Education is a Matter of the Heart

On January 31st, we celebrate the feast day of St. John Bosco, whose words, Remember, Education is a Matter of the Heart, are a credo of educators around the world.

Don Bosco, as he was known, was a nineteenth century Italian priest who dedicated his life to the education of young people, particularly those living in poverty. As a young priest, he founded the now worldwide order of Salesian priests and brothers to serve the poor boys of Turin in an industrializing Italy and worked with St. Mary Mazzarello to form the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians to perform similar work for young girls. He is regarded, among other things, as the patron saint of apprentices, schoolchildren, juvenile delinquents, and magicians.

Don Bosco’s philosophy of education, which he labelled the Preventive System, is based on reason, religion, and kindness. It is a philosophy that very much views education as a process that encompasses the whole child.

It begins with ensuring that the most basic needs of the child are being met.

It involves creating a safe environment in which a child can thrive and grow and learn.

The environment is also a vigilant one in which expectations are known, temptations and opportunities to stray are minimized, and forewarning to prevent an imminent problem is viewed as far superior to punishment to correct a behavior after it has occurred.

It is a philosophy that requires educators, and really all school staff, to have discerned that their vocation revolves around supporting children.

Religion was at the center of Don Bosco’s life and his philosophy of education, but he understood and made it clear that religion was not something that could be forced on students. If I wanted to generalize his philosophy of education beyond religion, I could argue that the keys were having a set of core values and beliefs, the sense of belonging, and the knowledge that you were part of something bigger than yourself.

Don Bosco viewed a primary purpose of education as preparing children to be successful in life. His curriculum included life skills, social skills, and of course, vocational skills. When my father taught at Don Bosco Tech in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional trades of building construction, carpentry, graphic arts, and printing that were present in Don Bosco’s days had been supplemented by offerings in electricity and electronics. When I joined the faculty in the 1980s, the school already had programs centered around Wang word processors and was installing its first DEC Vax mini-computer and computer science program.

Don Bosco understood the importance of the arts and physical education, stating “Give them ample liberty to jump, run, make a din as much as they please. Gymnastics, music, declamation (of poems, etc.), theatricals, hikes, are very effective methods for getting discipline; they favour good living and good health.

Finally, at a very early age, Don Bosco learned the importance of engaging your audience before attempting to instruct them, of meeting them where they are. As I noted above, he is the patron saint of magicians as well as schoolchildren. As a young boy, he watched and learned from jugglers and other performers. He quickly learned how to use these skills to draw people in with a performance before ending with prayer, his interpretation of the Sunday sermon, or other lesson.

Why write about Don Bosco?

Why write about an Italian priest who lived in the 1800s, even if the order he founded today serves over 1 million students through 4,400 schools and vocational training centers in 132 countries?

It’s not that his philosophy of education is particularly innovative.  In fact, I hope that most people reading this post find that the ideas described above feel quite familiar.

If it was the religious angle that I was after, Don Bosco is not the only patron saint of schoolchildren or education-related matters. In fact, there is  litany of school saints as well as litanies compiled specifically for teachers and students. Which is fine, because those of us who have discerned that education is our vocation can use all the prayers and other support that we can get.  And in a way, it is comforting, inspiring, and validating to know that literally we are in the company of saints as we do our best to find a way to help improve the lives and learning of young children.

I am not sure whether there is a patron saint of psychometricians. There is, however, a patron saint of psychologists, St. Dymphna, and a patron saint of students taking tests, St. Joseph of Cupertino. In a pinch, I guess psychometricians can always fall back on St. Jude.  But I digress.

If I wanted to tell a similar story that was more current, centered in the United States, and perhaps had fewer religious overtones I could have written about Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town. I probably could have written a very similar post focused on the work of Geoffrey Canada or the KIPP schools. I could write about Erin Gruwell or even Sol Kahn. And I’m sure that there are hundreds, no thousands, of inspirational stories being played out every day in small schools and with individual teachers. There are lots of stories to tell and that is a good thing. It gives me hope.

But I chose to write about Don Bosco this week because my connection with Don Bosco and the Salesians of Don Bosco is personal.  As I mentioned above, both my father and I taught at Don Bosco Tech in Boston. And as I described in a previous post, it was a coaching position at Don Bosco Technical High School in Boston in the late 1950s that brought my father from the shoe factory to the classroom; and the selfless advice of the Salesian priest who was director of the school at the time that led my father to set aside coaching to pursue a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, obtain his teaching certification, and embark on a 40-year career in public education. Although he stopped teaching at Don Bosco Tech in 1967,  Don Bosco and the school was always a part of his life. When it was my turn to enter the classroom as a mathematics teacher in the fall of 1981, I too, was welcomed into a position at Don Bosco Tech, and was mentored by one of my father’s former students. And when Lisa and I were married in 1984, it was the director of the school who officiated at our wedding.

So, I write about Don Bosco this week because he holds a special place in my heart. And his feast day is an annual reminder to always remember that education, first and foremost, is a matter of the heart.


Header image by Jeong Eun Lee from Pixabay
Final image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

%d bloggers like this: