Cardinal Newman on Education and Journalism

Other obligations prevent me from writing up a full post this week, but rather than skipping a post entirely (other than the already completed lain20th series) I thought I’d turn over the blog to Bl. John Henry Newman. Below are a few excerpts from the preface to his excellent book The Idea of a University, in which he discusses the general purpose of education and, in particular in this section, contrasts it with those who have merely the appearance of an education.

[T]hese Discourses are directed simply to the consideration of the aims and principles of Education. 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 object, 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.

The “Newman Curriculum” is, of course, rather old-fashioned, but would certainly benefit its students once teachers and parents understand why it’s set up as it is. I was homeschooled through high school and though I certainly didn’t enjoy grammar, especially in diagramming sentences, in hindsight I’m glad I was made to do so. A solid understanding of how language works aids in both expressing oneself and in understanding what others are saying – and being able to catch instances of disingenuous language more easily. It’s been my observation that muddled speaking and writing are always connected with muddled thinking. I think this is related to why Cardinal Newman specifies metrical poetry, which emphasises poetry as a craft and a way of using language to express ideas, and not just to emote.

It’s also interesting that he explicitly mentions chronology alongside history. Students often hate having to memorise dates, but without being able to relate historical events to each other temporally and geographically they’re just one set of stories among many that he hears, and are neither fully understood nor even retained. They have no knowledge of history beyond “stuff happened,” much less do they gain any sense of identification with their nation’s forefathers, leaving them ignorant and deracinated.

Regarding his last point, on the “random theories,” etc., he continues:

Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of “views” on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practised on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Then as now, there’s a sense that we ought to have an opinion on any and every topic that may come up. Saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” about everything from an upcoming election to nutrition to celebrity scandals feels like the act of either a rebel or a fool. Regardless, Cardinal Newman does have some sympathy for the journalists (and this could also apply to the internet’s many content farmers), but doesn’t let them off the hook:

I am speaking of such writers with a feeling of real sympathy for men who are under the rod of a cruel slavery. I have never indeed been in such circumstances myself nor in the temptations which they involve; but most men who have had to do with composition must know the distress which at times it occasions them to have to write—a distress sometimes so keen and so specific that it resembles nothing else than bodily pain. That pain is the token of the wear and tear of mind; and, if works done comparatively at leisure involve such mental fatigue and exhaustion, what must be the toil of those whose intellects are to be flaunted daily before the public in full dress, and that dress ever new and varied, and spun, like the silkworm’s, out of themselves! Still, whatever true sympathy we may feel for the ministers of this dearly purchased luxury, and whatever sense we may have of the great intellectual power which the literature in question displays, we cannot honestly close our eyes to its direct evil.

One other remark suggests itself, which is the last I shall think it necessary to make. The authority, which in former times was lodged in Universities, now resides in very great measure in that literary world, as it is called, to which I have been referring. This is not satisfactory, if, as no one can deny, its teaching be so offhand, so ambitious, so changeable. It increases the seriousness of the mischief, that so very large a portion of its writers are anonymous, for irresponsible power never can be any thing but a great evil; and, moreover, that, even when they are known, they can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment, and their happy conformity in ethical character to the age which admires them.

Now, in that last paragraph there are a couple things worth pointing out. One is that, though his comment on the universities’ declining authority may have been true in the 1850’s, it is certainly not the case now. This is necessarily the case when far, far more people attend them now compared to Cardinal Newman’s day, including the journalists he’s been criticisng. I don’t know how ideological universities were at the time, but the fact that the Pope and the Irish bishops thought it so important to have a specifically Catholic university in Ireland suggests to me that other, Protestant institutions were, well, meaningfully Protestant (at best; I would guess that they were already Left-leaning, but have never looked into this question).

Also, his point about “irresponsible power” is worth noting, but obviously I’ll have to part ways with him on the value of anonymity. It allows for freer, more open discussion, and is invaluable for those who have no power. Whether it’s good or bad, then, depends on circumstances.

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