Thursday, February 24, 2011

Newman on Higher Education

When Archbishop Cullen appointed Newman as Rector of the proposed Catholic University of Ireland in 1851, it was to spearhead the Church’s response to a scheme designed to enable Catholics to obtain degrees within the secular, utilitarian system devised by Sir Robert Peel: the Queen’s Colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway. As Newman wrote, the University was intended to attract American as well as Irish students, and to become a centre of Catholic cultural renewal for the whole English-speaking world, “with Great Britain, Malta (perhaps Turkey or Egypt), and India on one side of it, and North America and Australia on the other.” It was an extraordinary vision, and even if this first Irish Catholic university was reabsorbed by the secular system after Newman’s departure, it had provided the occasion for a series of discourses on education (The Idea of a University) which continue to influence Catholic thinking today. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), defining the basic constitution of a modern Catholic university, clearly bears the mark of Newman’s thought. 

Today, Newman’s ideas are more urgent and relevant than ever. Zenit has recently published a useful series of articles on this theme by Fr Juan R. Velez ("Newman's 'Idea' for Catholic Higher Education", Part 1Part 2). The tensions between “liberal” or progressive and “conservative” or authoritarian elements in the Catholic academic world tend to come to a head over the
question of whether faculty should be obliged to take an oath of loyalty to the Holy See. In Newman’s vision of a Catholic university, loyalty to the magisterium was presupposed. No one can accuse Newman of infidelity (even if he famously, and rightly, put conscience before the Pope in an after-dinner toast). The insistence on a formal oath may have a function in weeding out dissenters, but it betrays that the essential spirituality of a Catholic institution has already been lost. The mere taking of an oath, by itself, is not the way to restore that spirit.

To understand this, we need to reflect on what the Church (and by extension any Catholic community, including a community of scholars) actually is. A eucharistic ecclesiology views the Church not exclusively from the side of the “people” or from the side of the “authorities”, but from the “inside”; that is to say, as an extension of the Incarnation.  It recognizes the Church’s deepest reality in the love which is the source of her unity. In that love is inscribed the Trinitarian dynamic which alone enables us to overcome dualism without falling into monism (totalitarian or socialistic corporatism).

The Church has the nature of a sacrament. The place to start renewing the Catholic spirit of an institution is therefore with the liturgy. Daily Mass and regular opportunities for prayer should be the axis around which the life of the Catholic community turns, cultivating both the sense of the sacred and the sense of the community, the vertical and the horizontal dimensions, the love of God and the love of neighbour, all at the same time. As far as possible, the curriculum should follow the liturgical year. Students should be offered opportunities to participate in a pattern of prayer, meditation, good works and fasting that will assist them in living more in the spirit of the evangelical counsels. The experience of (moderate) asceticism could in fact be seen as an essential component of a Catholic education, since it engages the will in the transformation of a way of life. The advertising industry expends large amounts of energy, creativity and time in manufacturing artificial needs, or channelling natural desires towards particular commodities: education in a Christian institution should assist students to discriminate between true and false needs, even as it strengthens their resolve to pursue creatively the task of fulfilling their own real needs as human persons, through loving service.

Newman emphasized consistently from his Evangelical days that Christianity is much more than a set of doctrines or institutions.  At its heart is the love of a Person, Jesus Christ, who alone fully reveals to us the source and purpose of created reality and of our own lives. Ex Corde echoes Newman: “the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge” (section 85). The healthy human mind aims to see things first in their natural wholeness and integration, and it does so by loving reality or the truth of things per se; by being receptive to it, in such a way as to form a kind of living communion with it. A Catholic education therefore has to be founded on the love of truth, on respect for reality that transcends us, and on the capacity of the human mind to know the “essences” of real things. This stands in contrast to the prevailing philosophy of our age, which makes the choosing self the creator of meaning.

As Christians, we know by faith that it is in Christ that all truth finds its home and fulfilment; but that does not mean that all intellectual problems can be solved with a doctrinal statement.  Each and every discipline has its own legitimate autonomy; a Catholic university is not one in which the teachers of physics or biology or history must report to the professor of theology in fear and trembling.  Nevertheless, the theology professor in a Catholic university does know a secret.  He knows that in the end, if you press physics or biology or history to its own deepest level, if you pursue your intellectual quarry to its ultimate lair, you will find love. What is magnetism, asks the poet Coventry Patmore in The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, “but the echo of the senseless rock to the very voice of far-off Love, and the effect of the kiss of God transmitted through the hierarchies of heaven and earth to the lips of the least of beings?”  In some form or expression, the theologian knows that it is love that will turn out to be the force that moves the sun, the stars and the heart of man.  It is in this sense that Christ -- who reveals the nature of love -- is implicitly at the centre of the curriculum even of secular studies in a Catholic university.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Fractals are infinitely complex and beautiful patterns produced through the repetition of a simple formula or shape, patterns which often appear rough or chaotic and which can be found everywhere in nature (the surface of the sea, the edge of a cloud, the dancing flames in a wood fire). I have written about them briefly before.

