Tag: education

Cardinal Newman’s Portrait of a Gentleman

When thinking of the ends and means of education, university education in particular, my first point of reference is Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. The first half of the book consists of a series of lectures he gave at the opening of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, which had just been established. The rest were occasional lectures given over the next few years to various groups on related topics. His basic point through most of the book is that the primary end of a university is to teach universal knowledge, and to provide its students with intellectual training. In the introduction he introduces an analogy between intellectual vigour and physical strength:

Just as a commander wishes to have tall and well-formed and vigorous soldiers, not from any abstract devotion to the military standard of height or age, but for the purposes of war, and no one thinks it any thing but natural and praiseworthy in him to be contemplating, not abstract qualities, but his own living and breathing men; so, in like manner, when the Church founds a University, she is not cherishing talent, genius, or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children, with a view to their spiritual welfare and their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.

He repeats the analogy in responding to the objections from John Locke, among others, that most aspects of a liberal education are of no utility. “[I]f a healthy body is a good in itself,” he says, “why is not a healthy intellect?” He also quotes one Mr. Copleston, who defends liberal education, as opposed to a narrow technical training, by saying, “There can be no doubt that every art is improved by confining the professor of it to that single study. But, although the art itself is advanced by this concentration of mind in its service, the individual who is confined to it goes back. The advantage of the community is nearly in an inverse ratio with his own.” As a later writer put it, “specialisation is for insects.”

Now, Cardinal Newman spends much of his time discussing the relationship between the Church and the University, and between secular and religious knowledge. Though they are related, they don’t necessarily lead to the same destination. “Liberal Education,” he writes, “makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.” Eventually I’ll cover this in a full review, but for now I’d just like to share his explanation of what a gentleman is. Though I first read the full book at college, this specific passage was included in a high school textbook and has stayed with me ever since. Though a Liberal Education is ultimately inadequate, there certainly is some merit to being a gentleman. This is from Discourse VIII, “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Religion.”

Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.…

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An Ascent with Xenophon

I first heard of Xenophon and Anabasis while at college, in Bl. John Henry Newman’s great book The Idea of a University. In this particular essay, Newman gives an illustration of a poor applicant for university studies by giving a dialogue between a student and a tutor. This student does indeed stumble through the interview, able to give a basic summary of events in Anabasis but unable to answer questions about the etymology of the title and its significance, basic Greek grammar, and other such things. What struck me, though, was that Newman assumed that even a poor student will have read Anabasis, among other works from the Classical world, and have some basic knowledge of Greek and Latin. Indeed, in the printed essay, Newman does not even transliterate Greek words; he merely assumes that anyone reading would know the Greek alphabet.

Yet, here I was, a year or two into university studies, and I was clearly far less competent than even this student Newman describes as “below par.” I knew no Greek at all, and the name of “Xenophon” was merely a foreign sound to me, though I was at least aware of the other authors Newman mentions in the passage.

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Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)

Education at the Crossroads is a revised version of a series of lectures Jacques Maritain gave at Yale University in 1943 in which the author discusses, in four parts, “The Aims of Education,” “The Dynamics of Education,” “The Humanities and Liberal Education,” and “The Trials of Present-Day Education.” In other words, what education is, where it is now, and where it will, or at least ideally should, go.

Maritain’s idea of and approach to education is one that was probably moderate or Conservative by the standards of 1943, though by today’s standards I suppose one would call him a Paleoconservative. In any case, he’s a believer in a Liberal education (not a Progressive one, in today’s confusing terminology), and he defines the aim of education early on:

It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person – armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues – while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations. The utilitarian aspect of education – which enables the youth to get a job and make a living – must surely not be disregarded, for the children of man are not made for aristocratic leisure. But this practical aim is best provided by the general human capacities developed. And the ulterior specialized training which may be required must never imperial the essential aim of education.

In other words, education exists to hand down a culture, provide moral training, and essentially set him up to acquire wisdom. It is not primarily technical or vocational training, though it may aid in training for one’s eventual career and can, and probably should, provide some “practical” knowledge to that end. Unfortunately, by 1943 schools had begun losing sight of this goal, and the problem has only grown worse since then. There’s no underlying philosophy or ultimate, agreed-upon goal for what an educated college graduate should look like, so university curricula are an incoherent mess of “core classes” of history, mathematics, humanities, and other components of a Liberal education, but these have no connecting tissue between them and in effect are mostly just filler for the vocational training that most students attend university for. I noticed this problem during my own university education and wrote about it near the end of my junior year and again shortly after graduation, and Maritain drives right to the heart of this problem.

