Saint John Bosco is famous for being a great educational reformer, yet he would probably not point to education as his success story. I imagine he would point to specific boys and share their stories. Knowing “his boys” was an integral piece of Saint John Bosco’s educational philosophy.
I stumbled upon Saint John Bosco’s educational philosophy providentially. I was not happy with any discipline system I tried in the classroom—all were from a negative perspective. I desired a classroom that was friendly and trusting, one that was open so I would not have to worry about what my students were doing in secret. I looked to the great Saint educators like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and Saint Katherine Drexel—and a quick internet search led to the book The Educational Philosophy of Saint John Bosco. (Sadly, the book is out of print, but there are used copies available.) I was hooked, both by Saint John Bosco himself and by the way he interacted with his students. I think his philosophy is not limited to the classroom; it’s appropriate for parenting, friendship, and even the workplace.
The Preventative System
Saint John Bosco stumbled into being an educational leader. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution in Turin, he saw how many young boys were ending up in prison. He wanted to prevent this from happening, and headed out into the streets to meet the boys and young men where they were. He “hooked” them first with his skills of juggling and acrobatics, then shared the Gospel with them. His outreach grew into finding proper housing, then education for his boys. His work reached thousands of boys, and provided housing for eight hundred of them, with the help of Saint John Bosco’s mother.
Saint John Bosco’s educational philosophy is called the “Preventive System.” It centers on reason, religion, and kindness. It focuses on knowing the child so well as to prevent discipline, and instead forms and encourages self-discipline.
How Did Saint John Bosco Teach?
Perhaps it’s better to introduce it in Saint John Bosco’s own words and as described by his own contemporaries:
In John Bosco’s own words:
“Boys should be guided and corrected but not by aloof superiors.”
“Without confidence and love, there can be no true education.”
“Behave in such a way that all those who speak to you may become your friends.”
“You asked for advice. Here it is:
- When you have to correct someone in particular, never do so in the presence of others.
- When you give advice or counsel always try to send the person away satisfied and still friendly to you.
- Always thank those who admonish you and take their corrections in good part.
“Question, question, question, over and over again. The more the pupil is made to talk the more he will profit from his schooling.”
“Think of them as your brothers; kindness, understanding, and patience are the keys to their hearts.”
He loved to quote Saint Philip Neri: “Run, jump, have all the fun you want at the right time, but for heaven’s sake, do not commit sin!”
“A warm welcome is what, above all, attracts boys. To obtain good results in educating youngsters, one must find a way first to win their love, then they will fear to displease him.”
“Be quick to forgive—and do so wholeheartedly . . . When a punishment is unavoidable, take your pupil aside and show him his wrong as well as your regret at having to punish him.”
“If you have to give any correction, do it privately, in secret, and with the greatest sweetness.”
Saint John Bosco as Described by His Contemporaries
Saint John Bosco “was friendly and affable, avoiding a formalism and a rigorism which erect a wall between superior and subject. His authority inspired respect, confidence and love . . . This was a mode of operation that enabled an educator to discover his pupils’ temperament, wield it prudently, and unlock its hidden energies.”
“Humble as he was, he acted amiably with both rich and poor. He refrained from giving orders, even to his boys. His usual approach was: ‘Would you please do this or that?’”
He “knew them all individually by name and surname . . . even though the number of boys he dealt with, whether boarders or day students, ran into the thousands.”
“He was firmly convinced that to educate boys one must find the way to their hearts.”
Saint John Bosco’s Educational Philosophy
“Friendliness and affability, based on patience, self-control, self-denial, and love of his fellow man were to be characteristics of the Christian educator.”
“Discipline was based on mutual trust between the teacher and taught . . . His work was useless if he failed to win the confidence and love of the educand; education was a failure if the youth did not place his trust in the educator. “
“The methods of correction were said to be effective because they appealed to the conscience and not to fear of reprimands or punishments.”
“In the ‘pedagogy of confidence’ the teacher was expected to become interested in those things which interested the pupils. “Perhaps the most demanding aspect of the preventative system, in which the educator continually present among his students, involved himself in their world; they in turn adopting his because they were aware of his love for, and interest in, them.”
The Mission of the Soul
For John Bosco each life was his mission, he knew he was about the salvation of that soul.
He considered the primary duty of the teacher (and anyone really) is to bring Christ to that person. My classroom, and I myself, transformed as I worked to implement the philosophy of Saint. John Bosco. I found I was able to connect with my students in a Christ-centered way, and it led to deep conversations and relationships with their families. I experienced what Saint John Bosco said about his work: “How many wonders had the Lord wrought in our midst!”