Catching flies with St. John Bosco

The crisis is clear: A growing societal breakdown is bringing up a breed of young barbarians who surf the web and spurn the world in the name of a nameless, nihilistic, narcissism.

The cure is less clear. Responses to renegade youth culture tend toward punishment and stricter rules, implementing a severity commensurate with the gravity at hand. Although such measures are sometimes necessary and often effective, charity and wisdom challenge that teenagers be given an environment where civility and moral virtue can realistically be expected to thrive. Saint John Bosco (Aug. 16, 1815-Jan. 31, 1888) achieved just such an environment by providing youth with an education that was, in his words, reasonable, religious, and kind.

Though a master of education, John Bosco was widely deemed a madman as he roamed Turin, a disheveled priest with an entourage of disheveled ragamuffins. There he came, his appearance heralded by the clamor that always accompanied him, smiling in a scruffy cassock at the center of a rowdy vagabond crowd—joyful, one and all. And there he went, his Wandering Oratory booted from place to place with hundreds who looked to him for support and succor. These were the sons of Don Bosco, whom they loved as a father as they wandered blithely together, looking for refuge where they could play, learn, and pray—where they could educate and be educated.

Don Bosco followed St. Francis de Sales’ words in his educational strategy: “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” Hence, Bosco’s educational strategy focused on his tremendous love for youth and the Salesian spirit of understanding. His techniques consisted chiefly in supervision with the aim of building character and guarding against harmful influences: The conjunction of vigilance and affection was designed to prevent infractions rather than punish them. “This system,” the saint wrote, “is based entirely on reason, religion, and kindness.”

Reason. One of the defects of modern education is that, although students are offered a wealth of information, they are seldom taught to think independently or to express their thoughts clearly. This concerning defect in mental formation exists because it is not a concern of modern education. An unreasonable profusion of subjects weakens the reason. The first element of the Salesian educational system fosters reason by seeking to understand young people and how young people learn while fostering the ability to communicate with them.

Such affirmative efforts supply the emotional and psychological needs of the young. These needs are attained by the confidence generated through this interpersonal relationship between pupils and teachers, the latter of whom, in Bosco’s words, are like “loving fathers” encouraging and praising at the proper moment. The Salesian method seeks to minimize the negative effects of the generation gap by fostering the proper balance between authority and permissiveness, blending freedom with responsibility.

Religion. Even Catholic schools are not immune from the academic, cultural, and moral degradation observable in their profane counterparts. Casual Catholicism is the norm as America grows increasingly godless. What else can be expected when secularism, materialism, and relativism rule the wasteland where youth goes astray? Only love of God can overthrow evil and offer the overflowing cup.

Great emphasis is placed, therefore, on the second pillar: religion. The message of the Gospel is an integral, indispensable part of education since the Good News is the light that leads through shadow. Today, that light is obscured by oppressive systems and materialistic values, by cynicism and sarcasm. These negative cultural factors touch the young with force. Corruption in government, collapse in families, and disregard for moral restraint are realities that wreak havoc on the development of youth. The remedy is religion, which governs the actions of the young and effects permanent change for the good of the individual and society.

Kindness. To reason and religion is added kindness, which creates a persuasive atmosphere where trust and communication is fostered. Kindness generates that confidence so needed by today’s youth as it invokes the first school, the home, and the first teachers, parents. Salesian educators understand this important psychological fact and develop in their schools a homely, family spirit, where all are united in a spirit of joy, love, and peace. Such attitudes must reign freely in a school according to Don Bosco, otherwise, a barrier of distrust develops, hindering any real influence for the good a teacher possesses.

Being in a position of respected and friendly authority, teachers have the potential to teach far more than their classroom discipline. They can teach virtue in all aspects of life through their example on a social and leisurely level. This sense of togetherness, sharing laughter and conversation, is central to teaching and is the fruit of a kind approach.

Youths ran to Bosco because he was not afraid of youthful vigor. Most teachers are not so brave. Bosco understood the nature and spirit of adolescence, knowing therefore the critical—and even dangerous—balance between order and disorder, between discipline and spontaneity… and the truth that nothing is so important as joy.

St. John Bosco’s outlook on education anticipated and incorporated the attitudes and aptitudes of boys. Recreation was rowdy under his leadership, so it was recreational. Education was exciting under his tutelage, and so it was educational.

Don Bosco was a powerful teacher because he was willing to appreciate and accept the flies, the souls, who flew to him, harmonizing the wisdom of grace with the wildness of youth. In short, he was a great saint because he was willing to be a little savage, bringing the love of God into the frolicsome fray of childhood as a friend and fellow; and he was loved not simply because he loved, but because he showed his love in the unquestionable colors of reason, religion, and kindness.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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