Don Bosco

The Salesian educational experience in the history of education in Italy and in Europe

The Salesian educational experience
in the history of education in Italy and in Europe

Prof. Giorgio Chiosso,
University of Turin


In the fourth century or so between Don Bosco's last years and the end of the Rectorate of Fr Rua, the Salesian educational and pedagogical culture was covered by a twofold phenomenon, one more manifest and entirely internal to the Salesian Society and one instead still only incipient, but already worthy of attention and destined to be more evident starting from the 1920s. 
As far as the first point is concerned, the awareness on the part of the heirs closest to the founder became increasingly clearer and, at the same time, witnesses to a great educational experience, interpreted and lived as the renewed expression of the Christian pedagogical tradition. It appeared to be equipped with all the elements necessary to know how to confront the expectations and needs of "modern times".

In prolonging the founder's indications without hesitation, it was a matter of integrating it with new operational tools and perfecting it on a cultural level. The re-proposal of the preventive practice intertwined with significant changes in terms of custom and lifestyles, with the impressive growth of the Salesian Society and the concomitant fear of losing, alongside the "family" dimension of the years of con Bosco, also the peculiarity of the educational system. 
The second event concerns the reading of the educational experience of Salesians outside the Congregation with a growing appreciation not only of charitable-assistance aspects, but also of those more specifically pedagogical. In the 1920s the definitive customs clearance of Don Bosco took place: the Salesian educational model was read as able to provide general educational answers and not only restricted within the confines of the congregation and the Church.


If we look at the pedagogical texts of the end of the century, the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians are still seen as congregations dedicated above all to the assistance of young people. It is no coincidence that the founder is mostly approached with other young people's benefactors such as the Veronese Don Nicola Mazza, the Milanese Paolo Marchiondi, the Neapolitan Father Ludovico da Casoria, in some cases even at Cottolengo.

A little later the scenery changes. Scholars such as the German pedagogue Wilhem Förster, the Spanish Jesuit Ramon Ruiz Amado and the Viennese sociologist Heinrich Swoboda and excellent communicators such as the writers Joannes Jörgensen, Danish, Joris-Karl Huysmans, French, and the Italian journalist Filippo Crispolti, already before the Great War they appreciate Salesian pedagogy as an educational device capable of responding in particular to the needs of the popular classes, marked by gentleness and conviction rather than imposing authority and forming a firm and coherent will.

The attention paid by these scholars documents an attention that by now goes beyond the national horizon; this fact is certainly to be related to the growing internationalization of the Salesian congregation.

Naturally, Italy remains the place of greatest pedagogical presence and where there are more awards. Immediately after the war, Italian educationalists Giuseppe Lombardo Radice and Giovanni Vidari attribute an explicit pedagogical value to the preventive system, capable of opposing illuministic-positivistic educational theories. Ascended to the direction of the elementary school in 1922, Lombardo Radice did not hesitate to point him out, in the programs for the elementary school of the following year, as a "wonderful model to imitate". In 1925 Don Bosco was included in the list of authors indicated by the ministerial programs for the magistral institutes alongside the major Italian and foreign educators.

To these certificates that legitimize the preventive system on the side of secular culture corresponds a more precise attention within the Congregation to the need to have a pedagogy not only based on experience. Indeed Don Bosco himself had already felt this need in part with the drafting of the 1877 pamphlet. 
How can the increase in public esteem and the pedagogical recognition of the Salesian scientific experience be explained? The answer touches on both general questions and those that are more internal to Salesian life. 
With the passing of the years and the multiplication of experiences, the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians were more and more perceived as educators particularly suitable and experienced, able to take care of young people perceived as "different" from those of the past for various reasons: more education expanse, industrial work, the spread of new entertainment and sport as a practice and as consumption.

The anti-positivist turn of the early twentieth century culture facilitated the disposition to appreciate the educational commitment of Catholics. In a very special way, the active conception of the Salesians' own free time as a privileged space for education seemed to constitute a particularly coherent response and suitable for positive channeling of youth energies. It is no coincidence that secular educational circles in turn attempted, without really great luck, to open up the "recreationists" in an explicitly competitive form with the Oratorian model of Catholics.
It can be said that with the advent of the new century the Salesians are increasingly seen as "the" congregation of young people. This explains the uninterrupted flow of benefactors who, far beyond the death of the founder, continued to support the works.

