The Challenge of Education in Modern Times

Interview with Theologian Giuseppe Angelini

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MILAN, Italy, APRIL 28, 2002 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- Is it still possible to educate in our times?

The question is not rhetorical: It stems from the difficulty many parents face today in transmitting what they themselves have received from their parents.

«To Educate Is a Must, But Is It Possible?» is the title of Italian theologian Giuseppe Angelini´s latest book, in which he reflects on the difficulty of educating in the West. Here, his explains his position on the topic.

Q: You allude to a lack of reference to the external world in the education of children, and give the impression that today one has children to satisfy one´s own emotional needs rather than to launch children into a collective history. Can one say that the West faces an emergency in generational transmission?

Angelini: There is an emergency both as regards the relation between generations as well as the decision itself to have children. The marked decline in births in some countries like Italy and Spain, is an obvious sign.

To become parents implies the need to give children reasons about the meaning of life. It implies, therefore, the affirmation of that hope in virtue of which life is an advantage.

However, one cannot give reasons for this hope without referring to the larger world, the whole of society, the common tradition. Today there is increasingly less reference to the world. The reasons linked to emotional spontaneity threaten to become the only ones, and to make the affective family a kind of prison for the child, which it is difficult to get out of.

Q: Some sociologists talk about «maternal family» in which the maternal figure is dominant. Do you agree?

Angelini: There is talk of the maternal family because the paternal presence, although intensified, follows the maternal forms. Today the father looks after the little one or plays with him. However, he flees from the task of interpreting the «law.» The whole society takes on a «maternal» profile, as a reflection.

At the same time, there is talk of the «affective» family, in the sense that it is a family specialized in the task of giving the child, and also the adult, security –while the obligation to represent the universal order symbolically declines.

Today´s home seems above all to be a place of isolation, where one takes refuge from a cold and foreign world.

Q: What caused the crisis of the father that we are witnessing?

Angelini: Above all it has been fostered by modern thought, with the Enlightenment´s ideal of autonomy, which proposes the emancipation of the father and of the whole tradition as the objective of a free and tolerant society.

In the second place, and even more decisively, the crisis has been fueled by changes in customs caused by secularization, the primacy of the market and, consequently, the receding of public culture from personal conscience. Thus, the paternal task, to be interpreter of the universal moral order of human relations, is extraordinarily arduous.

Q: You say that today´s adolescent does not wish to become an adult. Why?

Angelini: Because he lacks an image of adult life, with which he can identify. To the parents´ lack of witness is added an imaginary public, transmitted by the media, which proposes the idealization of the figure of the adolescent.

There is a strong adolescent trace in the present culture of «self-fulfillment.» The recommended forms of life are obsessively concentrated on the object of subjective gratification.

Prisoner of an insurmountable narcissism, modern man lives, instead, in a constant provisional state, always waiting for confirmations and unable to give himself unconditionally. With this philosophy of life in the background, it is not surprising that the adolescent is frightened to grow up.

Q: The title of your book asks if it is still possible to educate. What is your response?

Angelini: Education is possible, beginning with a conversion of the common points of current educational thought. As opposed to the idea of education as a simple «animation» of a spontaneous process, it must be understood that education is possible only if one begins with an affirmation of hope, accompanied by the proposal of a law.

In this connection, it is indispensable to eliminate the censure placed today on the concept of «authority.» Parents exercise authority over children: They must know this and want to do it. It is necessary to acknowledge that to educate involves the personal life of the parent: The child asks adults to render an account of their own life. Against the exaltation of well-being, what must be affirmed is that the highest value of life is the moral good.

I think that many parents need someone to come to their aid so that these feelings, which they share deep down, can be translated into courageous words. The responsibilities of the Church in this connection seem to me to be very great.

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