The Risk of Education, Intervention of John Waters, Writer and columnist - OTHER DOCUMENTS

The Risk of Education, Intervention of John Waters, Writer and columnist


I am very pleased to be here and very comfortable being here, comfortable under the banner of the subject matter and the body Communion and Liberation.

And there would have been times in my life when I wouldn’t have felt comfortable, I would have felt that there was the necessity for me to excuse myself from some of the implications of what we are discussing; but, although I’m on a journey, personally, I feel relaxed in a way that I have never felt before in this society in making that journey, here, and in the terms that we’re discussing our subject this evening.

I suppose I would describe myself, I have come to describe myself in the context of recent times as a lapsed agnostic. And briefly, I grew up as a Catholic in Ireland for the first twenty years of my life and then I left abruptly and went a-wandering and the last decade I’ve been returning, I think, I’m not sure but I think. Certainly I got to the cliff face and realised I could go no further in the journey that I set out on at the age of twenty or twenty one and I have turned back. And, as I say, I am comfortable now with the direction I feel myself going. But more that that, I think I have a sense, that just as that journey that I made when I was twenty was reflected or reflected something in the society, that I was a creature of my time, that I am also now a creature of my time in that, that journey back will be reflected and is being reflected at some deeper level in the society.

So that’s why broadly I am here, I guess. The term education, the risk of education, the title of Fr Giussani’s book, it didn’t immediately engage me because education has come to mean certain things in the society. Perhaps the concept has strayed from its original meaning and, you know, there is so much talk about education, so much talk about the Leaving Cert and the points race and the education supplements and so forth that the true meaning of this discussion, as outlined in this book, could be short-circuited. There’s one sentence in the book which jumped out at me, as a sort of reinvigoration of the meaning of the word. He says “Education has the inestimable value of leading a child to the certainty that things in fact do have a meaning”.

It seems to me that that is what education is. It’s entirely about meaning. And in the journey that I have seen, that I’ve been through in society and to observe the nature of the society in the last ten or twenty years something again and again I find myself as a journalist returning to this theme of meaninglessness, of senselessness, that all around there seems to be, on the one hand a march towards something called progress, modernity, the future and yet, underlying that, a fragmentation in which, in various pockets, there is a certain degree of sense. But standing back, and trying to reconcile the various pockets and compartments, there is nothing but meaninglessness. And I find myself drawing together now in my life and my thoughts, strands from various parts of, from various compartments, from various aspects of that senselessness and reading for the first time, reading in the last few days Fr Giussani’s book, I have a sense, for the first time, of a book actually bringing those strands together, of those ideas being brought together in one between the covers of one volume, things that I had begun to write about, say ten years ago. I wrote about, I have been writing about the destruction of fatherhood in the society, for example. And a few years ago as well, I read an extraordinary book by Alexander Mitscherlish about this. But, an even more extraordinary introduction by the American poet Robert Bly and he outlined the nature of the crisis, as he perceived it then, in 1992, and which is, I think, developed in this book. Because, whereas Bly outlines the problem, Fr Giussani outlines a solution.

But first to Bly because his theme is very much to do with, I think, our theme. He says in the introduction: “The father society has collapsed. It’s not so much that the father doesn’t talk or pay support or has left the house but rather that the image of the working, teaching father has faded from the mind. An image that has existed rightly in the mind for thousands of years has faded. It is hard to imagine what that fading could mean. The disappearance of the working, teaching father has happened so abruptly, so unexpectedly from the centuries viewpoint and the implications there are so immense that we really turn our heads away, we can’t take it in. Because he no longer teaches as he works, we in our rage call him a nuisance, a curse, a survival from archaic times, an enemy or a virus, some persistent strain in the bloodstream. Just as some early Christians rejoiced over the death of the pagan great mother some people hope that the father and the great father will both go. Whatever may happen in the future, whether God the Father will survive or not, the image of the working and teaching Father in the psyche has already succumbed.

What happens then? At first glance we see the missing psyche father has been replaced by a massive, many breasted interior state mother. But it’s more accurate to say that when the father is gone, everyone becomes a sibling. Mass society with its demand for work without responsibility, creates a gigantic army of rival envious siblings.”

And this is his theme, fundamentally. And, if you look at the ticket, the invitation for tonight, the very first sentence is there “something is happening that has never happened before”

And Bly outlines this something as “the collapse of the vertical line of history, the vertical line of culture and its replacement by a horizontal line. That the vertical line along which tradition and learning and knowledge and wisdom were handed down from one generation to another. That this line has been severed and instead our cultures now exchange only across the horizontal line between broadly people of a similar age.”

And Bly calls this after Mitscherlish the sibling society. And in this book and subsequently in Bly’s own book, it’s outlined in great and rather frightening detail.

