When I took a wrong turn while driving with students in Rhode Island in the summer of 2019, we found ourselves driving over a bridge clouded in fog, seemingly going into nowhere. When we came out of the fog, I tried to make a U-turn and ended up going around several jughandles before getting back on the same foggy bridge going the other direction.
Back in our classroom at Portsmouth Abbey and School in Rhode Island, students drew an image of a car going over a bridge into the fog to represent Luigi Giussani’s educational philosophy as described in his book The Risk of Education. Giussani paints a picture of education as an adventure in which we start off our journey feeling as if our inner light is clouded in fog, but we have faith that we can reach certainty about our questions. Reaching certainty then leads us to ask other questions, and we go into the fog again, with confidence that our journey is not in vain.
For the past five summers, I’ve gathered with students through a Scala Foundation program to ponder contemporary challenges in education. For many students, schooling has become so-called strategic learning—studying for a certain grade on a test. Other students gravitate toward activism—learning for the sake of changing the world.
Giussani’s writings on education become memorable precisely because they evoke reactions whereby students experience precisely what they’ve been missing in education—curiosity and questioning. Just like the sense of adventurous joy we felt as we crossed the foggy bridge in Rhode Island, Giussani sparks my students’ imagination. Reading Giussani together, it’s like we have set off into the fog, riding together, getting excited about what we learned, and then turning around, ready for more.
Giussani’s emphasis on mystery is one idea that seems “relevant” to students. What “problem” does the notion of mystery solve for them? Giussani unpacks for students just why a so-called problem-solving approach to education, where all knowledge must have relevance to change this world, has unintended consequences. What students are missing in education today are awe, curiosity, and contemplation. The beginning of education is not changing the world, but being attentive to all of reality, including its symbolic dimension.
Why has our modern system of education become obsessed with problem-solving to the detriment of a contemplative view of education? Could it be possible that we are so obsessed with transforming the world that we’ve lost the joyous adventure of forming the inner dynamism of young people to love learning?
Central to Giussani’s vision of education is his view that reality—both human nature and the things we create with knowledge—has a symbolic dimension. As Giussani writes, human reason is not only about discovering causal laws, but our reason looks at reality as a sign: “Our nature senses that what it experiences, what it has at hand, refers to something else. We have called this the ‘vanishing point.’ It is the vanishing point that exists in every human experience; that is, a point that does not close, but rather refers beyond.”
For Giussani, humans are beings who live in a particular time and history. Yet we also have a cosmic origin and final end of communion with God. That’s why Giussani emphasizes that education has to form young people in reason and faith, science and mystery, action and contemplation.
Students come to my seminars to ponder questions like: How does a liberal arts education form us as integral persons—mind, body, and soul? What is poetic knowledge, and how is it related to scientific and conceptual knowledge?
Jacques Maritain’s work Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, delivered as a series of lectures in the spring of 1952, is both history of art and philosophy of humanity. Maritain’s Creative Intuition is an exploration into the spiritual preconscious from which stems poetic knowledge that helps unite beauty, truth, and goodness. As with his other, perhaps better-known works, Maritain’s exploration of art and poetry points to a similar conclusion: there is a part of the human person that is an irreducible mystery where the encounter with God happens, but that inner element of us is profoundly shaped by the practical intellect through which works of art and poetry are created.
One of Maritain’s main claims is essentially one about intellectual history and culture: poetic knowledge has been forgotten. For many, only the scientific method is ever objective, whereas literature, poetry, art, and other forms of beauty can be nothing but subjective.
Maritain aims to restore the relationship between reason and beauty, stating, “Reason does not only consist of its conscious logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and supra-sensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul.”
As part of our rational nature, therefore, art and poetry are capacities to be honed, refined, reflected on, growing gradually toward perfection. Because art and poetry bring new objects into the world, Maritain argues they form part of the practical rather than the speculative intellect: knowing for the sake of action, of bringing something into existence. Participating in art and poetry forms our identity and subjectivity into beings who have stable inner qualities that enable us to use our many human capacities for the good.
In his book Education at the Crossroads, Maritain directly engages with perhaps the most influential philosopher in American education: John Dewey. For Dewey, the scientific experiment is the only road to objective truth. In A Common Faith, Dewey wrote, “There is but one sure road of access to truth—the road of patient, cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record and controlled reflection.” Dewey called his approach to knowledge nothing less than a “a revolution in the seat of intellectual authority.”
Religious creeds, which used to be thought of as indicating objective knowledge, must be separated for Dewey from religious experience. Religious values are important to democracy, but “their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.”
Observing European politics in the first half of twentieth century, the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce feared that reducing values to subjectivity and enshrining only science as true quickly leads to scientism, a reduction of all truth to the scientifically verifiable. The most powerful in society are those who claim the mantle of scientific truth. As he wrote, once rendered subjective, every argument about values becomes seen as “merely ideology” and “an instrument of power.” Without shared objective values, a greater separation between elites and the masses emerges. Our social fabric tears.
