by Margarita Mooney on May 7, 2018

As a graduate student many years ago, I found myself wondering how I was going to integrate knowledge from my chosen discipline of sociology with various other fields. Then another student recommended I read John Henry Newman’s book The Idea of a University, a classic book that was my first exposure to what a classical liberal arts education should be.

I was immediately captivated by Newman’s argument that all forms of knowledge have some kind of truth. Although Newman was a Catholic priest, he did not argue that only theology or philosophy lead us to truth. However, the truth of each particular discipline only makes sense if there is an objective truth we are all seeking that stands outside of our particular perspective. Theology, which had largely been kicked out of universities by the time I got there, is one way to truth, alongside other fields. But the premise of theology—that an objective reality exists that we can know—is shared by any field that claims to be scientific. It’s just that people of faith, and most classical philosophers, don’t reduce reality to only what we can measure with our modern scientific tools.

It’s precisely this overreach of scientific claims that made me laugh at Newman’s caution that the most common failing of academics is ego. When I was in graduate school, shameless self-promotion (SSP) was almost considered a virtue. At the very least, it was a necessary vice to convince your committee and especially people on the job market that you had written the greatest dissertation since the field was founded. The flip side of the academic ego was the scrupulous self-doubt that keeps many dissertation writers from crossing the finish line. If your inner doubt showed at your dissertation defense or job talk, you were sunk. Behind both the overconfidence and the fear were pride—an excessive self-reliance on knowing everything yourself. SSP does not cultivate humility about what we can know with our limited means from one particular perspective.

Debates about the purpose of higher education are as important today as they were in Newman’s time, and everyone who cares about the state of higher education should read Newman. Universities certainly should be places for character development, athletic competition, making friends and living in community. But Newman’s message is extremely relevant lest we lose sight of the unique mission of higher education: to train the mind to make judgments about reality and then act in accordance with that knowledge and a well-formed conscience.

In the summer of 2017, I introduced students to debates about higher education in the seminar “Rediscovering Integral Humanism.” I read Newman once again, now with students visiting the university where he spent much of his life—Oxford University. As I prepare for the second year of this 12-day intensive study of the purpose of education, I found my notes from last year’s discussion of Newman. We were lucky to have with us Ian Ker, who has taught theology and literature at several universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, including Oxford University. He is the leading scholar on the life and thought of John Henry Newman and is the author of roughly 20 books, including influential biographies of Newman and G.K. Chesterton.

Newman was born in 1801 and died in 1890. This was a time of momentous change in European economics, politics and religion. Underneath these massive structural changes, the very understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to know the truth, was also being challenged. Newman was acutely aware of the development of the secular philosophies underlying empiricist science. The idea that the only kind of truth was what we can see with our eyes, and the only kind of reality we can know about exists in the material realm, meant the rejection of metaphysics—the study of being, our essence as humans.

Born into a Christian family, Newman loved Scripture as a young man, seeing in revelation a way to apprehend our being as humans. As he grew in his faith, eventually becoming an Anglican and then a Catholic priest, he argued that studying our very being itself and our relationship to God are crucial to apprehending the truth in its totality. Empirical methods and scientific advancements are good. But they tend to overreach their own bounds of truth when they make philosophical claims like the only kinds of knowledge must be empirical and material. Science can’t totally replace nor refute metaphysics—they are distinct ways of knowing that need to be integrated.

Premises about who we as human beings and what the human good consists of abound in all forms of knowledge produced by today’s universities. But our specializations in one field or another have limited our ability to acknowledge those premises and debate which of our premises have the most evidence.

Newman’s interest in liberal arts education was due to his keen interest in how to train our minds to apprehend all of reality. For Newman, the goal of a liberal arts education is to learn to use your mind well, not just transfer knowledge. Newman believed that some kind of core subjects are necessary to learn to think well: studying subjects like philosophy, ethics, theology, mathematics, and science are all necessary to have a well-tuned mind. But as the mind is developed in different ways, so no field should be excluded a priorifrom a liberal arts education. The arts—music, painting, literature—also train our mind to apprehend beauty and hence bring us closer to reality. Friendship and sharing life in common were so important to the pursuit of truth that Newman founded the Oratory, a community of study and faith.