“In the old father organised society” he says, “one knew where power was. It exhibited itself and announced itself by cockaded formal dress, men in gold braid and wide epaulettes getting out of elaborately decorated carriages at the tops of high flights of stairs. The citizens look up. The king is there. If the citizen wants power he kills the king and takes it. Cromwell got his power in that way, so did Mao. But citizens in the sibling society look sideways. The sibling synsis are aware of individuals similar to themselves or herself in large numbers all over the globe. Sibling society has its positive side but on its dark side it wants VCRs, compact disk players, high definition TV , expensive tennis shoes, designer clothes, access to mass communication, fifteen minutes of fame. The sibling society is only forty or fifty years old” This as I say was in 1992 “and not yet in full bloom but already we notice that the committee, a sibling mode dominates decision making more and more all members of the English Department have to teach the same theories and so forth. This has happened before but there is a new age to desire unity now, responsibility for eccentric decisions is not a quality of sibling society”. And this is precisely the theme that Fr Giussani takes up.

A few years ago, when my daughter was about three or four and I started to investigate the possibility of what school she would go to because she was rather belatedly came to Ireland haven grown up in London . I made some enquiries and there was one, because I came from the society which I suppose at the time you would have called a liberal out look, I was looking around for a school that would have similar programme of education and one particular school had a very good reputation in this regard. So I asked them to send me a prospectus and in the prospectus it said, under matters of religion and faith, it said “they would teach their children a wide ranging knowledge and tolerance of many different beliefs and viewpoints”. So I called them up and I asked them “that sounds very interesting”, I said “but what do you actually teach them” ? “So,well, we teach them a wide ranging belief and tolerance”. “Yes, but what do you teach them? I presume that if they are there and there are other people with wide ranging beliefs and viewpoints they can tolerate them to their hearts content but if they go there with nothing what do you give them?” And the answer is nothing,

And this, it seems to me, is at the core of the problem that we face now in this society. That we have created this idea in Irish society, that because we’re on the run, as I was at the age of twenty, twenty one, from the alleged or believed assertive authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, that we could run for miles and be free, without consequences. And that somehow it didn’t matter that we could create a society without the core represented by Catholicism up to that point and that it wouldn’t be missed, that somehow, organically in the society, there would come a new flowering of belief and that people would either believe in the Budda or believe in Allah or whatever and that the rest of us would simply sit around tolerating them And it seems to me, now, that this a completely unsustainable idea.

And reading Fr Giussani’s book I begin to see why, because he outlines in extraordinary and ultimately saddening detail the nature of the problem. That when we’re denied meaning by the fragmentation, by the idea that simply we cannot make up our own truth, that without tradition, without that vertical line that Bly talked of, we’re simply scrambling around.

There’s a beautiful image he uses of a child taking a clock apart and he takes it apart with great care and attention. I’ll read it out for you : “The student” and this is in the modern context “the student is like a child who finds a large clock in a room. Smart and curious he picks up the clock and slowly takes it apart. In the end he has fifty or one hundred pieces before him. He was really clever, but now he feels lost and begins to cry for the clock is all there but it’s no longer there. He lacks the unifying idea that would allow him to put it back together.’

And this, it seems to me, is at the core of the idea of what has happened to us. That we have everything but the core meaning. We have everything but the glue, we have everything but the connections between things, that we have a society in which we can pick and mix, from all kinds of options but it doesn’t make us happy.

We are very near the offices of the paper I used to work in, I still work there theoretically, and I’m conscious that to use the kind of terminologies that we use, we will use here tonight, to speak of God, to speak of Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Light, that will have a certain meaning. And if that were reported in the Irish Times or Independent tomorrow people would decide, that as the headline in the Irish Catholic said recently “Waters returns to the faith”

So the public square, the language that we use in the public square and the language that we use to discuss the meaning of life are, to a degree, a very high degree, incompatible now.

I take my daughter to the family Mass in Dalkey on Sundays and there in the sort of the centre of the Irish Times universe, I see parents, like me, with their children. They bring them to the choir, they bring them to communion, they bring them there because they serve Mass. The entire family is there. And it strikes me, again and again, that when they turn on their radio or open a newspaper there is nothing in that, which will give a resonance to the experience of taking their children there on a Sunday. There’s no recognition of it, there’s nothing but opposition to it. The logic of everything they will read will tell them that it is something that, they still do, if they do it, but really it can’t go on for much longer, can it. That they are some kind of hangover, some kind of residues from some traditional past. And it seems to me that they must be as confused by this as I am, to be unable to actually speak in the public square about God, about meaning about the horizon of human existence, without, you know, without being seen to be something that you are trying to avoid being. Perhaps wrongly, because the culture has been so damaged by the war that has gone on here for fifty years now. That war, I would define as - it didn’t just happen in the spiritual domain, it happens also in the political domain, that in the reaction to British Colonialism a certain ideology of nationalism grew up and also an ideology of Christianity, where the Catholic Church became, in a sense, the parent of Irish society, became not just the spiritual guide but in many ways the moral and political and sometimes even social custodian of our ability to survive at that time. And in the last thirty years, we have a counter veiling reaction, we have people of my generation and the generation before that reacting against authority reacting against superstition, supposed, reaction against supposed irrationality, created this war. And, at the end of this war we’re left with nothing but questions. Those of us who fought it on either side still have the questions, still have the emptiness. We have a society now in which suicide levels are among the highest in the world - again the lack of meaning - but how deep does this meaning go. In Fr Giussani’s book the answers are there, but they’re very challenging answers, they’re not easy answers. And they are answers that we can only come to if in this society we can actually somehow manage to explode the many prejudices and misunderstandings and corruptions of language itself which now prevent the public square from grappling with the major questions of meaning that confront us .

