Can the ideas of a nineteenth-century saint, known for his work among young people, say something relevant to educators of the twenty-first century?
Don Bosco and Young People
Every January 31st, the Church marks the feast day of St. John Bosco, who died January 31, 1888. He is known in the Church as the Father and Teacher of Youth. He is the founder of the Salesians of Don Bosco (formally, the Society of St. Francis de Sales) and also of the other members of the vast Salesian Family.
Don Bosco — don is an Italian honorific often given to priests — lived at a time when Italy was still divided into many kingdoms and where the growing tide of the Industrial age was slowly taking ground in many of the world’s modern cities. He lived his life in complete dedication for the welfare of young people. He established schools, youth centers, trade schools, missionary centers and even went into the work of book publishing with the single aim of forming young people to be good Christians and upright citizens. In a time wherein young people fell prey to the abuses of the workplace and were not given much importance by the Church, Don Bosco started his great apostolic work among them.
One of the major contributions of Don Bosco lay in the field of education. In his work among young people, he followed an educational system that was based on the following pillars: Reason, Loving-Kindness, and Religion.
The First Pillar: Reason
The first pillar of his educational system is Reason. Saint John Bosco was a firm believer that young people ought to know the reasons behind all the rules in an educational setting. He did not create an army of students who simply followed school rules out of fear and blind obedience. He wanted young people to realize that behind the regulations of any educational institution there lies the spirit of genuine concern for students. If students are able to understand the spirit better, then they will become mature in their choice of following the guidance of the school and their teachers.
In dealing with twenty-first-century young people, the use of reason in education would mean encouraging a culture of dialogue with the young. The young are not passive recipients of all the things that their educators tell them. They want their voices to be heard.
An educator, who knows how to apply the use of reason in his classroom will encourage an atmosphere of student participation. He will create an environment where young people will have the freedom to express themselves while maintaining respect for their elders and their peers. Young people will not be merely told to obey rules; they will be invited to understand the spirit behind the rule. In order to create this atmosphere of participation and dialogue, educators would do well to spend the time to get to know the young people they are dealing with.
While studying about youth culture can be a useful tool for educators, St. John Bosco believed that the best way to get to know the young is to directly spend time with them and be an animating presence in their lives. This requires that educators not be merely seen in their offices. They must be ready to be with the young in their free time and immerse themselves in youth culture.
The Second Pillar: Loving-Kindness
The second element of Don Bosco’s system is Loving-Kindness. He wanted his educators to create a family atmosphere in his institutions where trust, concern and a sense of shared responsibility thrive. He believed that when young people are treated with love and kindness, they will be more open to learning.
Don Bosco often reminded his followers to “love what the young love and they, in turn, will love what you love.” With this exhortation, he encouraged his followers to learn how to be real friends with young people by becoming interested in the things that interest them. That is why it is not surprising to find in Salesian schools, priests, brothers, nuns and teachers who are in the playing fields and being one with their wards in their youthfulness. In this way, a relationship of trust is born. Young people will realize that their educators truly have their welfare in mind. And with this realization, they will slowly begin to be interested in having a sense of discipline and of learning.
Twenty-first-century education is slowly becoming technology led. Yet, despite the advancement of technology, educational experts are saying that the most important factor in the learning process of young people does not really rely on the high-tech gadgets that one can see in schools. It still relies on a solid teacher-student relationship. It is here that the educational system of John Bosco becomes relevant. Behind all the gadgetry we find in contemporary schools, young people are still looking for teachers who inspire their trust and love.
The Third Pillar: Religion
The third element in John Bosco’s system is that of Religion. Obviously, being a son of the Church, he integrated the practice of religion into his educational system. In his talks to his students, he stressed the importance of going to communion and confession frequently. He saw the power of these sacraments in helping a young person gain a certain sense of peace and direction in life. Don Bosco drew on the richness of the Catholic faith in forming a sense of responsibility towards others and society within his students. He wanted them to grow as faithful children of the Church by practicing the faith in the world that they would be engaging in as they became adults.
While there is a movement in today’s society to remove God from the picture of human affairs, education experts agree that young people should also be taught how to appreciate the sense of the sacred in their lives. This means leading the young people to connect to a transcendent being and power in their lives. In a society full of materialism, the educational system of St. John Bosco provides a spirituality young people can firmly hold on to as they grow into their adult years.
Does this mean that a teacher needs to teach the basics of the Catholic faith to young people? Not really. In non-sectarian schools, where religious dogmas are not part of the curriculum, educators can help students to be in touch with the divine by arousing in them a sense of awe; for instance, in a literature or art class. They can also inculcate a sense of solidarity and brotherhood through lessons in social studies. They can also help students see a divine power that governs the world in the science lessons that they discuss. The use of religion in education can be seen in the broader perspective of providing students with tools to appreciate the movement of God or a divine power in the world.
Don Bosco’s ideas may have been practiced in the nineteenth century, yet they are very much relevant to the educational needs of young people today. When young people feel the need to have their voices heard and be understood, Reason can provide the educator the means to create classrooms where dialogue and participation are fostered. When students feel the need to have an adult whom they can trust and open their lives to, Loving-Kindness can help the teacher create an atmosphere where young people feel that they are cared for and loved. When young people are in search of a divine Being to guide them in their lives, the use of Religion can foster a healthy sense of spirituality where they can truly find meaning in the sacred.
Reason, Loving-Kindness, and Religion. Nineteenth-century ideas from a nineteenth-century saint. Yet, Don Bosco and his educational system still remain relevant for all educators and young people today.