Prevention, not repression

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Don Bosco’s Educational System

Pietro Braido

Istituto Storico Salesiano – Rome

Studi – 11

January 1999


Don Bosco’s educational system

  1. Presentation

Don Bosco’s educational system or, more comprehensively, Don Bosco’s preventive experience, is a project: it grew, gradually expanded and became more specific in the different and various institutions and undertakings carried out by his many collaborators and disciples. Understandably, its vitality can be guaranteed in time only by being faithful to the law which governs any authentic growth: renewal, in-depth study, adaptation in continuity.

The renewal is entrusted to the persistent on-going theoretical and practical commitment of individuals and communities. Renewal never ceases. Continuity, instead, can be assured only by a keen engagement with the origins.

The aim of our rapid summary is to provoke an enlivening contact with the primitive roots of Don Bosco’s preventive experience as well as its features. Our summary has no intention of offering immediately applicable programs; we simply wish to describe essential original elements which despite their circumstances and limitations can inspire valid and credible projects now and in the future for very different contexts and settings. This is essential if the legitimate aspiration of working “with Don Bosco and with the times” is to happen without a break in continuity.

This third edition is significantly restructured and expanded; more care has been given to historical data, less space to certain flights of fancy, more light shed on things that might be useful for an inevitable revision and revitalisation, something hinted at by an updated bibliography.

September 12, 1998

Fr Pietro Braido

  1. Introduction

It seems obvious enough that the term ‘Preventive System’ as interpreted through documents left by Don Bosco, especially in the light of his and his closest helpers’ educational experience, is an adequate expression of everything he said and did as an educator. When it comes to how contemporaries of his saw it, it becomes another discussion altogether.

We need to note that the terms ‘preventive’ and ‘repressive’ are perhaps not the most appropriate ones for talking about education that implies direct, out-going activities intended to broaden the personality of the one being educated. It has happened sometimes that ‘preventive’ was understood, and still is in many places, as something that happens prior to education. As we will see further on, Antonio Rosmini and Felix Dupanloup understood ‘preventing’, ‘prevention’ as one part of the overall process of education, almost something which preconditions it. Worse still in certain literature is the understanding of the term ‘repressive’ as equivalent to being non-educational.

It will become more obvious as we proceed that the preventive and repressive systems are two real but relatively distinct educational systems. They have been practised throughout history, be it in families or institutions, in diverse ways. Both are based on plausible motives and can boast of their productive approaches and positive results. One is based on the child1 and his or her limitations of age, so on a consistent, loving ‘assistance’ on the educator’s part. The educator is present, advises, guides, supports in a paternal (or maternal) way. From this spring educational regimes with a family-style orientation. The other points more directly to the goal to be achieved and therefore tends to see the young person as the future adult. As a consequence the child is treated with this end in mind from the earliest years. From this spring more austere and demanding regimes, schools which strictly follow the rules with regard to law, relationships, or measures which stress responsibility; military-style schools and the like. In reality, for thousands of years of historical experience both theoretical and practical, the two systems have existed in profusely composite versions. Somewhere between them we find, for example, so-called ‘correctional education’, well-known in the penal world as well as the world of education and re-education. It has full legitimacy in historical, theoretical and practical terms. The Councillor of State for the Kingdom of Sardinia, Count Carlo Ilarione Petitti di Roreto (1790-1850) spoke of it with passionate commitment just as Don Bosco was arriving in Turin. We find it in the second chapter of the broad-ranging essay The current situation in prisons and ways of improving them (1840), under the title The history of correctional education and the current state of the art2. He also played an active role, as we shall see further on, with young men released from the Generala after a time of correctional education.3

At the beginning of his 1877 booklet on the Preventive System, Don Bosco himself wrote: “There are two systems that have been used through all ages in the education of youth: the Preventive and the Repressive”.4

It foreshadowed a similar distinction in his note to Francesco Crispi some months later: “There are two systems in use in the moral and civil education of youth: the repressive and the preventive. Both are applied within civil society and in houses of education”.5

Don Bosco opted for the first hypothesis and for a tradition which, probably less generalised than the other, he found more in keeping with the times and the youth he was dealing with.

From this perspective he had certainly not developed a preventive pedagogical system in theoretical terms. However, he had knowingly tried out and reflectively adopted principles, methods, means, institutions which allowed him to give young people a relatively complete human and Christian education. He offered his collaborators a unified and systematic approach to education. In fact he never understood ‘preventive’ as something purely preparatory, protective, a condition for education properly so-called or simply limited to the area of discipline or government (Regierung) which for Herbart was one of the three pillars of the art of pedagogy.

In the same booklet on the Preventive system in the education of the young, 1877, the positive educational elements clearly outstrip disciplinary and protective measures in both quality and quantity. He speaks of educators who are “loving fathers”, constantly “present” in their pupils’ lives. They speak, guide, offer advice, “lovingly correct”. The central pillars of his entire educational edifice are indicated as daily Mass and the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. “Reason, religion and loving-kindness” are considered to underpin content and method. His overall practice is inspired by the charity which St Paul praises (1 Cor. 13).

We should mention the happy intuition of the Austrian educator, Hubert Henz, who makes explicit reference to Don Bosco’s Preventive System: “The preventive approach is a way to educate that prevents the moral ruin of the pupil and the need for punishments, and demands that the educator be constantly with the pupil; total dedication to the task of education, a dynamic, complete and fully youthful existence”. The extra that he hopes for from the Preventive System is precisely what Don Bosco intended by his ‘preventive’: to make young people mature and responsible “upright citizens and good Christians”. His Preventive System “looks to this objective and is not exhausted by simply protecting or watching over”.6

On the other hand, the 1877 booklet is not the only one that speaks about the ‘Preventive System’ even if it is the first time the term was adopted. Don Bosco would return to it in word and writing during the decade that followed. But his clear ‘preventive’ mind-set on behalf of “poor and neglected [abandoned] youth”, was inspired from the earliest years of his consecration by social work on behalf of poor and neglected youth who needed to be “protected”, “saved”, beginning with ways and resources for introducing them to and helping them grow in the world of grace as well as offering a constructive effort at the level of sustenance, instruction, profession, moral and social growth.7

In the final years the ‘Preventive System’ in his writing becomes “our Preventive System” and even “the Salesian spirit”.8

This is the point of view from which this work presents Don Bosco’s pedagogical experience in a systematic way: a practical educational experience constantly integrated by reflection and real experimentation.9

This reconstruction can be found in the ten chapters in the second part of the book.

Since we are dealing with an experience and not an abstract theory, it cannot be understood without explicit reference to Don Bosco’s personality. This in turn, and the preventive concept itself, become comprehensible in the light of the context in which he worked and the long period of time over which the idea slowly matured. That is described in the eight chapters in the first part of the book.

For the sake of greater clarity the first of these is given over to a basic description of the times and places in which Don Bosco began his work and gradually developed his educational, pedagogical experience. Such a way of tackling the problem of locating Don Bosco the educator in both the short and long term comes from the belief that the ‘Preventive System’, however it might have been applied and understood in Christian tradition, does not exhaust all possible educational systems, nor does ‘Don Bosco’s Preventive System’ exhaust all possible versions of the ‘Preventive System’ itself. It is not a solitary treasure. It has distant origins, primarily in the Gospel. Future developments are no less rich in promise and outlook, if faithful to the principles and to history.

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