Newman, Education, and the Human Person
John Henry Newman was an educator during much of his adult life. In his 20s he was a tutor at Oxford, and in his 50s he founded the Catholic University of Ireland and later the Oratory School. In describing his theories of education in his well-known Idea of the University, Newman had to counter the popular educational views of John Locke, who espoused an essentially utilitarian understanding of education. Locke’s outlook as expressed in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) focused on making the child an obedient family member and later a productive member of society. By contrast, Newman felt that the primary purpose of education was to fulfill the student as a human being by enriching his mind.
The most obvious thing we notice when reading Locke’s book is that it is geared to producing a gentleman who will benefit society. In his Dedication, Locke writes of publishing his work as a “Duty” promoting “general Advantage” (lxii) and for the “Welfare and Prosperity of the Nation” (lxiii). Locke consistently writes in terms of practicality regarding what will make a person be successful, live a satisfied and healthy life, and promote the general welfare. Locke wanted the curriculum to be based on the immediately practical. Poetry and music are not recommended. Classical and foreign languages are also regarded as only minimally useful. In general, one’s reason, not tradition, should guide curriculum.
Newman, like Locke, wanted his students to contribute to society and live a healthy and presumably prosperous life. However, he did not see this as being the true end of education. Rather, the goal is the achievement of what he calls the “philosophical habit” (Idea 76), an expansion of the mind that leads to the ability to think, and especially to understand a subject’s place within the entire sphere of knowledge. While Newman’s goal is very broad, Newman regards Locke’s as excessively narrow. Newman contends that Locke, “limits utility in education to its bearing on the future profession or trade of the pupil, that is, he scorns the idea of any education of the intellect, simply as such” (Idea159). Newman does argue that the acquisition of the philosophical habit will normally cause a student to be well fitted for a profession, but that is not its purpose.
Newman appreciated the traditional elements that Locke despised. He believed that learning the classical languages was uniquely effective in training the mind and opening it to the wisdom of another time and culture. Newman also loved both poetry and music, and he realized that there was a part of most persons that these arts appealed to. Newman wished to engage the whole student and see him flourish. The educated person, he writes in the Idea, “has the repose of a mind which lives within itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift that serves him in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm” (178).
How are we to account for Newman’s appreciation of the individual that he taught? I think the first and most obvious source of Newman’s personal approach to teaching is found in his deep religious spirit. Newman saw every encounter with a living person as an opportunity to influence a soul. He understood his tutorship as a proper exercise of his ordained ministry. He wrote that he took with the utmost seriousness “the opportunities given me of benefitting those who are under my care” (Memoranda Personal and Most Private, II Sunday, May 7, 1826; cited by A. Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect, 52)).
I believe a second reason for Newman’s personalism was his educational experiences as both a learner and a teacher. Newman enjoyed the human element in education. Though he was not the Big Man on Campus type, he was generally happy in school and university, and he records joyful moments when he received the friendship of his teachers. When he began tutoring students, Newman tried to replicate this policy of encouragement and friendship, as we see in his letters to students, his summer visits to their homes, and his frequent walks with them.
Newman approached his teaching from an obviously Christian anthropology. He saw every young person from the start as a being in the image of God. The student should thus be nurtured and led for his own sake, not produced with an idea towards the improvement of society. Although Newman was aware that the intellectual growth of the person was ultimately beneficial to society, his goal was to enlighten the individual person and enrich his inner being rather than serve an assumed utility. He hoped for all his students to be consumed with the love of God, and he lovingly urged the souls entrusted him to pursue that ultimate calling.
McNeese State University