Education a Diverse River Wide Enough for All Swimmers

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1993 | Go to article overview

Education a Diverse River Wide Enough for All Swimmers


In his nine lectures addressed to the Catholics of Dublin in 1853, Cardinal Newman outlined his thoughts on education, later published in the celebrated work, The Idea of a University. Newman made it clear that free discussion was an absolute necessity: "Now while this free discussion is, to say the least, so safe for religion, or rather so expedient, it is on the other hand simply necessary for progress in science."

What Newman proposed was contrary to the views of the Cathobc clerical establishment he was trying to persuade. Knowledge, Newman argued, was a good pursuit in its own right - and not to be feared.

In Newman's mind, the purpose of a university education was simple: liberal education, not because it made the student Catholic or made the student Christian, but because it cultivated the intellect, stretched the imagination and opened the mind to the pursuit of understanding and truth.

In light of certain trends in higher education today, it is helpful to consider the educational ends his ideas did not include - preparing corporate executives, for example, or wise consumers, or even practicing Catholics.

Many Catholic colleges and universities in the United States struggle today, implicitly and explicitly, to uphold the ideals Newman so eloquently articulated, the ideals of a liberal arts education. These are ideals worth preserving, even as the boundaries of "liberal arts" expand and change with the passage of time. In some cases, these ideals are threatened by harsh financial pressures; in others, by the same old clerical pressures Newman once faced from those who, claiming a handle on truth, wield it as a weapon to sanctify a godless world.

U.S. higher education, particularly liberal education, meanwhile, is experiencing its own growmg pains. The classic Western Greek/Roman course curriculum has come under attack from "multiculturalists? who view the old model as too exclusionary in that it leaves out the historical insights, values and experiences of generations of Africans, Middle Easterners, Asians and American Indians, to say nothing of women worldwide.

In the wake of such pressures, other non-Western traditions have made curriculum gains but now face a growing backlash from those who argue that the nation's European democratic or even Judeo-Christian roots are threatened. They point to the "Balkanization" resulting from ethnic-based living units on campuses and ask if they help achieve the high ideals of integrated university life. These expressions of concern are genuine, even if sometimes precipitate.

Newman also wrote, "To live is to change." The world is changing. We are learning about and learning from ethnic groups and cultures many of us never heard of a few years back.

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