More Than Book Learning: Why Education Should Help Students Answer Existential Questions

BOOK PICK: The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny

Cropped book cover
Cropped book cover (photo: Register Files)


By Luigi Giussani

Queen’s University Press, 2019     

xlviii +112 pages, $11.42

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There are some books you know you should read, even if it’ll take more than one reading to get the author’s meaning. This is one of them.

Luigi Giussani founded the “Communion and Liberation” movement. This book, the first version of which came out in 1977, is a compilation of his reflections on what education — at least Christian education — requires. He sketches out his threefold method, starting with tradition, which is examined in the context of the present, and subject to critique, whereby the student ought to internalize the values at stake. Giussani contrasts his method against what he regards as the main thrust of modern education: rationalist skepticism, which, in the end, tends to confirm its recipients in their ill-examined prejudices (or those of their “teachers”).

The book consists of three parts, each progressively denser. Part I is a 20-page “Foreword” by American Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who, having seen the religious disemboweling of America’s mainline Protestant universities, has a more realistic outlook on what Catholic universities need to do than most of the latter’s current administrators.

Msgr. Giussani’s 20-page “Preface” offers a reasonably clear overview of his educational method and how he arrived at it, starting with his days teaching in Italian public high schools. The author envisions his approach as having primary application in the high-school years; I think it also fits U.S. undergraduates.

The heart of the book is Giussani’s three-chapter discussion of his educational methodology — why he believes it corresponds to the demands of human nature and why it is superior to the mainstream approach that increasingly dominates public education.

Giussani’s main concern is that education should connect a student to “reality,” its unity and its coherence. At heart, he demands a realistic metaphysics open to theological revelation. He contrasts his method, which aims at helping the student grasp the unity and coherence of everything he learns with the contemporary trend toward hyperspecialization, resulting in deep expertise in a very narrow field, without understanding if or how that discrete segment of knowledge fits into anything bigger beyond itself.

Children incessantly ask “why,” and Aristotle insisted “all men desire to know.” They desire to know not just hyperspecializations but existential questions: So what if I am the world’s expert in late 14th-century Italian feminist poetry or lower ventricular cardiac arrhythmia in septuagenarians? How does it all fit into my life, a life which — like everyman — ultimately asks, “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” and “Why am I here?” Everybody deep down wants to engage those tough existential questions. Giussani wants them to, too.

But I never said Giussani would be easy. Consider this excerpt, which well describes today’s collegiate “snowflake” bent over a screen:

“The current mentality unfortunately teaches young people to follow things only up to the point that they already find acceptable, and no more. Thus, this evidentiary ‘presence’ is treated as a basis for affirming one’s own concerns and presuppositions, and not as something to be faithfully followed through and through. Then when the presence does not correspond to predetermined concerns, a rapid fire of ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ often provides cover for closed-mindedness and a lack of genuine love for truth and goodness. This accounts for that widespread fear, that strange incapacity of young people to affirm being. This fear of affirming being comes directly from a lack of engagement with being, whether it translates into the indifference that characterizes most people’s lives, or expresses itself in the ‘drunkard’s terror’ described by the poet Montale.”

And that’s one of his clearer passages.

That said, I strongly recommend this book. I’d approach it the way my aunt Wanda taught me to swim: Throw him in the lake, let him flail, and he’ll ultimately get it. But the effort was worth it.


John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., Fordham,

writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

 All views are exclusively his.