Don Bosco’s System of Education

For Don Bosco, the mission to educate was the fundamental reason for his existence. His biography reveals him as a true educator even from early childhood. There were early beginnings that indicated clearly the extraordinary gifts, both of nature and of grace, which later developed into the worldwide activity now so well known to all. Don Bosco put all he had into the work of education; the physical gifts of his body, the power of his genius, his personal holiness.

In the presence of the results which he achieved either by own personal efforts or through the undertakings initiated by him one cannot but pause to inquire as to the ‘professional secret’, as a result of which he stood out so mightily among the many distinguished pedagogues and educationalists who were his contemporaries. The nineteenth century was as rich as any other in eminent theorists in the field of education; a subject which was much to the fore owing to the national resurgence and the need to form the citizens of the new nation. Don Bosco became one of this select band and vied with the best in his writings. In the vastness, the complexity and the far-reaching effectiveness of his enterprises, however, he defied comparison. He stood out head and shoulders above them all.

To discover the secret of Don Bosco’s success, we must start not from what he wrote but from what he did! There were many who wrote more than he did. Their results, however, were wavering and short-lived. Don Bosco’s educative intuition was not the result of cold theory; it was the fruit of his creative personal contact inspired by an intense desire for the child’s welfare. It stemmed from a profound realization of the individual as he really exists, with all his limitations and faults, but taking into account as well his immense powers of resilience. The theoretical complications are unravelled in practice by a simple but deep understanding between the educator and his pupils.

Don Bosco had from the very beginning the instinct of education which consists in that generous love whereby an educator knows how to come down to the level of the young, take them as they are, and then, with never-ending patience, raise them up to his own height To do all this, all one needs is to win the affection of the young, but this is essential! To be feared or even respected is not enough; one must be loved! When this is achieved, and only then, will the young follow their teachers along the straight path even to the point of sacrifice. Without it, there will be opposition to what they will regard as tyranny imposed upon them from outside. Don Bosco was for ever repeating: “Every educator must win the affection of his pupil.” “The educator, once he has won the heart of his disciple, will have great influence over him.” “Let the educator strive to make himself loved if he wishes to be feared.” This “conquest of the heart” of the pupil is what Don Bosco calls ‘the principal aim’ of education, convinced, as he was that once the heart has been won, the business of a boy’s education can be considered as an absolute certain success, or well on the way to that goal.

In this way there is born the perfect harmony of education; in addition to love, there must be reason and religion. The child is most amenable to the dictates of reason. His immaturity is no obstacle to his understanding so long as reasoning is adapted to it. Rather he has the advantage over the adult, whose passions and vested interests tend often to blind him to the truth. Youth has been called ‘a fanatical searcher after truth’ and loves it sincerely.

That is why Don Bosco, with that special insight of his into the souls of the young, pointed to reason as the highway to the conquest of their hearts. “By this means,” says Don Bosco, “it is possible to arrive at a point where the child recognizes the need of punishment; nay more, he desires it; seeing here not a rigid meting out of retribution, but a kindness on the part of the educator, who offers him the chance to raise himself up, and to re-establish himself in his own eyes and in those of others.” Authority, supported by reason and not by impositions which, however just in themselves are not understood as such – this is the great educative principle to which the child submits willingly ‘with pleasure and with good results’, blossoming out into love and confidence.

“Nevertheless,” Don Bosco goes on to says “all merely human effort would fail” in greater or lesser degree, to reach the desired end unless integrated with supernatural help, which is of itself unfailing and comes with the practice of religion.” “Without a great deal of prayer,” says Don Bosco, “no rules would be of any use,” and, he adds, “only a Christian can hope to succeed in the application of the Preventive System.” That is why frequent Communion, Confession and Daily Mass are the pillars that hold together the structure of any system of education that would dispense with threats and the whip.

It is easy, therefore, to understand why Don Bosco chose to name his system of education the ‘Preventive System’. What he desired was not merely external discipline by force of ‘threats and the whip’, which, in any event, has no formative value where the conscience is concerned. No, his idea was to persuade the boys to want to be good: he wanted discipline to come from within, not from without. Hence Don Bosco was not greatly put out by faults of levity proper to youth and to inconstancy; neither was he dismayed by noise or high spirits. “Let them,” he wrote, ” jump about, run around and make as much noise as they like. Physical exercises, music, recitations, theatricals, hiking, etc, are powerful means of discipline, morality and health.” Providing boys with healthy outlets for their surplus energy is the best way to “prevent” faults: not giving them, that is, time to think about committing them. This surely is of far greater educational value than mere repression or the infliction of a penalty for evil already done, and which is not likely to benefit the delinquent in any way.