“What’s the significance of this small university? Why should someone study at the Sophia University Institute? I have three reasons that explain why this experience is unique in the academic field. As usual, the economist Stefano Zamagni was direct and articulate. On March 31st, in the Teatina Hall of the Giorgio La Pira Student International Center, he offered a series of reflections regarding the very foundations of academic education. The occasion was the “Open Day” of Sophia University Institute (IUS), which was made more meaningful by the announcement of new academic degrees being offered in the 2017-2018 academic year. The Institute, which Zamagni helped to found, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Zamagni has also founded the School for Civil Economy, which is a research experience for the development of economic theory that IUS also participates in. Zamagni introduced his reflections with a brief metaphorical story whose protagonist is an expert in time management that aims at optimizing organizational use of time.
“In order to get the attention of his audience of brilliant minds, a teacher walked into a classroom and set a glass jar on the table. He silently placed 2-inch rocks in the jar until no more could fit. He asked the class if the jar was full and they agreed it was. He said, “Really,” and pulled out a pile of small pebbles, adding them to the jar, shaking it slightly until they filled the spaces between the rocks. He asked again, “Is the jar full?” They agreed. Next, he added a scoop of sand to the jar, filling the space between the pebbles and asked the question again. This time, the class was divided, some feeling that the jar was obviously full, but others were wary of another trick.
What is the moral? He grabbed a pitcher of water and filled the jar to the brim, saying, “If this jar is your life, what does this experiment show you?” A bold student replied, “No matter how busy you think you are, you can always take on more.” “That is one view,” he replied. Then he looked out at the class making eye contact with everyone, “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life – your family, your partner, your health, fulfilling your hopes and dreams. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give it meaning, like your job, your house, your hobbies, your friendships. The sand and water represent the ‘small stuff’ that fills our time, like watching TV or running errands.” Looking out at the class again, he asked, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?”
Zamagni explained: “...at Sophia, from the beginning we have seen it as a place for a unique kind of experiment: to learn how to put the rocks first and then the sand. I am sorry to say that much too often certain programs or teaching approaches tend to give too much importance to the pebbles, to the sand, etc., with paying attention to the rocks, the important things in life. At Sophia one learns to build one’s life based on a certain order, which means putting the important things of life first, without discounting the others. This entails establishing a natural order based on truth as the criterion.”
“The second consideration,” he added, “is that today we run the risk of giving too much importance to rote learning, meaning all that knowledge that can be transferred from one mind to the other through cognitive formulas. Tacit learning gets lost, that which can be shared through interpersonal contact, characteristic of a culture based on relationships. If we value the mere learning of cognitive facts and formulas, we may find ourselves with robots teaching, who would probably do it better than many professors.
Here the professors “risk” spending too much time with the students, but in this way the university preserves its reason for being. This so-called tacit or indirect transmission of knowledge presupposes the ability of putting into play the intelligence of the heart, which contains moral sentiments. At Sophia, one can find tacit knowledge that is transmitted through relationships: the student learns as a disciple, as they had understood in ancient times, adhering to a true educational pact, on the exact model of the virtuous pact made by a doctor who is attentive to the relationship when caring for a patient.”
Zamagni concluded with an idea taken from Dante in the Purgatory of the Divine Comedy. “The third reason lies in the ability to transmit that which one loves: otherwise it’s useless for me to follow or reject a protocol, just as Dante with Virgil where the student only learns through a smile that comforts him and accompanies him on his journey. Zamagni underscored that education entails putting out a guiding hand to the other, to the student as he or she travels through anxieties and uncertainties. This is different from simple instruction that can be transmitted also at a distance. He concluded that Sophia does not offer a discounted model of study. It extends a hand to overcome the difficulties of the student, like those guiding stars that offer light.”