By Gabriel Martinez, August 13, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
John Henry Newman never uses the word "integration" in the Idea of a University. Not once. This is funny, because most people associate Newman with the suggestion that we should become "integrated", meaning that the lines between disciplines should be blurred. In fact some of Newman's best paragraphs are dedicated to a very different vision.
For Newman, what goes on in a University worthy of the name is not a melding, a blending of the many into the one. A University is a conversation. To use the modern term, then, integration is not a state; it’s a process. It’s not an equilibrium, it’s an activity of the soul. It’s not a feature, it’s a habit: the mental habit of knowing when to rely on one’s own approach and when on others’.
How does one work towards this kind of integration? Not infrequently, very smart people will fall into the trap of assuming that integration has to happen in every course in the curriculum. (We wouldn't want students to be "merely" economists/political thinkers/biologists, right? They need antidotes along with the venom, don't they?)
I would like to suggest that we step away from the individual course, and look at the education of the student as a whole. A University, in Newman's sense, offers a curriculum that embodies the belief a) that truth exists, b) that truth can be known by reason, through a variety of approaches, and c) that these approaches are complementary – they can talk to each other – but also distinct.
Perhaps this implies a curriculum in which most courses are prescribed, to indicate the topics that help the student know truth better; b) in which many disciplines are studied in some depth, to train and discipline the mind and make it patient, careful, and clear, and c) in which similar questions are raised across the curriculum in an unforced way.
Once the student knows, through experience, that particular approaches are powerful but also limited, he can pick a particular approach, and study it with abandon. There’s little fear that a student so educated will doubt his reason and equate knowledge and feeling, or that he’ll fall into the “danger of being absorbed and narrowed by his pursuit” (Newman, Idea, 166 ) to the point of turning it into an idolatry. This student will have a mental habit of knowing when to rely on his approach and when on others’, of spotting mistakes and biases in partial advances, and of seeing the real overlap hidden under superficial disagreement.
Here's what I have in mind.