By Gabriel Martinez, November 4, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
John Henry Newman taught that we should become know-it-alls, multischolars of vast erudition . . . right? That's what people seem to think (at least those who have heard of Newman a lot but haven't had the time to read him carefully). This is, plainly, a misinterpretation of Newman and a falsification of liberal education.
Here's another common misinterpretation: liberal education means we are all to become amateur philosophers (in the sense of the discipline of philosophy). Newman lends himself to this misinterpretation when, at a loss for the right word, he says that the aim of liberal education is "the philosophical habit of mind."
As far as I can tell, what he wants is very simple: scholars should specialize, and should know how their specialty relates to that of others.
Take, for example, economics. Newman devotes more words to “political economy” than to any other discipline (besides theology). He criticizes a famous political economist at length. But the critique—now listen carefully—is not for being a practitioner of a false science, not for being ignorant of philosophy or religion, not for being narrow and specialized and abstract.
He praises economics and the economist. He approves of specialization as the teacher of discipline of mind. But he gives us that famous Oxford professor as an example of someone who, once he has started using his discipline to say true things, doesn’t know when to stop. And Newman admits quite plainly that theologians, philosophers, musicians, artists, and medical doctors are just as likely to make the same mistake.
(The record seems to suggest that political economy was taught in the Catholic University of Ireland in much the same way (with Newman’s full support) that it was taught at the secularized schools. His university was different, not because all disciplines were mushed into one, but because faculty and students strove to learn the place of each. See Oslington 2001)
Is philosophy the solution? (I mean this in the sense of reading lots of philosophical works or taking courses in philosophy.) The technical study of philosophy is not, in itself, a liberal education.
Liberal education is betrayed both by narrow specialization and by the acquisition of "a smattering" of many disciplines, that superficial and multifarious knowledge that its advocates would like to foist on us. How often do we hear of learned fools from every discipline, seething with contempt of others, incapable of seeing past their noses, blinded by their light, caved-in by their own studies, full of their professional love of wisdom and empty of the thing itself! But liberal education is a higher word.
The antidote against intellectual blindness, then, is our intellectual honesty and the rivalry and the correction of our colleagues. We should read and have conversations with other scholars, both in our discipline and outside it. The scholar is required to pursue his field, aware that other scholars are jealous—and rightly jealous—for their own territory. All that Newman asks of “religious writers, jurists, economists, physiologists, chemists, geologists, and historians, [is that they] go on quietly, and in a neighbourly way, in their own respective lines of speculation, research, and experiment,” confident that apparent contradiction will be resolved in good time by honest scholarship (Idea, 465).
Newman does not charge the scholar to become a university, but to work “in a University, [where] he will just know where he and his science stand. [K]ept from extravagance by the very rivalry of other studies, he [will gain] from them a special illumination and largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession.” Sincere arguments with our colleagues give us a liberal education, which allows us to come to our own discipline, “as it were, from a height” (Idea, 166-67).
When, as teachers, we strive for "integration," our aim should be to place each discipline within its context. This effort is not the amalgamation of all learning or the hegemonic domination of some disciplines over others. It is a dialogue, a dialectic, a tension that moves researchers to unity (cf. Briel 1995). Integration is not the imposition of intellectual peace under a single overarching framework but fidelity to one’s discipline and rivalry between disciplines—disciplinary specialization and the intellectual resources to intuit a synthesis and the intellectual honesty to desire it.