Maritain warned that the downstream impact of Dewey’s philosophy, which negates contemplative truth, is a culture that will end in a “a stony positivist or technocratic denial of the objective value of any spiritual need.”
Are we surprised that today so many students today lack meaning, purpose, and hope?
One poorly understood aspect of this crisis of meaning is the neglect of the relationship between beauty, truth, and virtuous living. At my seminars, students are eager to talk about how to recover poetic knowledge alongside scientific knowledge (scientific method) and conceptual knowledge (abstractions, like laws, procedures, rules).
Understanding poetic knowledge as a virtue of the intellect helps explain why education must expose students to beauty. Beauty is poorly understood in much of education and culture as just one more form of self-expression rather than a form of self-transcendence. The classical understanding of beauty was that experiences of beauty awaken our desire to know the splendour of the truth and prepare us to enter into virtuous relationships characterized by self-gift.
Yet many educational institutions have forgotten beauty. Our technological society provides endless sources of entertainment that are like junk food: images and soundbites momentarily satisfy a craving to experience something, but then leave people with a deeper need for true nourishment for the soul.
The result of the neglect of objective beauty in education and culture is that much of our schooling stops at teaching us how to manipulate the world. Most educators, administrators, and policy-makers have lost sight of the power of beauty to draw students into contemplation of beauty and truth in ways that give them meaning, purpose, and hope.
In my recent book, The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts, I ponder the crisis in modern education with seven scholars, all of whom practice a life-giving form of liberal arts education.
In one dialogue, George Harne, a professor of music, former president of Magdalene College, and now dean of the University of St. Thomas–Houston, explains, “There is an irreducible dimension to poetry, as there is to life. We want students to recognize through liberal learning that sometimes you cannot cross all the ‘t’s and dot all the ‘i’s. There are parts of life that are irreducible in their complexity; the process of understanding life is always unfinished. Poetry can prepare us to encounter the mysterious in life, and it can inoculate us against certain ideologies that claim to explain and control everything.”
Without experiences of beauty to draw us into contemplation, education risks becoming purely cognitive and functional and culture becomes desiccated.
In another chapter of my book, the mathematical physicist Carlo Lancellotti says, “We live in a crisis of abstraction. We think that once we have analyzed things, that’s all there is, that the idea is exhausted by our analysis. Everything gets filtered through some kind of pre-prepared abstract screen. Experience is replaced by our abstract explanations of experience. What is really missing for so many today is the perception of beauty, and beauty as an opening to the mystery of God.”
Humans are made for something more than utility, problem-solving, and relevance. Beauty is the door that opens onto that greater reality. Without experiences of beauty to draw us into contemplation, education risks becoming purely cognitive and functional and culture becomes desiccated. What we learn is rendered as a set of techniques for manipulating the natural world (natural sciences) and our fellow human beings (ideologically tainted social sciences and humanities). We lack shared stories that unite us.
Beauty is the spark of liberal arts education and scientific creativity. Beauty draws us out of ourselves, arrests our attention, and leads us to contemplate our world, the people around us, and ultimately God. Beauty is the glimmer, the gleam of being. Beauty awakens our hearts to the splendour of being alive and the desire to know reality in its fullness and complexity.
The void left by the denigration of beauty and a classical liberal arts education is directing more and more people to “woke” social justice activism or alt-right movements because those movements offer them meaning, purpose, and hope, as well as community and a sense of belonging. Others burn out psychologically or resort to social isolation because trust and intimacy are hard to experience. Yet others resort to drugs, pornography, or another temporary pleasure to fill the void. Still others pursue ambitious and demanding careers without reflecting on how they should live or why they exist to begin with. The result is skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Educational institutions have not succeeded in addressing these problems, leading many people to seek alternatives to feed their minds and souls.
The students I teach are dying to return to learning as a mysterious adventure. Social justice activism, for instance, offers this adventure, but if our social and political commitments end up reducing our contemplative side to purely subjective experiences, then we have—perhaps unwittingly—adopted an underlying view of the person and of reality that has eradicated mystery.
If all knowledge is a tool to change the world, then man, not God, is at the centre of reality. Anything at all is possible, but nothing is true. For today’s generation, as for the students Giussani taught, the idea that our scientific knowledge can create any reality we want with no limitation rings hollow. Ideologies abound because soundbites promise simple explanations. But ideology never produces a well-rounded human person—without which, Guissani warned, social or political good cannot come about.
As Giussani wrote, “If we consider our nature to be the image of the mystery that made us, to be participation in this mystery, and if we understand that this mystery is mercy and compassion, then we will try to practice mercy, compassion, and fraternity as our very nature whatever the effort involved.”
Integral human formation must recover education in beauty as the seed to sow the fertile ground to cultivate the fruits of intellectual virtue, restore the love of learning, and bring joy and trust into friendships, all the while retaining the personal discipline required to master and prudentially use knowledge.
My students often ask, What can unite us socially and politically? I respond that in order to reunite as a society, we have to reunite beauty, truth, and goodness. We have to choose mystery over ideology.