There are many, many sections of this book that I’d like to read out to you. It’s a quite extraordinary book, not an easy book. Its every page is crammed with ideas and challenges, but there is something I’d like to read, which has to do with - if I can find it now - with the meaning of satisfaction, yes.

“When we say that faith exalts rationality we mean that faith corresponds to some fundamental, original need that all men and women feel in their hearts. In fact it is significant that instead of the word rationality the bible uses the word heart. Faith truly answers the original needs of the human heart which are the same for everyone – the need for truth, beauty, the good, justice, love and total self satisfaction. As I often remind my students the word satisfaction had originally the same connotation as the word perfection for in Latin satisfacere and perficere are analogous terms. This perfection and satisfaction are synonymous just like happiness and eternity”.

And this is an idea that is lost to us now in a society which believes that it can mould the human being, that what society gets is a blank slate and that through our educational system, properly regulated with the correct ideologies, can actually make people in a kind of perfection. And this is the most dangerous idea because it denies what is at the core of human longing, that in there there are hungers for those qualities of truth and justice and that ultimately the only answer that is ever being offered in the whole of human history, the only satisfactory answer, the only answer that gives comfort to the human being is that Jesus Christ came as man and lived among us.

And I find myself now at the age of fifty saying these things. They were taught to me as a child, saying them again and wondering at my saying of them, wondering, do I mean it? can I mean it” can it be true? Can I get over all of that anger that caused me to walk away in the first place? Can I make the connection between that idea and what is wrong in my life? This is the challenge I find and in Fr Giussani’s book I find the shadows of answers. I need to read it again and again but in there are the answers because that connection is made very clearly. The question, the connection between meaning, faith and courage. It’s a very difficult thing, I find as a parent now, - what do you do? How do you teach your child in a world which is so unpredictable, in a world in which the parenting of your child is taken away from you in so many ways, not just by the educational system but by a TV set, by peer pressure, by all kinds of things? What do you begin to tell you child of what the world is about? How can you hope to succeed against all those other pressures? And I found myself at that stage, ten years ago nearly now, and embarking on that parental journey, having to make a decision in my heart that I didn’t know the answers and that the only thing that I could offer my child was what was offered to me because I had the luxury of fighting with that, of struggling with that for ten, fifteen, twenty years and that allowed me to have meaning. But what frightened me about the attitudes I was beginning to come out of then - the idea that, somehow my child could reach a certain age and make her own choices.

It seemed to me that this was a recipe for my child to becoming the hole in a doughnut, that she would look at everybody else and tolerate their views – spectate upon the carnival of belief, but would have no beliefs herself. So what I decided to do then was simply to allow, to start her off on the path that I was started on while I was thinking out the next move.

And in some ways I feel vindicated reading Fr Giussani’s book, I feel vindicated in that because he talks so much about experience, he talks so much about criticism, about interrogating the beliefs that you have been handed but about fundamentally believing in your our experience and drawing, not just from the truth, from the word but from its resonance in that experience And if I was to identity something which struck me very recently - the idea that modern ideologies which have sought to replace these truths, what they have said to us, is that the particularity of our own experience is not valid, except to the extent that it can be critiqued by the ideologies.

So, my experience was to be born in a certain room, in a certain town, in a certain time: that is my life, that is the only way I can be a human being, to live life to the full is to engage with that actual particular reality. There’s no point in me reading Karl Marx and deciding that the way I was brought up was unjust because I should have a bigger house or more carpets or a bigger TV screen/

What Fr Giussani says is that our experience that is what me must live. And we live in a world that is seeking to give us a different kind of perfection. a man made perfection which with every move seems to fragment more and more and leave us all, more and more isolated

And the strange thing about, I’ll finish with saying this about my daughter: I don’t know very often what I’m doing. I follow a pattern, I follow the tradition, to the best of my ability. I tell her what I was told. If I don’t know I point her in the right direction. We talk. And sometimes I wonder how does she equate the various things she hears, how does she deal with that split between the belief system which I now try to give her and the public square, how does she, because, you know, she watches TV, she goes to school, she learns about biology, she learns about dinosaurs and monsters. And I was one day trying to tease out with her how she was reconciling these things, because she never expresses any confusion about the dissonance between evolution and the creationism, for example. And so I said to her, I said “Roisin, how are you not confused about the idea that on the one hand Darwin says, you know, that man evolved from the apes and on the other you believe that God created And how do you reconcile the idea you know, that rather than what it tells us about Adam and Eve and so forth and Genesis and so forth, that there was actually a big bang. And she says “Yes, but who made the big bang?”

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