This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest defenders of liberal learning, and one of the most thoughtful voices on the nature of Catholic education, John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman lived in an England where modern trends in university education, like secularization and specialization, were just beginning to gain strength. It was an age where increasingly subtle skeptical arguments (like those of Gibbon and Hume) were being waged against a religious population of humble faith and average intellect. It was an intellectual climate where the sciences, and their utility to modern man, were being praised by scholars at the expense of the humanities in general, and philosophy and theology in particular.

Into this environment came Newman, a man who, if nothing else, was unashamed of his distinctively counter-cultural attitudes. He defined his life as a crusade against liberalism, the view that there is no absolute truth and that religion is a matter of feeling, where one man’s opinion is as good as another’s. Postmodernism loomed on the horizon.

Newman was constantly responding to the accusations of his critics and the sophistic philosophy of his contemporaries. When Aristotle wrote The Politics, some complained he had published a handbook for tyrants. In Newman’s writings, one could find, in the words of T.H. Huxley, a “primer of infidelity.” His words were constantly being misinterpreted. Some claimed he encouraged priests to lie to the lay faithful, because they were not intelligent enough to understand the truth. Others believed Newman used scare tactics to win converts to Catholicism, by presenting it as the only rational alternative to atheism.

Today, opposition to Newman has taken a more vicious turn. He has yet to be canonized by the Church because of a lack of miracles attributable to his intercession. However, some people believe Newman’s quickness to respond to his accusers is proof of an overly-sensitive nature unfit for sainthood. Others read into Newman’s early devotion to a life of celibacy and his fond attachment to Oxford friends repressed homosexual desires.

Newman’s best work includes his outstanding contribution to the literature of education, which is especially relevant today, when the prevailing attitude is against acquiring knowledge for its own sake and requiring classes in theology and philosophy are being substantially challenged and revisited. Newman lived at the start of the era of “mixed education,” where, after centuries of separation, Catholics and Protestants could finally attend the same universities. Dealing with diversity proved as difficult then as it does today, and some educators wished to deal with the problem by eliminating theology from the curriculum.

Newman thought this was entirely unnecessary. In The Idea of a University, he describes learning as an ordered whole: a circle of knowledge where various disciplines comprise the several segments.

Newman knew that with knowledge came the potential for moral improvement and corruption. There was no linear relationship between the amount of one’s education and moral character. Newman knew that philosophy could especially be misused to serve man’s selfish pride. This is why he was so insistent that a good university should cultivate a man’s character as well as his mind, encouraging charity and humility that would hold egoism in check. By hiring professors whose characters exemplified this gentleness of mind and spirit, the university’s ethos would improve much more than it could by formal, theological training.

Newman’s description of a gentleman’s qualities is rightly one of the most famous passages in his writings. Undergraduates who believe that their course of studies is challenging should try conforming their actions to Newman’s set of criteria for a truly rewarding challenge. A gentleman is “one who never inflicts pain . like an easy chair or a good fire . his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home . he knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.”

Bill Clinton (SFS ’68), who, to say the least, falls short of Newman’s idea of a gentleman, is nevertheless the product of an excellent undergraduate education. Clinton attended Georgetown at a time when the college of arts and sciences was 96 percent Catholic, and the Jesuits imposed a discipline of dress code and curfews. No women were allowed in the dorms. One half-hour per night was reserved for socializing. Still, Clinton seems to have forgotten the finer points of gentlemanly behavior.

Newman would not have been surprised. He knew that God was accessible, first and foremost, through the conscience, not the mind. He said of his own religious conversion that it could not have been effected by logic alone: “as well might one say that the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather.”

Newman adopted a motto as a cardinal that now adorns the stained glass window in Dahlgren Chapel: “cor ad cor loquitur,” or “heart speaks to heart.” Education is possible only when students embrace knowledge with their whole being and make it a rule for their lives. And it only comes through teachers who have made it a rule for themselves.

Once Newman left Oxford, he felt no need to return. What Newman loved about his college already thrived within him, and would never leave. May this inspire us. May we take it to heart.

For What It’s Worth will appear regularly this semester.

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