Newman’s thinking on education is sometimes branded as austere, rigorous, even platonic. However, his principles, far from being an ivory tower for academics, have immense importance to the education of children of all ages since they are based on his keen insight about human nature and Catholic truth. In the second section of Idea of a University, Newman has an excellent essay called “Elementary Studies,” composed just as he began as rector of the new Catholic University in Dublin between 1854 and 1856. In it he lays out what we might call a “standard” for pre-college education based on the principles laid out above. The essay is also a reminder of how versatile a writer he is; a large portion of the essay includes two imaginary and humorous dialogues between one unprepared and another well-prepared young pupil with a college tutor for an entrance examination, held verbally.
The two interviews undergird Newman’s main point: schoolchildren must learn a little, slowly, and very well, aiming for precision, not breadth. It is clear that the successful student has a “discipline of mind” that is well-prepared for Newman’s University principles, and has learned a love for the truth for its own sake, for discovering what is actual in the given subject matter. A well-instructed student is not merely curious, not merely voluminous in his aspirations, not merely in love with his own sense of accomplishment or reading list or aspirations, but in all things he has started with learning a little bit, but learning it very well, has trained in academic accuracy and precision, and is now ready for more.
Newman regularly uses an analogy of eyesight: elementary education (by which he means pre-college) is about strengthening and perfecting “intellectual vision,” giving the mind ”clearness, accuracy, precision,” the lack of which he thinks is a malady in all classes of society, the literate and the illiterate. Just as, Newman thinks, an infant first only sees swirls of colors, shades, and abstract shapes, and, as the mind matures, can pick out more definite objects, faces and distances, just so the young mind must be trained to bring intellectual objects, like grammar, mathematics and letters, into clear focus.
“A little, but well,” is the maxim of Newman’s imagined tutor, whose experiences fictionalized in the essay may very well have been based on real interactions Newman had with students and parents through his own teaching. He wants us to help correct the false notion that the “gratification of a love of reading is real study,” which is really a kind of “mental restlessness or curiosity.” He wants to see students trained to “stay or hang over … one idea,” to aim at accuracy and completeness of knowledge of a few things, to learn “consistency, steadiness” and “perseverance.” Otherwise, educators will merely acclimatize students to dislike “application” and “attention,” and to “shrink from the effort and labor of thinking.” This kind of system might produce a student who is literate, but who cannot think, cannot “make a telling speech” or “write a good letter” or “fling in debate a smart antagonist.”
He wants a “discipline of mind,” not some new system that looks good on paper, and students and teachers alike grudgingly grind through as if it were mere assembly-line work. He wants “clearness of head, accuracy, scholar-like precision, method … yet [these] do not suggest themselves to youths at once, and have to be urged and inflicted upon them.” In other words, they need the real, attentive, dogged presence of an excellent teacher who not only knows the subject well, but requires and actually expects the student to form a real and precise understanding, and to demonstrate it. Just as friction produces heat, the regular and intense contact between a solid, knowledgeable teacher and an attentive student produces knowledge in the mind, the regular habit of using one’s reason upon, of thinking about, new knowledge, connecting new knowledge to what is already known.
There is much emphasis today on giving schoolchildren “skills.” Usually educators also desire to help students “think.” While noble and worthy, these goals only make sense given a definite object. Something must be thought about, some content must be engaged relative to a desired skill. Too often educational goals are merely practical, aimed at preparation for job, career, college, politics or society, and ignore the real substance of human formation. The real emphasis on education of all ages should be what Newman calls “discipline of mind,” or “cultivation of mind,” which looks like the impregnation of the mind with knowledge, and requires thought. This is not some lofty standard for only the gifted; it is in our human nature since we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are made to know – to know things, others, God, and self – with our God-given gift of reason.
Newman’s thought has important implications for the recent debate over adopting national standards in Catholic classrooms. First, the Catholic educator must be committed to excellence and heed the evidence that government standards are producing worse, not better, student outcomes. But this is only a symptom of an abstract emphasis on skills and pragmatic preparation, rather than concrete knowledge. Forming national education standards may not be bad, but as it currently stands, state-governed education is sadly mechanistic, like the IRS, with red tape and perplexing mazes, with standardized curriculum becoming like the gigantic and impossibly confusing tax code, requiring bureaucratic specialists to help real people navigate what should be a simple natural process. State standards might offer interesting reflection upon the reality of education, but in themselves do nothing of substance to form subject-knowledge or ensure quality instruction. Newman reminds us that education is based in human nature, in our natural capacities to think about subject matter, and therefore the real standard is cultivating the whole minds of young people through the personal presence of a well-cultivated teacher. Education is a natural duty primary to the family, over which the Church claims authoritative guidance by her faithful magisterium. All that is truly necessary for education are human persons, fully-formed minds who call children to the same mental discipline of mind that is fully alive to the truth of God and the truth of his Creation.