In the then intensely nationalistic climate of the early twentieth century, the sons of Don Bosco as educators of young people are associated with a bit of patriotic pride with the efficacy of an education sprouted in the womb of an Italian made of simple values ​​rooted in popular sensibility.


These external reasons are combined with efforts to deepen the preventive practice in the undisputed loyalty to the original approach.   
To be completely right, it is necessary to direct the inquiry towards some Salesian personalities particularly involved in reflection and educational action: Francesco Cerruti, Giulio Barberis, Giuseppe Bertello, Albino Carmagnola, Eugenio Ceria, Carlo Maria Baratta, Stefano Trione and, more late, Vincenzo Cimatti and Antonio Cojazzi.

Francesco Cerruti was the great organizer of the Salesian schools as "school counselor" for over thirty years and he, a man of vast culture, a convinced classicist, is also responsible for the first attempts at systematic elaboration of Salesian pedagogy. Giulio Barberis was involved for a long time in the training of young clerics for whom he compiled a dispensation which, alongside Cerruti's writings, is considered as one of the first fruits of post-Bosnian pedagogical reflection, even if it is not a particularly original work. Don Giuseppe Bertello worked in the field of professional education where he made a great modernizing effort. These three Salesians held important positions at the top of the congregation for a long time.
Don Carmagnola was the author of educational papers of good dissemination for families, educators and priests. Eugenio Ceria joined efforts, alongside Don Cerruti, in defense of the classical school; Carlo Maria Baratta was a leading figure in the field of social commitment and dissemination and agrarian education. The name of Don Stefano Trione is associated with an intense activity in the Oratorian field and Don Cimatti alternated musical interests and pedagogical studies. Del Cojazzi will be mentioned later.
Their biographies are united by several reasons: first of all from the fact that they were direct witnesses - or indirect witnesses, but in any case in close contact with the original source - of events worthy of being handed down in their integrity and purity. The preventive system before being a written delivered to the press is an experience lived directly and of whose effectiveness and validity it has been direct witnesses.

A second common factor is the concordant critical judgment expressed towards the society of the time, a judgment associated with the certainty of having an infallible compass against the evil produced by irreligiousness. In keeping with this all-centered reading on the antinomy, without nuances, "good / evil", the pedagogical culture of Don Bosco's disciples is generally argued according to a predetermined thesis and simply to be confirmed.
A third cross-section is the common humanistic-based cultural formation. Pressed by the need to possess the legal qualifications to teach and direct schools, they turned to courses of study of a literary-philosophical or theological type.

It is therefore not surprising that their privileged references go to the authors of ancient classicism, to the Fathers of the Church and to Christian educators rather than to the protagonists of the contemporary pedagogical debate. Profane authors are remembered only when they are useful in confirming and reinforcing a principle, an evidence, a teaching.

Challenged by pedagogical modernity, Don Bosco's disciples, on the one hand, relied on the millennial wisdom of the Church, on Christian reflection and on the experiences conducted by the great Christian educators, on the other they felt the need, however, to strengthen a well-established "educational experience" , also in a theoretical perspective. Fidelity to Don Bosco's preventive system is combined with the effort to ensure him a more explicit pedagogical physiognomy, almost as if he wanted to strengthen his credibility and affirm its permanent validity. It sought to appeal to all, believers and non-believers, in the certainty of having a tried and tested method because it was capable of speaking first of all to man.

In this reading, an apologetic motif (the validity of a method measured on its correspondence to a tradition) and a promotional one (an education that in the rigorous fidelity to the Christian fundamentum is nevertheless useful to the whole society) crossed . It is also in this capacity to fit into the interstices opened by prejudicially areligious or irreligious educational practices - which arouse mistrust even in secular circles - that the Salesians manage to gain the trust of families and many public administrators. 
            Consistent with this strategy, the Superiors felt the need to define in a more precise way the meaning of the preventive system, not so much in terms of the statements of principle as already clearly stated in the 1877 pamphlet, but in their practical implications.

The question of the right interpretation and implementation of the preventive system absorbed a lot of energy and extended over many years. On the one hand, it was a matter of correcting concrete practices where they were ignored due to ignorance or applied improperly to distorted knowledge and, on the other, there was a need to enhance it as a precious treasure. This is not the place for a precise reconstruction - in part, however, already carried out - of the many initiatives and the numerous recommendations with which the Superiors proceeded, amid considerable difficulties (taking into account the rapid and notable expansion of initiatives beyond national borders and the shortage of personnel), to pursue the objective of preventive educational practice. I will only mention the problem.  


