Blessed John Henry Newman has been steadily growing on me lately. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is, if nothing else, a moving illustration of what it is like to be inexorably pulled by one’s own views and investigations into alien territory (i.e. the Church). It also gave a neat look into the headiness of the days of the Oxford Movement. Back when I started to take Christianity a bit more seriously, I was initially attracted to the same sort of Anglican via media notion that Newman was originally a proponent of – High Anglicanism as a good moderate point between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But it became increasingly clear that there were really just two different sets of premises being held in tension, both of which led to one of the extremes.
Right now I’m making my way through his Idea of a University. There is a lot in here that requires a reread to really get a good opinion on, and some things which I didn’t expect: his arguments against what we would these days probably call reductionism, for example. I was particularly struck by his observation that when you remove one body of knowledge or science from the picture, what you’re left with doesn’t remain a simple blind spot for long; rather, other bodies of knowledge close the gap and try to assimilate its subject matter into themselves. That’s perhaps worth another blog post down the line.
The latter “University Teaching” lectures, which I’m still reading, focus more on Newman’s argument that liberal knowledge is knowledge which is good for its own sake, and that the perfection of the intellect is superior to simply amassing a as much information about various subject matters as possible. Actually, he goes so far as to say that someone who doesn’t know how to think properly, who has no broadness of mind, will be the worse off personally for having all that data crammed into him (however beneficial his knowledge might be for his particular discipline). Here’s a nice quote:
Nay, self-education in any shape, in the most restricted sense, is preferable to a system of teaching which, professing so much, really does so little for the mind…They [the self-educated] will be too often ignorant of what every one knows and takes for granted, of that multitude of small truths which fall upon the mind like dust, impalpable and ever accumulating; they may be unable to converse, they may argue perversely, they may pride themselves on their worst paradoxes of their grossest truism, they may be full of their own mode of viewing things, unwilling to be put out of their way, slow to enter into the minds of others; – but with these and other liabilities upon their heads, they are likely to have more thought, more mind, more philosophy, more true enlargement, than those earnest but ill-used persons, who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust, having gained nothing really by their ansious labours, except perhaps the habit of application.
(Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Pgs 112-3)