others.

Education thus is essentially word: word that generates light, an attitude of kindness, strength of intelligence, spiritual enthusiasm, where the other person is not only recognized and respected but helped to fulfil what he or she is made to be. This, in essence, is the maieutic, educational, humanizing and creative face of the word.


Perhaps we can conclude with a challenge.

History is full of people who speak well. There are many who seduce others, today too, teachers who spin tales of empty and deceptive words. We, and this is what is distinctive, believe that when the word is made to be a mere expression of the ego, serving personal narcissism or advantage, it is able to make us lose our heads and revel in a certain self-satisfaction, but it is also the cause of a great deal of superficiality and of divisions.

   In the face of this void, we are convinced, education must know how to go against the flow, raising its voice high. This is a word that is human, one that is true and in solidarity with others, that becomes a gift, capable of expressing and being love,[27] even in the face of failure, lack of achievement, the logjam that comes as result of no response from those taught. It is here that the word, at times, reaches the climax of its effectiveness and of its expression as education. It is no longer mere word but the ceaseless voice of love.

[1] M. Heidegger, In cammino verso il linguaggio (Milan: Mursia, 1973), p.27.

[2] E. Ducci, L’uomo umano (Brescia: La Scuola, 1979). As I. Calvino astutely notes, ‘It seems to me at times that an epidemic has struck humanity in its central ability, that is, the use of words… It shows itself in the loss of cognitive force and of immediacy, which tends to put things all on the same level’. (See Lezioni americane (Milan: Garzanti, 1988), p. 58.)

[3] See D. Orlando Cian, Introduzione a una epistemologia dell’educazione (Padua: Cleup, 1990).

[4] R. Guardini, Persona e libertà. Saggi di fondazione della teoria pedagogica (Brescia: La Scuola, 1987), pp. 46-47. V. E. Frankl also claims that saying ‘you’ precedes saying ‘I’ (Homo patiens. Soffrire con dignità (Brescia: Queriniana, 1998), p.116).

[5] E. Mounier, il personalismo (Rome: AVE, 1964), p.49.

[6] See McLuhan Marshall, Gli strumenti del comunicare (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2008).

[7] Intellectual insight is a deep understanding. It is the ‘talent to be a thinker’ which allows not so much a swifter as a better application of the capacity to solve problems. It contains three interrelated psychological processes: selective codification makes it possible to highlight useful information; selective combination makes it possible to bring together previously separated fragments of information into a consistent picture; and selective comparison establishes the relations between new information and what was previously acquired. (See G.F.Gullotta, T.Boi, L'intelligenza sociale (Milan: Giuffrè, 1997.)

[8] Edited and adapted from Plato, Phaedrus, 276, E, 4ff.

[9] Plato, Seventh Letter, 341 C 5-D 2.

[10] P. Freire, Pedagogia dell’autonomia (Turin: EGA, 2004), pp. 29-30.

[11] R. Guardini, ‘L’incontro’, in Persona e libertà (Brescia: La Scuola, 1990); for a further analysis of the relationship between word and meeting see G. Mura, Pensare la Parola. Per una filosofia dell’incontro (Rom: Editrice Università Urbaniana, 2001), p.16.

[12] As Jerome Seymour Bruner authoritatively affirms, therefore, if education were to look only at schools and not at society’s overall nature, it would be condemned ‘to an inevitable superficiality’. (Il significato dell’educazione (Rom:e Armano Editore), 1986, p. 149.

[13] The word to be given needs to be met by an attentive, active and profound listening. Empathetic listening implies a gift of ourselves in the moment that we make ourselves available to the other, letting the other’s experience speak within us. This is the place where the other can truly disclose and express him or herself. See E. Stein, Il problema dell’empatia (Rome: Studium, 1987).

[14] C. Rogers, A Way of Being (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), pp. 8-9.

[15] S. Weil, Attesa di Dio (Milan: Rusconi, 1998), pp.83-84.

[16] See L. Giussani, Il rischio educativo, Rizzoli, 2005.

[17] C. Rogers, op. cit., p.16.

[18] C. Lubich, Scr. Sp/3 (Rome: Città Nuova, 1996), pp. 124-125.

[19] C. Lubich, ‘Il Movimento dei Focolari e i mezzi di comunicazione’, in Nuova Umanità, 133 (2000), p. 18-20.

[20] See D.Zohar and I.Marshall, Spiritual Intelligence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000).

[21] C. Lubich, L’arte di amare (Rome: Città Nuova, 2005), p.84.

[22] Only an educational system based on consistency with its own values is able to make a positive link between word and life, between verbal and existential behaviours.

[23] As E. Mournier reminds us, ‘interpersonal relationship is mutual provocation’ (Il personalismo (Rome: AVE, 1964), p. 53).

[24] C. Pontecorvo, La condivisione della conoscenza (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1993).

[25] It is matter of supporting ‘relational goods’, defined in different ways in various schools of thought as: cross-sector skills (see ISFOL, Competenze trasversali e comportamento organizzativo (Franco Angeli, 1994)), social capital (P. Donati, ‘Capitale sociale, reti associative e beni relazionali’ in Impresa Sociale, vol. 76, April-June 2007), trust (see V. Pelligra V, I paradossi della fiducia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007)), mutual recognition, sharing of identity (E. Rullani E., La fabbrica dell’immateriale (Rome: Carocci, 1994)).

[26] On the topic of learning as service see N. Tapìa, La pedagogia dell’Apprendimento-Servizio (Rome: Città Nuova, 2007).

[27] See F. Ebner’s philosophy of encounter in, e.g., Parola e amore (Milan: Rusconi, 1998).


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