Comparing Newman and Giussani – The Presence of the Educator

While they lived in different centuries, different nations, and in vastly different geo-political situations, Newman and Giussani shared a common interest in resolving the challenges of living the Christian life presented by a world that was growing increasingly secular and irreligious. They both challenged hollowed out conceptions of what it meant to be a Christian. For both men, the key to being authentically Christian was the valuation and communication of the heart, and one of the primary loci for engaging the heart was in the school.

One of the things that is common among scholars and general admirers of Blessed John Henry Newman is that the more they read outside of Newman's writings, the more they come across ideas, questions, debates, or theories that are in Newman's writings. This has happened most recently for me in the writings of Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder and long-time leader of the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement. This semester I am teaching a senior seminar on the theology and pedagogy of Luigi Giussani. As the semester goes on, I will reflect on the similarities of these two modern Catholic voices who spoke into so many of the issues of their day.

Giussani's entire life was dedicated to education. He began his career as a seminary professor, but an encounter with young people on a train ride led him to move into high school teaching. In the introduction to his book, The Risk of Education, Giussani stated that "our main theme in all of our writings and lectures always has been education."(7) In this book, and elsewhere, Giussani defined education as "an introduction to total reality."(50) His concern for education, and his expansive, broad, and ambitiously comprehensive understanding of the goal of education, invites a comparison between Giussani's vision and Newman's own vision for education.

Both Giussani and Newman fought against reductive views of reason and rationality. Both thought an education focused simply on useful, or scientific knowledge, was a failure of the true aim of education. Newman, in The Idea of a University, and in his earlier collection of essays, "The Tamworth Reading Room," argued for a fully human form of education that engaged the mind and the heart. As Newman expressed in essay six from the "The Tamworth Reading Room,"

"The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us." (293)

And he went on,

"After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise." (294)

One of the most significant similarities in their pedagogy has to do with the significance of the professor/teacher in the educational endeavor. Both Newman and Giussani deemphasize the role of book learning, developing a complex curriculum, or ingenious teaching techniques. Rather, they emphasize the way in which the educator must become a living embodiment of wisdom. Giussani explained that the educator must, "communicate one's self, to communicate one's way of approaching reality, for a person is a living mode of relating to reality." (111) Newman wrote about a similar concept in the fifth Oxford University Sermon, "Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth." There Newman made the case that Christianity has survived and spread throughout the world because of the power of persons who had become living imitations of Christ. As Newman put it,

"I answer, that [Christianity] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as have already been described, who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it." (91–92)

The educator becomes a living witness to the truth they proclaim. They are able to not only describe through second-hand knowledge but show through their very own way of engaging with the world the truth of what they teach.

Without this living embodiment, education will fail to meet the needs of the human person. This is why Newman argued that, if forced to choose between a university system comprised either of professors delivering lectures, or tutors living with students in a college, he would choose the tutors in the college. These were educational environments where the pupil learned much more than book knowledge, they learned how to approach life in a variety of facets.

Likewise Giussani argued that the educator, motivated by a love for their students akin to the love of a mother for their child, hands on their very self to the student. They pass on not only information, but a an approach to questioning, investigating, verifying, and living within a total horizon of meaning.

Lastly, for both Newman and Giussani, the educator must strive after imitation of the ideal and perfect teacher, Jesus Christ. According to Newman, the students of such an educator would,

"become aware that Christ's presence was before them; and, in the words of Scripture, would glorify God in His servant [Gal. i. 24.]; and all this while they themselves would be changing into that glorious Image which they gazed upon, and be in training to succeed him in its propagation." ("Personal Influence," 96)


All Giussani quotes are from: Giussani, Fr. Luigi. The Risk of Education. United States: Herder and Herder, 2001. 

Matthew Muller is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He completed a doctorate in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University. His dissertation was entitled, "The Inspired Bible in the Anglican Career of John Henry Newman."

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