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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Maintaining a connected grasp of things

Ian Ker summarizes the central concern of John Henry Newman’s educational philosophy as developed in The Idea of a University.

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Maintaining a connected grasp of things

Chapter 1 in Ian Ker’s The Achievement of John Henry Newman (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) is titled “The Educator.” It engages Newman’s arguments in The Idea of a University (1873). He opens the chapter by explaining the structure of Newman’s book. The first half consists of nine Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), talks that Newman gave in preparation for the opening of the new Catholic University of Ireland. The second half (Lectures and Essays, 1859) includes a collection of talks and articles which Newman wrote while serving as Rector of the university.

Ker observes that “the principle which is the heart and soul of his educational philosophy” is what A. Dwight Culler has called simply “the ability to think.” Ker points out that the assumption made by many that Newman “wanted people to study the liberal arts for the kind of reasons that it is conventionally argued they should be studied” miss the point of this central principal, a surprising mistake given how Newman often hammered home his commitment to the idea that the principle task of education is (in his own words) “how best to strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers.”

As Ker explains, “Whatever the value inherent in the subject matter of studying arts subjects, that is not Newman’s central concern: it is not ‘culture’ in the modern sense of the word that he is concerned with, but ‘mental cultivation,’ that is, the training of the mind. Newman’s understanding of a liberal education, then, is much more narrowly and specifically intellectual than that of the conventional advocate of an arts education.

“In the Preface to the Discourses he states his case in the simplest terms and all interpretations of the Discourses should be compared with and tested against this basic statement of the thesis to ensure that hyperbole has not obscured the issue.

“There ‘real cultivation of mind’ is deemed to be ‘the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.’ Newman appeals to our ordinary experience of life, not to draw our attention to the lack of ‘culture’ or knowledge in people generally, but rather to the fact that so many people in everyday conversation are illogical, inconsistent, ‘never see the point,’ ‘are hopelessly obstinate and prejudiced.’ He is not, in the first place, desiderating people who appreciate classical music or painting or literature, let alone people who have achieved a high degree of knowledge. The object of a university education is to produce thinking people, no more and no less.

“When the intellect has once been properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things, it will display its powers with more or less effect according to its particular quality and capacity in the individual. In the case of most men it makes itself felt in the good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view, which characterize it. . . . In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.

“Pointing out that the Discourses ‘are directed simply to the consideration of the aims and principles of Education,’ Newman excuses himself from entering into practicalities (‘the true mode of educating’) but contents himself with the following fairly lengthy statement of method, which he would elaborate later in great detail in one of the Lectures and Essays:

Suffice it, then, to say here, that I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony. This is commonly and excellently done by making him begin with Grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness and subtlety of teaching be used towards him, as his faculties expand, with this simple purpose. Hence it is that critical scholarship is so important a discipline for him when he is leaving school for the University. A second science is the Mathematics: this should follow Grammar, still with the same subject, viz., to give him a conception of development and arrangement from and around a common centre. Hence it is that Chronology and Geography are so necessary for him, when he reads History, which is otherwise little better than a storybook. Hence, too, Metrical Composition, when he reads Poetry; in order to stimulate his powers into action in every practicable way, and to prevent a merely passive reception of images and ideas which in that case are likely to pass out of the mind as soon as they have entered it. Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.

“It is noticeable how Newman says nothing here about the actual acquisition of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, or of the appreciation of the arts — important, of course, as he thought both to be. Rather, the entire emphasis falls on training the mind to be accurate, consistent, logical, orderly. And at the end of the passage just quoted, he surely makes it quite clear that what he calls ‘a science of sciences’ or ‘Philosophy’ is not a further subject in the curriculum, nor is it some kind of supergeneral science which embraces all the other sciences: on the contrary, far from being a subject you can study, it is only as a result of learning to think properly that one is ‘gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views.’ In other words, the more the mind is formed and trained, the more ‘philosophical’ it becomes.”