Auld Lang Syne

Monday, June 20, 2011

reading: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

I think there may be a number of posts on this one, though I promise not to beat up my readers with an abundance, need I say a flood of them.

I started reading this text yesterday (in the car on the way home from dropping our grandson Christopher at his college). I borrowed this book, a collection of essays by John Henry Newman,(Frank M. Turner, ed.), and was engaged immediately by the ideas Newman expressed about liberal (read liberal arts) education and literature and the notion of religious education.

To be sure, this book, meant to foster the spiritual education of Catholics along with their secular education, has a decidedly religious character. If you want to stop reading this post because that is offensive to you, go ahead. Come back tomorrow when the topic will be something decidedly poetic.

I do, however, feel the necessity to post on this topic FOR myself and those who are interested. I believe that, even for nonCatholics, it is a good read because of how Newman explains and explores the differences between focused, job-seeking education and a deeper knowledge-seeking education. I am only just scratching the surface at this point, but will report back from time to time on what I discover and how my own ideas fit or don't. You might just open up to a few ideas that ring bells in YOUR head too and not be put off by the parochiality herein.

What initially struck me was that the worries Newman expressed about how universities fail to be transformative on a broader basis are some of the very concerns we have now in terms of how universities function and how they succeed or don't in preparing their students for the world ahead. (Add "colleges" here as Newman did not delineate between the two— remember he wrote his series of essays in the mid to late 1800s.) The concerns we face now beg the argument of whether college is even necessary or is worth the huge money it takes to acquire a college degree. We wonder if jobs will be available for graduates or where those jobs will be found. We worry about getting a leg up on other graduates for the fewer jobs that seem to be there. Newman's issues circled the job vs human citizenship (and the question of morality). Is the question of university tied to dollars or to morality? Is the coin being flipped here two-sided or heads-only with little hope for wholeness?

So we are still fighting the battles fought in the mid nineteenth century. Hmmm. Why are we not making better progress? Have we indeed sunk to new lows? Remember as you read this blog entry that this text by Newman is from an entirely Catholic perspective and notably biased in this respect. But if you read between the parochial lines, you may find that many of his basic ideas work for others in sheer force of the virtues of goodness and civility.

Please note that when he speaks of "fallen" human beings, one may choose to read this as if surveying the local news or watching TV, hearing of people who commit social and moral evils. One does not have to believe in "sin" from a religious construct to be able to make a connection to evil in the world. We'd all likely agree that Osama bin Laden was the personification of evil, like Sadam Hussein, like Hitler and the Nazis. We also hear too often of parents taking the lives of their own children, and might read that as "local" evil. So, in that respect, one might read Newman's text in the light of modern criminal trends. One might question if our focus on crime and punishment is a factor which has lead directly to the  highly carceral society we have in the US, with far more people incarcerated that any other country in the world. We need to ask if education, liberal education in specific, can make a difference? Newman believes so, and wrote most eloquently about this.

I quote from the intro (by the editor, Frank M. Turner):

Newman sees the university as a human institution that may and should produce [persons] of broad knowledge, critical intelligence, moral decency, and social sensitivity... (Turner xv.)

and later:

Newman urges a maximally expansive view of the knowledge that should be present in a university while warning that such knowledge must not displace in the human imagination the necessity for receiving religious truth... to produce persons capable of active contributions to society, the university must educate them in history and literature, from which they will be exposed to the recored of the moral evil of fallen human beings. They should also become familiar with the physical sciences, which if pursued too exclusively will lead to an indifference to religion. (xvi.)

So what we have here is a now-classic clash (or at least controversy) between organized religion and secular behaviors and ideas. I think that no matter what side of the fence one might inhabit, it is a healthy discussion to be having. With a surge in religious fervor (real or politically engendered), we need to be well-informed as to the ideologies or proffered arguments of those who are making them. I look forward to a deep read of this text to see where I land. My pluralistic brain is revved up and ready to roll.

From his discourse "Knowledge in Relation to Learning, Newman says this:

And now if I may take for granted that the true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University is not Learning or Acquirement, but rather is Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge, or what may be called Philosophy, I shall be in a position to explain the various mistakes which at the present day beset the subject of University Education. (Discourse 6, #6, p.101) 


...if we would improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level; we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them. It matters not whether our field of operation be wide or limited; in every case, to command it, is to mount above it. (Discourse 6, #6, p.101)

This is fascinating stuff. We need to be in command by way of Thought and Reason. I'm good with that.

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