Between the beginning of the 1920s and the end of the Second World War (in Salesian history corresponding to the rectorates of Don Rinaldi and of Don Ricaldone) a historical period full of complex and, in many respects, dramatic choices for the Salesian congregation developed. . First of all, the political and educational consequences of the assertion of totalitarianisms in Italy and Germany and the policies undertaken by these two regimes in the scholastic and youth field must obviously be recalled. 
As both Fascism and Nazism are known, they aspire to create the "new man" - the presupposition of a social and political "new order" - relying on a naturalistic vitalism from which the religious dimension is substantially excluded. Among the primary objectives of the two regimes is the interest in the education of a "new youth" to be shaped not only by the school whose programs are oriented towards the totalitarian state, but to be regimented by alternative youth organizations to those of the Church.

It will be well to keep in mind that the coordinates of the fascist and Nazi "new man" - only in the post-war period will the ideology of the "new man" of communism be strongly tested by the Salesians in Eastern Europe - are they characterized according to educational prospects only different, but antagonistic to the principles of Christian education. The ideology of the "new man" is all earthly, excludes an "other" horizon, is centered on a youth in which the ideal of a daring life and the expectations of a radiant future merge. Its main characteristics are represented by the passion for action, the mystical sense of duty, the dedication to the cause to the supreme sacrifice, the cult of physical and sexual power, the unlimited confidence in man's ability to imprint an indelible trace in history.

It should also be pointed out that while in fascism there is at least a formal respect for religion and its manifestations, in Nazism the plant can be traced back to explicitly neo-pagan forms of life. These principles are accompanied by the conviction - typical of the so-called theories of social Darwinism - that there are superior races destined to excel and dominate those that are presumably inferior.

These historical events are accompanied by the diffusion of a prevalent pedagogical culture in Europe elaborated in study centers mainly located in Switzerland and Belgium - the US influence is still not felt - characterized by a marked anthropological naturalism against which the letter is clearly expressed encyclical Divini illius magistri. The document, in addition to denouncing the tendency to scholastic statism that reduces the spaces of family education and the Church, condemns the attempt to create "a universal moral code of education" regardless of the Gospel and the "same natural law of conscience" , the claim to reduce to natural psychological laws "the supernatural facts concerning education" and invites the masters not to abandon what the Christian tradition has produced over the centuries "proven good and effective by the experience of several centuries".
It is precisely within these two great scenarios - the affirmation of totalitarianism and the spread of naturalistic pedagogical principles with the relative reaction of the Catholic pedagogical culture - that the educational action and pedagogical reflection of the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians should be investigated. This complex scenario requires to be investigated from different points of view that we present separately in the paragraphs below but to be read in hypertext.


The Italian reality . The 1920s were particularly favorable for the further recognition of the educational role exercised by the Salesians, despite the incipient initiative of fascism which, especially starting from 1925, undertook a vigorous policy of intervention in the youth, male and female, especially with the National Opera Balilla that the Catholic world discounts with the dissolution of the scout groups and the attempt to "lock up Catholic Action in the parish".

In the early years of the regime, at least until 1929, the congregation's behavior was marked by reserve and prudence on the line to follow, but even without yielding to the rather explicit expression of the superiors “do not let others come to command or direct in our house ”. After 1929, the year marked by two historical passages of fundamental importance (on February 11 the Reconciliation between State and Church and June 2 the beatification of Don Bosco), we are witnessing the attempt by fascism to make Don Bosco the "most holy of Italian saints ”, to the participation of youth of speakers and colleges in the most significant occasions of the Fatherland and of Fascism and to real failures on some aspects of school politics that came back useful for the recognition of Salesian institutes. 
This controversial attitude - on which it would be unfair to make Manichaean judgments and which demands interpretative prudence without denying the ambiguous aspects, which are mostly external in nature - is accompanied by the considerable increase in studies by non-Salesian scholars following the decision in 1925 to insert, despite the explicit critical reserve of Giovanni Gentile, Don Bosco among the authors included in the teaching programs of the magistral institutes. The Salesians are, in turn, driven to a more in-depth reflection on the origin and nature of the preventive method.

