By Fr. John McNerney

In the early 19th century, Dublin was regarded as the second city of the British Empire, but the Great Hunger of the Irish famine (1845–1849) ravaged the whole country, with more than one million dead and two million emigrating. It was into this cataclysmic setting that John Henry Newman was invited to be the rector of a new Catholic university, from which he gave lectures that grew into the book, The Idea of a University (published in 1852).

It is interesting that one of the first students who attended Newman’s newly founded university (1854) in Dublin was the grandson of Ireland’s liberator, Daniel O’Connell. It is also said that Newman once told the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins (who lectured at the university) that if he were not a rector of the university, he would have been a rebel. Nonetheless, to this day the outstanding legacy of John Henry’s perspective on education remains within the Irish heart and mentality. This is the view that education is the true key to unlocking the wealth of human persons, constituting a people and nation.

Education is not a theory

Newman’s views on education are not just a theory about learning, but concern students being active “participants” and not just mere “spectators” in the journey toward universal knowledge. Newman says that education is about the enhancement of the students’ minds and hearts, them to develop “clear-mindedness” and “like-mindedness” as human persons. When he wrote his autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of My Life) in response to Anglican priest Charles Kingsley’s attack on his character, Newman spells out what was behind his whole life — his desire to live in the truth. Indeed, this fundamental yearning can be understood as what is essentially involved in his educational mission. He said, “My accuser [Charles Kingsley] asks, ‘What, then, does Dr. Newman mean?’… I reflected, and I saw a way out of my perplexity. Yes, I said to myself, his very question is about my meaning.”

John Henry’s view is that if we truly want to confront the question about meaning, we must face it as living, searching human beings and not just act like dressed-up scarecrows, clothed in our own words about words, or making use solely of mere logical argument. Newman holds that the meaning of a person is not contained just in their words, but is expressed in how they live their life. Indeed, in many of his talks about education, Newman repeatedly brings out the “personalist” nature of the journey of discovery toward what he calls “universal knowledge.” So, he believes that an educational system “without the personal influence of teachers upon students is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron organization and nothing else” (from The Rise and Progress of Universities).

It was his conviction that truth is primarily communicated in face-to-face witness; without such a personal relationship, we have no existential knowledge. Newman ends The Idea of a University saying to students that he is “but fit to bear witness,” to offer suggestions and express his sentiments, in order to throw light upon questions. It is unsurprising that Newman chose the motto Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”) when he was made cardinal, because it summed up his whole approach to life and education.

Spiritual foundations

A key to understanding St. John Henry Newman’s conception of education is his integrating spiritual vision. He wrote how “in a word, religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge.” The word “religious” does not have denominational connotations here, because Newman proposes that as human beings in the journey of discovery of knowledge, we go beyond the merely “conditioned” to the “unconditional.” This movement is, he suggests, found uniquely in our nature as human persons. So, taking onboard that which is “beyond us,” understanding that there are horizons of meaning beyond ourselves and acting accordingly, is essential if we want to have a truly liberal education.

The neglect of spiritual foundations affects not only human persons and their existence but also “universal knowledge” itself. If we are not open to other viewpoints that are beyond or transcendent to us, there is the risk, Newman says, of becoming “bigots and quacks, scorning all principles and reported facts.” In this way, one ends up easily with the big head syndrome, that is, what Newman calls the “man of one idea, which properly means, a man of one science and of the view, partly true … partly false, which is all that can proceed out of anything partial.” Indeed, it is interesting how the economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek once similarly warned how “the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance, if not a positive danger.”

Education’s ideals

In The Idea of a University, Newman asks the question: “What is the use” of the liberal education he has so far outlined? He contends, “Knowledge to have its end in itself”; therefore, education strictly speaking has no use. To burden education with “virtue or religion” is totally mistaken. He says that the business of education is “not to steer the soul against temptation” and argues that “knowledge is one thing, virtue is another.” He explains that a liberal education “is simply the cultivation of the intellect … and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.” It is about the enhancement of our human minds. Of course, his point is that such an education is justified not because of the skills it could equip us with in order to succeed in practical life, but because “it forms the whole person … [therefore the] human being is an end-in-him-or herself.”

St. John Henry Newman admits that when it comes to education, he has high ideals. In order to achieve what he proposes, he says we “require intellectual eyes” just as we need “bodily eyes for sight.” He explains how even the “best telescope does not dispense with eyes,” so we must really do our part in reaching the goal. It is only in this way that “a University [or a place of education] … [can be] an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill,” a sort of factory. The Prince of Wales, who attended Newman’s canonization last October, said in an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano that although his thoughts on education are well-known, Newman’s work on behalf of the poor and children is often forgotten. The prince commented on Newman’s “commitment to ensuring that people of all backgrounds shared the opportunities learning can bring.” John Henry, in fact, spent most of his life in Birmingham, England, ministering “by constantly doing … duty in the poor-house and prisons of Birmingham,” as he himself described it in Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It was certainly true that his heart spoke to the hearts of others.

(Rev. John McNerney, PhD, is the Michael Novak Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington.)

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