In Discourse 5 of Idea of a University, Newman has gone to great lengths to establish a key principle: that knowledge is its own end; it is liberal, or free. But in Discourse 6, he shifts his focus. He now wishes to portray what a well-educated mind looks like concretely, and uses the phrase “intellectual perfection” to suggest what he is after. Along the way, he offers an important reminder, that the foundation of intellectual formation is moral formation. Sirach 1:26 echoes this theme: “If you desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the Lord will bestow her upon you.” Giving children a foundation in faith and morals is essential to cultivating the next generation of Catholic Christians.
First, we must admit that pursuing “intellectual perfection” is a good thing, that we should encourage it in our children, and that a university is the proper place for it. Perfection of faith and morals is to be a saint, and the Church is the vehicle for them; perfection of athletics is the olympian, trained in the best gyms; perfection of the body is “health,” championed by hospitals; perfection of morality is “virtue,” schooled in the home and community life. There must also be perfection of the mind, but Newman notices that we have no single word for this. So, he proposes we call it “philosophy” (literally, love of wisdom), or “philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, illumination,” not merely synonymous with “knowledge, science, learning, or wisdom,” but indicative of a kind of intellectual fullness of those things when they have actually germinated, taken root, and matured in the mind. The garden where this intellectual fullness grows is the university, where one experiences “intellectual culture,” as in cultivation.
While a high volume of knowledge is desirable, Newman does not think this is the essential ingredient of “intellectual culture.” To truly cultivate intellect is more like growing a muscle, or becoming a virtuoso on the piano, than it is merely consuming new information. The first key ingredient, Newman thinks, is being prepared with solid moral foundations prior to arriving at university. In the younger years, Newman thinks it is essential that a pupil acquire great skills of “memory,” and for years of early formation the mind does act like a mere receptacle for “facts,” in accord with the propensity of the young to quickly absorb new information in an attitude of humble wonder. Early in formation, the intellect is entirely “externalized”: opinions are formed by mere repetition of those of friends and mentors, and the mind is “almost passive in the acquisition of knowledge.” By the time the student leaves for university, “he is mainly the creature of foreign influences and circumstances, and made up of accidents, homogenous or not, as the case may be.” He should then go on to develop his own internalized views and intellectual qualities at university. But for this to happen, acquisition of moral virtues is essential.
Newman thinks the “moral habits … encourage and assist … ” development of mind. “[D]iligence, assiduity, regularity, dispatch, persevering application … are the direct conditions of acquisition, and naturally lead to it.” Fortitude carries the student along, temperance keeps him undistracted, a sense of justice instils a duty to discover truth, and prudence disposes him to follow those truths wherever they lead. But Newman worries that this is too often ignored by misconstruing early intellectual preparation as mere “acquisition of knowledge.” Rather, true “mental culture” produces virtues that allow students to encounter difficult intellectual tasks.
There are two errors common in education that both stem from this sharp division between mere “acquisition of knowledge” and moral formation. On the one hand, knowledge might be delivered without moral formation; on the other hand, one might prioritize moral formation but exclude any real intellectual rigor. Both are fatal to education. The first fails because the student will not possess the fortitude, prudence, and perseverance necessary to actually acquire and keep new knowledge. The second fails because moral training will seem cheap and sentimental, lacking any real intellectual meat to chew, and nothing will really be learned.
It is essential that Catholic educators maintain both, since both are essentially part of each other, and indeed part of our faith – we are called to obey God that we may come to know Him (Heb. 8:11, 1 Cor. 13:12). We must present students with truly demanding academic content, appropriate to their age and dispositions, and continually encourage them and speak to them about the virtues necessary to accomplish the difficult tasks. We must teach both what to study, and how to study.
What good would it be to acquire knowledge but lose our souls? On the other hand, what would we become, as rational creatures, if we stopped seeking knowledge, since we are made to know? Especially for those with direct duties for young people – parents, grandparents, teachers, and catechists – it is important to instill in young minds a love for truth and learning, but to recognize that moral and faith formation are primary. A life of virtue, a love of the good, perseverance and courage to continue learning even when it is difficult, will dispose the mind toward “intellectual perfection,” which is ultimately a preparation for saintly perfection – knowing God and His Holy Will.