However, the superiors, starting from the Rector Major Filippo Rinaldi, preferred to continue to hand it down more on the basis of the experience gained through the decades than to support it also through a theoretical reflection. The major critics of Don Bosco (Gentile and his students) and Salesian superiors end up finding themselves exactly on opposite positions: the former, while appreciating the educational capacity of the Salesians, nevertheless complain about the pedagogical poverty of the preventive system; the latter strive to conserve it in its original empiricism for fear of its "intellectualistic" payback due to its proven practical effectiveness.
Urgent invitations come from "Civiltà Cattolica" and from the major Catholic educationalist of those years, Mario Casotti so that the Salesians do not rely only on an experiential pedagogy, but also deepen their cultural presuppositions. The first and important contribution in this sense is an anthology edited by Don Fascie that appeared in 1927, a text of certain interest but still quite occasional.

The purpose of the Catholic University lecturer is to recover the valuable experience of the Salesians also in relation to the strengthening of Catholic pedagogy in an anti-naturalist function whose first nuclei are being set up in Milan around the same Casotti and in Padua with Luigi Stefanini, this last historical collaborator of the Salesian publishing house Sei. In some essays of 1933 Casotti presented - not without some apologetic yielding - the preventive system as able to compete with the most advanced pedagogical methods theorized by the supporters of the "active school".

It will, however, be necessary to wait until the 1940s for pedagogical studies to find more positive and broader acceptance in the Salesian congregation thanks to the impulse of Don Pietro Ricaldone.

The latter has the merit of having started the creation of the Salesian University and having foreseen, starting from 1941, the opening of the Institute of Pedagogy, the first step of the future Faculty of Education Sciences of the Salesian University. In 1954, in line with what was already hoped for by Fr Ricaldone himself in 1947, the International Pedagogical Institute in Turin will be inaugurated for the formation of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. And to the same Ricaldone the great effort must be recognized for the relaunch of a catechesis adequate to the times (the so-called "catechetical Crusade").  


The Divini Illius Magistri and Christian education . We have already indicated the main features of the encyclical published at the end of 1929 (defense of the rights of the family and of the Church in educating young people against statist tendencies and strong denunciation of pedagogical naturalism) with respect to which the Catholic world reacts both theoretically both in terms of educational experiences. In the first area it is sufficient to recall the fundamental writings of Jacques Maritain (France), Frans De Hovre (Belgium) and Eugène Devaud (Switzerland) and the "humanistic" theses of the authors who, against the risk of a psycho-sociological drift of pedagogy, claim the importance of the studia humanitatisand, through these, the irreplaceable importance of the teaching of Christianity (see the cenacle of the University of Chicago, in Italy Giovanni Calò).

            The Salesian world interprets the educational encyclical of Pope Pius XI as the depositary of an original educational model to remain faithful and to replicate in the various contexts in which it is activated: first of all the oratory and then, the school, the boarding schools, the craft workshops, welfare institutions, nursery schools, girls' schools, etc. This model is the one traced by Don Bosco, aimed at the formation of "good Christians" and "honest citizens", whose plot both for its supernatural justification and for the contents proper to human formation is irreducibly alternative both to naturalistic pedagogies and to the educational forms pursued by totalitarian models.

A certain prudence can be grasped to depart from the by now consolidated tradition even if, for example, Salesian works are no longer only centered on the oratory and on professional training, but involve a wide spectrum of educational realities. There is a certain retreat on the religious dimension in line with the overall attitude of the Catholic world: the pages of the "Salesian Bulletin" are very significant in this regard. The great themes that chase each other are the celebration of the sanctity of Don Bosco, the closeness to the popular classes and the aspiration to improve the conditions of the children, the effort to strengthen the organization (especially with a strong appreciation of the cooperators) and the missionary enterprises . Any reference not only political but also social disappears.
The educational principles outlined by Don Bosco remain intact and the external compromises do not pollute the substance of Salesian pedagogy. To this end, the line expressed by Don Antonio Cojazzi on the "Rivista dei giovani" entirely focused on the formation of the Christian fortress, alternative to the heroic and militaristic celebration of fascism and Nazism, can be considered indicative of a common feeling. The essential points of Christian strength, to be exercised through the education of the will, are the sacramental custom, the apostolate, purity, sensitivity towards missions. We are therefore abysmally far from the celebration of war heroism, from the cult of the "beautiful death", from the exaltation of physical strength. 
            The "honest citizen" is identified in the person who is able to fit in an orderly and industrious way into society, through work so as not to be a loafer in adult life. Strict attention to the commitment of the child is one of the reasons, together with the disciplinary and moral one, which can also involve leaving the college. Even at this level, if all traces of pre-political education disappear (as was the case until the advent of fascism), no temptation to align with the imperialist and warlike ideology is captured. Indeed it will be precisely the ridge of the Ethiopian war that, together with the hateful racial laws and the alliance with Germany, will represent the transition to a greater distance towards fascism. 


