Newman on the Liberal Arts


Why do we educate our children? Is it so that they will be prepared for the perfect college? Is it so that they will make lots of money? Is it so that they will get a certain job?

Educators from the past would have thought these purposes, while not irrelevant, at least short-sighted. John Henry Newman, Oxford Educator, Anglican Clergyman and finally Cardinal in the Catholic Church provides clarity on the real purpose of a classical education. It is a compelling vision.

According to Newman in his book The Idea of a University, training in the liberal arts was

the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical [plausible but misleading], and to discard what is irrelevant.

It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.  It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.

He is at home in any society, he has common ground with any class, he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has a sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect.

He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad.

He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.

His lofty vision is well worth meditating on and pursuing.

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