John Henry Newman
The nineteenth century brought many challenges to both Christianity and Christian Higher Education. There was a growing secularization in both America and Europe because of the lasting effects of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It was an age of many new isms: liberalism, rationalism, secularism, utilitarianism, and others. These ideologies impacted both the Church and Higher Education. Opposing these forces was a Christian scholar whom Jacques Barzun calls “the greatest theorist of university life,” and whose major work on education, The Idea of a University, Jaroslav Pelikan calls “the most important treatise on the idea of the university ever written in any language.”[i]
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic leadership in Ireland wanted to establish a Catholic University. “In 1851 Newman was approached about becoming the rector of this new Catholic institution. He served for seven years, the first three before the school actually began, during which time he delivered several of the lectures which were to comprise The Idea of a University.”[ii] Because of many different problems, Newman resigned in 1858. The school was not a success, but what was a great success was the “discourses and educational philosophy and lectures on university subjects that make up The Idea of a University. There he argues both for liberal learning (as opposed to Utilitarian education) and for the necessity of including theology rather than secularizing learning. That, of course would require a different relationship of faith and reason than what was characteristic of Enlightenment science.”[iii]
First, Newman argues that liberal arts education is intrinsically valuable. It has many practical benefits, but that is not its aim. The knowledge acquired through liberal learning is its end. Newman summarizes his position: “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we, perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.”[iv]
Second, Newman’s idea of education is that it is a life-long project. The person who is formed through a liberal arts education is to continue to learn and grow after graduation. He acquires through his undergraduate education a “habit of mind … which lasts through life.” Graduation is not the end of the education journey, but only the beginning. It takes a whole lifetime to become educated. “The ideal of lifelong learning,” observes Benson, “is a natural entailment of Newman’s conviction that liberal arts education is intrinsically valuable. Detached from the special purposes of career education and other utilitarian aims, there is no reason why education should be seen as a project to be pursued only in one’s youth.”[v]
Newman argues that the focus on career education is misdirected, and not “true education.” He would say that “such training and skill development and activities have value, but they should not be confused with the cultivation of the intellect and nurturing the educated person.” [vi] Further, he would say that a liberal arts education “provides a far more substantial preparation for success in the diverse career areas.”[vii]
Third, Newman believes that truth was one; there is a unity to truth. He argues that a place for theology, both natural truth and revealed truth, must be made in the liberal arts curriculum. Newman believed that truth itself is compromised if theology is left out of the curriculum. He thought theology involved the search for “divine truth” as known through “revelation and reason.” Newman thought the discipline was as valid an academic field as any other discipline.[viii]
Although Newman argues that a place must be made in the curriculum for theology, he does not think that liberal learning is to be pursued for the sake of theology. He does not think the disciplines are hierarchically ordered. Instead, he thinks a more accurate description of the disciplines is a “circle of the sciences” which speaks more of their mutual influence. Newman thinks that the secular disciplines need theology and theology needs the secular disciplines. This would be similar to his view on the relationship between faith and reason. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. It is a complementary relationship.[ix]
Newman thinks the Church must take an interest in the sciences and humanities “because they are essential elements of a liberal education.” The Church should want its members to receive a liberal arts education so they may be equipped for their vocations as citizens of the kingdom of heaven and earth because an educated mind is equipped with “the faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”[x]
A liberal arts education will also make the Christian better able to understand and defend the faith. Newman says it does this by “enlarging the mind of the student, enabling him to think more clearly and consistently and to express his own views in a manner that is persuasive …”[xi] “According to Newman, the uneducated Christian fails in some sense to realize the truths which he holds because he lacks a consistency of view: he fails to fully grasp the principles he holds and the conclusions that follow from these principles. The development of the mind that results from a university education, then, indirectly aids one’s understanding of the faith as well as any other subject to which one applies the mind.”[xii]
[i] Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 83.
[ii] Ibid., 87.
[iii] Ibid., 88.
[iv] Thomas L. Benson, “Far From Home: Newman and the Contemporary Liberal Arts College,” Christian Higher Education 2 (2003): 307
[v] Ibid., 311-312.
[vi] Ibid., 308.
[viii] Ibid., 315.
[ix] John Goyette, “Augustine versus Newman on the relation between secular and sacred science,” in Faith, Scholarship, and Culture in the 21st Century, eds. Alice Ramos and Marie I. George (Mishawaka,Ind.: American Maritain Association, 2002), 211-212.
[x] Ibid., 213-214.
[xii] Ibid., 214.