Female education . Another interesting observatory to grasp the trajectory of Salesian education between the two wars is the guidelines of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.

In the first decades of the century, the condition of women in the Western world changed significantly for widely known reasons: increased education, the spread of female labor, circulation of press and shows specifically aimed at women, access to sporting activities, all factors that produced a certain emancipatory air in lifestyles conveyed especially through film models and the so-called "pink print". In Italy these changes are more evident in the northern regions where female labor is more widespread.

            Salesian feminine pedagogy oscillates between traditional persistence and cautious openings to novelties, however, induced more by the circumstances that are intentionally sought. The impression is that in the development of educational practices we weigh in a decisive way a negative reading of the changes underway. The result is the option for an educational model centered on proven and very formalized rules of life that included specific behaviors such as the most convenient types of clothes, the renunciation of "modern entertainment" (dance, cinema, holidays), affective uprightness, etc. .

There is a concern to safeguard the values ​​expressed by the popular classes that seemed to be affected by the modernization of lifestyles, especially urban ones. Despite being aware of the risks that could be run in the workplace, women religious never opposed the inclusion of girls in the female world of work and strove to accompany them by offering opportunities for professional qualification, attempting a difficult synthesis between the dimension domestic and social.

Sharing the life of the popular classes appears to be a constant feature in the choices of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. Finally, a preferential choice, as regards Italy, where the largest number of religious is concentrated - in addition to vocational schools - is aimed at schools and magistral institutes meeting the expectations of modest but desirous families to let daughters study. The formation of childhood educators and elementary teachers is part of a comprehensive strategy of the Catholic world to protect the public school in order to ensure teachers who are religiously educated.  


Salesians and "difficult " situations . Although we must take into account the strong weight exercised by the superiors of Turin with regard to educational choices of both a general and organizational nature - and in this sense it is possible to identify the characteristics of a homogeneously diffused Salesian pedagogy - our analysis goes completed also in another direction. I refer to the possibility that, due to the different environmental conditions and the different historical conjunctures in which the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians operated in various European countries, different interpretations can be grasped in the interpretation of the preventive system. 
A suggestion in this sense comes from some recent contributions devoted to the analysis of specific national situations and, in particular - because conducted within an organic framework - those developed in the field of research on the so-called "difficult years" (between the 1920s / 30s dominated by right-wing totalitarianisms and the 50s / 60s with regard to Eastern Europe). They allow us to grasp the different sensitivities with which Don Bosco's model was acquired, interpreted, defended and sometimes even compromised in conditions of extreme difficulty, such as were the ones that occurred during political situations with strong anticlerical connotations or in the face of regimes. and totalitarian states.

With the prudence that is necessary when trying to generalize different behaviors and sometimes provoked by extreme situations, I think we can indicate these tendencies which constitute a common thread that holds together historical events and different protagonists of the "difficult years":
a) the strenuous defense of the originality of Don Bosco's educational teaching which is not questioned even in a small part even in the face of at times very strong pressures; in the most compromised situations there is a sort of parallel coexistence which today appears contradictory but which presumably constituted the maximum "in order not to lose everything"; we cannot forget the cry of pain recorded in the chronicle of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians of Klagenfurt on Good Friday 1942: "We have no more youth!"
b) the juridical and social flexibility with which the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians know how to try to preserve not only their material goods, but to continue to exercise their educational mission;
c) the persistent conviction of preserving the category of popularity as a characteristic trait of their charisma in the dual sense of privileged educational choices (centrality, for example, entrusted to professional training or early childhood education or to the oratory despite the limitations imposed from attempts to subject youth education to the influence of the state) and to respond to the expectations of the popular classes.