John Henry Newman and the Liberal Arts
Today, it is commonplace to think of college education in terms of specialties and majors. However, as nineteenth-century scholar and priest John Henry Newman understood, mere job training or specialized study leaves uncultivated what is most important in students and even imperils civilization itself. What is the norm now at most universities, he would say, is far too narrow for the moral, intellectual, and spiritual challenges of human life.
In the late eighteenth century, university reform movements in Germany initiated what eventually became the modern specialized, often research-oriented university. This was in contrast to the broad, often humanistic education characteristic of the university from its founding in the Middle Ages and which reached back even into antiquity. In this earlier form of education, a variety of disciplines were studied in pursuit of a comprehensive, rather than specialized view or understanding of the world. Things now categorized as literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, politics and more were studied in an attempt to grasp the broad sweep of human learning and to pass that learning down to succeeding generations. Even when study proceeded to something more “narrow,” it was understood that if one comprehends the whole, one better grasps the integrity of that “narrow” portion all the better.
This breadth of focus changed through the rise of the research university. Shallow “electives” or vague “distribution requirements” replaced the broad curriculum designed to introduce students to their intellectual heritage. What came to be called the “Great Books” had been widely read earlier but now were largely set aside in favor of specialized pursuits and overtly vocational training. This was a tragic loss. These old books—beginning with Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and others moving up into more contemporary works—were known to give form and power to students’ minds, to encourage them in goodness, and even to shape the culture in which they were to live. Whether poetry, philosophy, history, or math, the books were thought to reveal important things about their specific moments in history as well as enduring qualities of human nature. They educated students in their own essential humanity. The capacity for good and evil, wisdom and folly, courage, humility, beauty—all these things and more were richly presented and deeply understood through great texts. This was the kind of learning Newman understood to be infinitely valuable to human life on both individual and social levels. And he saw that it was on the decline.
Newman argued throughout his writing, especially in his The Idea of a University, that educated people should cultivate what he called a “philosophic habit of mind.” This “philosophic habit” was essentially one that could see human life and the world comprehensively—the kind of mind cultivated by what we now call the great books. He valued the great growth in specialized learning occurring throughout the 19th century, but he understood that the ability to digest this new learning required an antecedent, broad comprehension or philosophic habit. A well or liberally educated person, he argued, is able to relate new knowledge to what he or she already knows, and thus see how this new knowledge fits into the broad outline of learning and culture. But this broad comprehension and habit of mind, he saw, was rapidly being lost.
Interestingly, Newman also saw that the highest kind of learning required a community setting in which friendship thrives. There, in a community setting, a kind of alchemy occurs that cannot be duplicated in non-residential learning. Casual, unscripted encounters and conversations in a milieu of serious, common learning results in life-long friendships and deep human insights. Ultimately, this kind of formation also results in durable communities and a flourishing culture, generally.
All this, of course, has changed, and changed far beyond that which Newman witnessed. Higher learning is no longer higher, just “later.” We have traded wisdom for “expertise,” job training, and impassioned social activism. Less and less do college students encounter great ideas, stories, texts, and the challenge of parsing them in order to gain a better, more genuine grasp of reality itself. It is not only learning, culture, conversation, and deeply rooted friendship that we often deny our students today, but the means of grasping the very world in which they live. We abandon the young (or worse, entice them) to uninformed but inflamed passions. We deprive them of discernment when facing complicated, urgent demands. We conceal from them the means of solace they will need when suffering arrives, as it always does. We cheapen their appetites, weaken their will, and stultify their intelligence by denying these faculties the formation they were made to have. A liberal education used to do all these things and more, at a pitch of excellence often despaired of today.
John Henry Newman might not have seen the degree to which higher education has deteriorated, but he saw the causes and outlined the cure. A liberal education, one steeped in the classics and in friendship, has lost none of its power to shape minds, hearts, and the culture itself. It is no nostalgia or hand-wringing distaste for modernity to urge the necessity for a return to genuine liberal arts education. It is not too much to say that civilization itself may depend upon it.