Maritain’s defense of Liberal education reminded me of  Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is what I’ve generally looked to in the past as the ideal of what a university education ought to look like. One difference, however, is that Maritain’s idea is much more democratic. Cardinal Newman takes for granted that many students aren’t suited for higher education, but Maritain writes in the third part, “In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all…” He also speaks elsewhere of the importance of Liberal education for all members of a democratic society. Now, it’s certainly best to offer university education to as many citizens as possible, but frankly many, if not most, people are not suited to higher education and to force them through it anyway is a waste of resources and cruel to the student. We’ve seen what happens when we try to get as many people into university as possible, and the result is a lowering of standards and the fragmentation of the curriculum just criticised above. Now, clearly, the modern university is not at all what Maritain argues for, but it’s the predictable, near-certain outcome of pursuing universal education.

That faulty assumption aside, though, Education at the Crossroads is still worth the relatively short reading time (it’s 118 pages in my edition), though I’d recommend supplementing it with Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is a more focused and thorough treatment of university education.…

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Junior-year Reflections

I am wrapping up my third year of university, and am consequently in a reflective mood regarding my collegiate experience so far. Looking back on the classes I’ve taken, I cannot help but be amazed at what a waste most of them are.

Now, it is better to know something than not know it, and there is much to be said about a broad-based education, but nonetheless of the thirty or so classes I have taken through this semester, only a handful are at all related to my field of study. Even including those, the classes that were worth the effort (and money) involved I could count on one hand.

The reason is not something I can quite define. One problem lies in the number of “Core Curriculum” classes, which seem overly numerous. Another is the fact that, as a secular school, there is no common foundation from which to teach.

Perhaps a fundamental difficulty lies in the purpose of the university system. An especially honest professor of mine, expanding on a point made by Ezra Pound, pointed out that the university’s purpose is not education – one can educate oneself as well as the school. Rather, the purpose is accreditation – which is something else entirely. Much like primary and secondary education, university does not exist to teach students how to think critically or approach difficulties, but instead they ensure the student (customer?) possesses enough knowledge (separate from wisdom or understanding) that they can be given a diploma with which the student can prove the fact to prospective employers – employment, not education, being the ultimate goal of most students.

The root problem, I suppose, is cultural. Education in itself is not valued as highly as good employment. What once were universities, then, become technical schools to train students in practical skills for the end of finding a job. How this is to be reversed, I do not know. Probably it should begin in a change of attitude on the part of the students and professors.

For the time being, I am mostly just thankful that I received scholarship money and thus did not have to pay too much for my accreditation. Unfortunately, I will have to pay for others in the form of taxes to pay for government-sponsored scholarship programmes.…

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But Am I Amusing?

You probably won’t read past this sentence if said sentence does not amuse you.

Maybe that’s too presumptuous, but it’s a thought I had while reading about Dickens World, one of the more surprising attempts at making education entertaining I’ve seen in a while. The place is just what it sounds like – a theme park based on the life and stories of Charles Dickens. While there is nothing wrong with making literature more interesting, a full theme park is too much.

If this all seems trivial, consider this. First, if Dickens cannot stand on his own, then there’s no reason for him to stand at all. When a piece of literature becomes so dull and irrelevant that it requires a theme park to maintain interest, then the theme park is too late. The work does not matter anymore. While the general public is far from discerning in its tastes (the fact that The DaVinci Code sold any copies at all is proof enough of this) Dickens appears to have done well on his own without such gimmicks, both in popular and academic circles, and such an attraction only cheapens his work to just another object to amuse us, like a monkey with a squeeze box.

Second, on a larger scale, I see this as another symptom of the scourge of entertainment value. If something is not entertaining, it does not register in the popular mind. How many news sources reported on Paris Hilton going to jail? Why does anyone oustide the Hilton family even care? I think this attitude is well summed up in this post from the Literature Compass Blog:

Yet the museum comes across confidently, its intention of ‘art for entertainment’s sake’ appearing in a quote from Hard Times that encircles the four walls of the entrance: “People must be amused, squire, somehow. They can’t be always a-working, nor yet they can’t be always a-learning.”

Dickens World has clearly been planned with the emphasis on amusement combined with a smattering of learning.

Art does not need to be entertaining. As with any form of communication, it sometimes is far from amusing. By emphasizing “amusement” with just a “smattering of learning,” one teaches that the former is the more important of the two.…

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