St. John Bosco and the Secret of Education

Despite the implementation of the Common Core, it remains the common conclusion that American education is in a state of free fall. Students graduate from high school with little ability to read standard prose and less ability to write at an elementary level. They lack appreciation for the cultural heritage of Western Civilization and cannot date even the most significant historical events. Hence, Catholic parents and teachers often bemoan the state of American youth, American education, and American culture.

This corruption has much to do with a decayed moral order that is prevalent. Adults must take responsibility for the breakdown that propagates barbaric, renegade youths and their nihilistic street-culture. Responsibility, however, demands action. There is a natural tendency to respond to the problems of youth with punishment and stricter rules, with a severity commensurate with the depravity. Although such measures may be necessary at times, charity advocates that teenagers be placed in an environment where civility and moral virtue can reasonably be expected to thrive. Providing that environment is the educational secret of St. John Bosco (August 16, 1815-January 31, 1888).

Repressive vs. Preventive
“There are two systems which have been in use through all ages in the education of youth:” John Bosco says, “the Preventive and the Repressive.” Following the more-common repressive method, rules are set and the authority watches from a distance to ensure their observance, stepping in only to punish if they are transgressed. In the preventive method, rules are set and, rather than receding, the authority remains in the company of his charges, living their lives as much as possible and, in a spirit of friendly watchfulness, preventing failures that deserve punishment.

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St. John BoscoOf these two, the preventive method was adopted by Don Bosco and is now practiced by his Salesians, an order he founded inspired by the gentleness, patience, and charity of St. Francis de Sales. Don Bosco often used St. Francis’ words to endorse the preventive method: “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” Don Bosco’s educational system developed as a product of his own tremendous love for youth and in the Salesian spirit of understanding. The technique of the preventive method consists chiefly in kindly supervision with the aim of building character and guarding against harmful influences: the conjunction of vigilance and familial affection, to prevent infractions rather than punish them. “This system,” the saint writes, “is based entirely on reason, religion, and kindness.”

It is often truly noted that one of the defects of modern education is that, although students are offered a plethora of information taken from a wide range of subjects, they are seldom taught to think and express their thoughts clearly. Presented with a new fact, students struggle to integrate it or apply it to a general context that grants vision of a coherent whole. Upon consideration of a new subject, most students are incapable of performing an elementary division of its parts or to distinguish the essential from the accidental, or detect a false argument.

This defect in mental formation is attributable to the fact that such formation is not a concern of modern education. By an unreasonable profusion of subjects the intellect is weakened and distracted. True education, however, is more than the mere learning of subjects or the assimilation of facts. It is a cultivation of mind that, as Cardinal Newman says, “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.”

The first element of the Salesian educational system, reason, is the strategy to understand the character of young people and how young people learn. At the same time, reason fosters the ability to communicate with them. These requisites call for an active and constant presence of the teacher with the pupil; a pleasant and unrestrained togetherness. Such efforts supply the emotional and psychological needs of the young, who seek to belong, to be secure, and to be recognized. These needs are attained by the confidence generated through this interpersonal relationship between pupils and teachers who, in Don Bosco’s words, are like “loving fathers” encouraging and praising at the proper moment. The Salesian method seeks to minimize the negative effects of the generation gap by fostering the proper balance between authority and permissiveness, blending freedom with responsibility, and bringing together the old and the new.

The thing that is most distressing in the condition of America’s young is the corruption of character evidenced by a lack of basic moral virtues and the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Even Catholic schools are not immune from the academic, cultural, and moral degradation observable in their profane counterparts. Modern youth are branded by an attitude of cynicism that exults in irony and sarcasm. Casual Catholicism is the norm in an America that is growing more and more godless. What else can be expected when secularism, materialism, and relativism form the unholy trinity that rules the wasteland where youth goes astray? Without real role models, children and young adults are doomed to be lost. Only love of God can conquer evil and replace it with the overflowing cup.

To offer students human values alone would be a severe injustice in the process of education. Therefore, great emphasis is placed on the second pillar of the Salesian educational method: religion. The message of the Gospel is an integral part of education since the Good News is the light that will lead individuals through life in this world to life in the next. Today, the light of the Gospel is obscured by oppressive systems and materialistic values. These negative cultural factors touch the young with especial force. Corruption in government, breakdown in families, and disregard for moral restraint are realities that wreak havoc on the healthy development of youth. The remedy is religion, which can govern the actions of the young and effect permanent change for the good of the individual and society. Salesian education, drawing always from the rich tradition of Catholic inheritance, places utmost importance on frequenting the Sacraments, the ordinary channel of God’s grace and help.

To reason and religion is added kindness. This principle is not a weakness, but rather a show of strength and self-control. It seeks to create a persuasive atmosphere, where trust and communication is fostered. This kindness or charity generates that expansiveness and confidence so much needed by today’s youth. The element of kindness leads us to consider the relationship found on the other side of the educational fulcrum: the teacher, the pupil, and the family. The first school is the family and the first teachers are parents. The Salesian educators understand this important psychological fact and seek to develop in their school a family spirit, such as would exist in a truly Christian family where all are united in a spirit of joy, love, and peace.

The relationship between a student and his teacher should be marked by harmony, accord, and affinity. Such an attitude must reign freely in a school according to the writings of Don Bosco. Otherwise, a barrier of distrust develops, hindering any real influence for the good the teacher possesses. Being in a position of respected and friendly authority, teachers have the potential to teach much more than their respective discipline in the classroom. They can teach virtue in all aspects of life through their example on a social level. Until fairly recently, societies placed great importance on children learning from their elders as mentors guiding them through the rites of passage into adulthood. Salesian education hearkens to such traditions, in the hopes that students will follow in the footsteps of their teachers in living the Faith, pursuing wisdom, and refining their tastes. This sense of togetherness, which is the essence of teaching, is the fruit of a friendly approach. “A master who is only seen in the master’s chair,” writes the saint, “is just a master and nothing more. But if he goes into recreation with the boys he becomes their brother.” By joining them in their moments of leisure, sharing their laughter and conversation, the bonds of friendship are formed that bind for years to come.

The Secret of Rapport
The preventive method of Don Bosco consists in establishing an atmosphere of friendliness and mutual understanding, or the establishing of rapport. Rapport is a relationship wherein mutual trust and respect is nurtured in a spirit of friendship, sympathy, cooperation, and—above all—vigilance. The educator on the one hand is deeply interested in helping people solve their problems; and the educand on the other is appreciative of this attitude. Rapport exists between teacher and student when there is an understanding between them that the teacher sincerely cares about the welfare of the student and the student appreciates this and acts accordingly. When rapport is established, a teacher can become a positive influence on the student, and the students will strive to please those whom they love—for love is the end of rapport.

To be effective, this relationship must take on a personalized and individualized nature. St. John Bosco insisted upon on the establishment of rapport if a sound and lasting physical, emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation is to be imparted. Following in the footsteps of this saintly teacher, teachers should learn to speak to students in the language of the heart and thereby exercise a positive influence over them. The students, in turn, are moved to look upon their teachers as friends and benefactors who seek their good. It must be said, however, that the system outlined here is not a simple one. To live with students, sharing their interests, their conversation, their shortfalls, their progress—while not without joy—is not easy. Although when the preventive method is practiced with loyalty and love, it yields as much fruit for student as for teacher. Don Bosco’s motto was, “Give me souls;” and thus expressed the whole point of education: true education forms true Catholics.

Nothing else matters—which is the real secret of education.


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