Newman knew that it takes time to tune our minds to grasp reality. We ascend to the truth not only through studying and mastering subjects, but also by moving from notional, abstract forms of knowledge to our experience as humans. Our way to truth is subjective in the sense that I can’t get out of mind any more than you can get out of your mind. Objective truth has to be subjectively ascended to. But that doesn’t mean truth itself is subjective, only that each person arrives at truth in different ways. Once we have ascended to truth, we need phronesis, practical wisdom. We need to develop our intuition and ability to judge and act on the truth we have apprehended.

Newman also argued that teachers can have a great personal influence on students. The teacher isn’t just a conduit of information, but the teacher is a person. You teach as you are. Teachers communicate an approach to truth, a way of reasoning and intuiting and making judgements. Newman developed many close friendships with his students, from whom he undoubtedly learned much.

Reading Newman greatly influenced my approach to studying and living as a graduate student, and has influenced how I try to help students navigate their own college and graduate school experiences. I encourage students to select a wide variety of courses of study to sharpen their minds, while reminding them that all forms of knowledge ultimately must point back towards objective truth. Although specialization is the goal of graduate school, I remind students to be careful not to presume to know more than they do, especially about other fields of knowledge.

I organize the Rediscovering Integral Humanism seminar and so many other extra-curricular seminars and activities because education is supposed to be not just about acquiring knowledge, but sharing a deeply personal journey, exchanging ideas in the common pursuit of truth, building friendship and community, and developing the aesthetic, contemplative side of being human that is necessary to perceive deep layers of reality sometimes not readily apparent to the analytical, abstracting, self-reliant mind.

Newman is a complex thinker. It’s hard to grasp the breadth of his thought by reading just one of his works. But entering into his thought transformed how I think about research, teaching and mentoring. To get started with Newman, in addition to The Idea of a University, I recommend Ian Ker’s book The Genius of John Henry Newman. Several websites also provide Newman’s biography and selections of his work:

Newman’s synthesis of a liberal arts model of education with a Christian view of the mind provides important insights about the purpose of higher education. I have no doubt that engaging with Newman’s thought will sharpen your mind to better apprehend truth.

One might assume, as I once did, that simply being admitted to a prestigious university would guarantee that you received a quality liberal arts education. But when I was a freshman at Yale, I had no ideas how to pick what courses to take. Yale’s famous Blue Book (the course listings) was literally full of thousands of options for me. There were no required courses at all, just reminders to be sure to fulfill distributional requirements across broad groupings of disciplines and not worry too much until, as juniors, we had to declare a major.

Perhaps there is something to be learned by stumbling through your college curriculum with very little guidance. I certainly ventured beyond my comfort zone, following the herd of students taking Vincent Scully’s famous class on art and architecture and being mesmerized by his brilliance. Other classes are little more than a blip in my memory—I learned little at the time, and can’t recall anything at all now.

But in retrospect, I also realize I had no idea what my college education was supposed to be about, and Yale had moved on from its previous commitment to liberal arts, replacing it with a general system of distributional requirements that at least guarantee some kind of general education. I enjoyed my classes in my psychology major, and I also greatly enjoyed many classes in history, literature and languages. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, I got something of a liberal arts education at Yale.

Reading Newman not only helped me as a student, it has helped me better guide other students. When I was a faculty resident fellow of Calhoun College at Yale from 2013-2016, I helped many freshmen navigate their way through the Blue Book and its distributional requirements, which had hardly changed since my days. One student, an international student with his eyes set on an engineering major, told me he was thinking of mixing up his grueling schedule of math and physics pre-requisites for his major with an art history seminar on furniture, in which students would both study something about art history and also do hands-on work with the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art deco home furnishings. Just as my mind had been trained to see the world differently by taking art history at Yale, this student loved his class on furniture so much because it helped him connect his science major to objects of everyday use in the real world. He also loved being in a small classroom, and learning by doing things with others.

These examples are why I believe we need to reinvigorate a classical liberal arts education. One need not be either neutral about the content of a liberal arts education nor closed to new ideas. One can believe in the liberal arts tradition while also wishing to promote innovation in new fields, or new approaches to learning.

But if the goal of liberal arts education is to train our minds, then we have to master some content which has been passed on to us. But mastering content must be balanced by activities and ways of learning that train our minds for a life of learning that leads to many new discoveries.