Newman’s Idea of a University makes an essential contribution to thinking about education, especially religious education, and is an important book for Catholic educators today, of all ages. Discourses 1-7 are quite intellectually heavy; he appeals to human nature through rational argument.
But he takes a swift turn in Discourse 8, a turn that is quite jarring, but a breath of fresh air. At long last he aims at a full integration of religion and reason, the natural and the supernatural, as they apply to education. Newman himself begins the discourse by saying that he has been adrift on an open sea, but now finally has come to safe harbor (a metaphor he also uses about his feelings upon converting to the Roman Catholic Church). Only in the authoritative revelation of Christ and His Church is there a true sanctuary and true foundation for the great enterprise of education.
To make his point about the necessity of God’s grace and the supernatural gifts given to man by Christ through his Church, Newman will employ rhetoric that sounds almost like he is repudiating his previous arguments that appeal to secular reason and natural human experience. But his sudden turn is not a repudiation; it is an integration based on the conviction that only Christian religion and revelation can give education its full flourishing.
Many in the Victorian era were self-aware of how social etiquette, gentlemanly and lady-like manners, and the conventions of polite society contributed to a surface morality that merely masked hidden vices. Many today seem to think they can overcome this stuffy veneer by merely accepting the crass and vulgar, allowing hidden vices to be visible and public. However, even during the 19th century, Victorian satirical writers exposed the problem of a polite surface masking hidden vice. Newman was one of them.
The English convert argued that real transformation of the heart, without which all external manners are hypocritical, is essential for authentic formation. He notes how the people of his century experienced an unprecedented level of material prosperity and comfort compared with “rude and semi-barbarous periods.” He certainly celebrated advances in medicine, housing, and infrastructure: “The rude food, the scanty clothing, the violent exercise, the vagrant life, the military constraint, the imperfect pharmacy, which now are the trials of only particular classes of the community, were once the lot more or less of all.” Nonetheless, Newman pointed out that these advances were being mistaken for automatic moral goodness, causing “resourceless ignorance” and a lack of moral fiber.
His central point in Discourse 8 is that the very best of education, the highest possibilities for intellectual formation, even the kind he has delineated at length in previous discourses, can become a big sham, a decorous crust hiding a seething lack of moral formation. Only religion, he argues, made an explicit and actual part of schooling, can allow for the full flourishing of the human person, integrating high intellectual achievement with real inward transformation of character.
Newman begins by granting that, in a certain sense, the educated mind is already “religious” without Catholicism, already devoted to a higher invisible truth. In some degree, Newman thinks the kind of education he lays out, honed by the ancients, brought to perfection by the scholastics and still bearing fruit in modern sciences and humanities, can cultivate man in his natural state as far as possible without grace. However, he is by no means denying the necessity of the Church or of grace; quite the contrary. An individual formed in this education has the potential to co-operate with or thwart the mission of the Church, God’s plan for the divine pedagogy of mankind. The Catholic Church, in particular, lays claim to the magisterial fullness of truth imparted by Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Spirit; a merely natural education, while attaining some level of excellence in various times and places, will be prone to error, decline, and ignorance without the perfecting grace of revealed truth from God, which is ever ancient and ever new, full of life and the constant renewal of the Life-Giver.
Discourse 8 should rank with the best satirical English prose of the 19th and 20th centuries, satire at the service of sanctification, which I will examine more in my next post. Newman uses wit and humor to show us that education, social customs and manners can present a false surface, and only the real grace of God can transform our hearts inwardly. Faith, not external formation, nor good breeding, nor social savvy, can make us truly moral. Without the fullness of the Christian religion, all our education is a clanging gong or sounding cymbal.