What appeals to us in such patterns, perhaps, is the combination of simplicity and complexity. They allow our minds scope to expand, and our imaginations to take off in the direction of the infinite, but at the same time to rest in a unity. It is similar to the reason we love science. Scientists are seeking the simple secret at the heart of the complex - the formula or combination of universal laws that governs all of reality and explains why it works or appears the way it does.

Something similar is happening in art, when the artist seeks unity of concept or meaning or mood in a complex scene or sight or landscape.

Not all beauty is produced by these "recursive algorithms" or the repetition of self-similarity at different scales of magnitude. Sometimes a pattern is just there in the thing and does not repeat itself. But beauty always has something to do with order, which means the finding of a unity of form in something complex - a balance between the Many and the One. The finding of unity gives us joy (which is why we call it beautiful) because it enables us to recognise the Self in the Other, outside ourselves. It causes us to expand our boundaries to include the other thing as grasped and understood, or at least as situated in a relationship to us. Fractal patterns are a version of that experience. We sense the unity, but because it is expressing itself as never-ending complexity, it never gets boring.

Therefore all beauty, including fractal beauty, reminds us of God, who is both infinitely simple (in himself, as pure love) and yet infinitely complex (in what he contains and creates).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Child-centred education: 3

We all know there is a child still within us. That child has many aspects. It is ignorant, selfish, immature, confused. It may be desperately in need of love it has never received. But it is innocent and pure. I think it was in that sense that Georges Bernanos wrote, “What does my life matter? I just want it to be faithful, to the end, to the child I used to be.”

Christianity has given a particular importance to childhood. It certainly transformed, over time, the way children were perceived in classical civilizations. From the statement of Christ, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15), it followed that there was something valuable and to be imitated in the state of childhood. Normally children are told to grow up and become like adults, not the other way around. Childhood is an undeveloped stage, but in some ways it also represents a more perfect state, in which we
can see more completely what it is simply to be human. Until Mary Immaculate, no one had lived that human existence perfectly, but in her and in her newborn Child we see what it is to receive one’s being straight from the hand of God and to show forth what it is to be loved and to love.

This is not to romanticize or idealize childhood, but to understand it in the light of a new fact: the Incarnation of the second person of the divine Trinity. God has a Son. We are made in God’s image. The child from its first moment is the paradigm for the image of God, as well as a revelation of the meaning of being – its meaning as pure gift. This primordial meaning of the child is present even in fallen man, but clouded over and confused as time goes by and as the child grows.

The great educators have learned to appreciate the various stages of childhood and adolescence as the unfolding of human potential. Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences” was welcomed by many teachers (if not by most psychologists) because it seemed to confirm their experience of the multi-faceted nature of that potential, and gave them a vocabulary in which to discuss it. But intelligence, even in the plural, needs to be integrated within a broader theory of the human person as the manifestation of Being.

The child who has not yet sinned – or in the case of Mary and Jesus, the child who never sins – lives partly in eternity even while on earth; he has the fragrance of eternity around him. Purity is the reason childhood is so fascinating. To be pure is to be simple, in the sense of undivided. Impurity involves a loss of integrity, of integration; it is a dissonance, a crack in the mirror of the soul. (Every sin sets part of me against the rest.) The pure gaze of innocence is one that does not secretly look for what can be got out of something or someone. It sees things as they are in their own right. The energy behind the gaze is not diverted by a variety of passions. When a baby wants something, it wants that thing completely. Thus the child lives each moment more intensely than those who have grown old in sin. His eyes are clearer, his ears keener, his energy stronger. He lives in a wider universe, one that seems to go on forever, for he has not had the experience of many winters and summers, and of the flickering parade birthdays coming and going through the years. He has no yardstick against which to measure his life. This intensity of experience is partly a function of the way memory and imagination work. It is the memory of time that makes us old; remembering eternity makes us young again.

The first priority of the Catholic school must be to preserve and nurture the spirit of childhood in this sense – to preserve and help to restore (through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of confession) the purity that alone enables us to “see God” (Matt. 5:8). The rules of morality are not there primarily for the sake of social order, tradition or convention; they exist for the sake of the order of the soul, its spiritual development and happiness. Yet an overly moralistic approach would be counter-productive. Not only can we not rely on rules and the policing of corridors for the preservation of purity and the development of conscience, these are not even the best way to begin. The soul needs love, as the positive force around which all its powers will congregate. It needs a degree of tenderness, if it is to flourish without fear. It needs attention, in the sense that others – the teacher especially – must listen to it and be receptive to what it has to offer, if it is to discover for itself what that is.

This was the third of three extracts from a work in progress.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Child-centred education: 2

More notes from a work in progress.

Another great figure in child-centred education is Rudolf Steiner (d. 1925), the founder of a school of spiritual philosophy called Anthroposophy and the inspiration for around 1000 Waldorf Schools around the world, including this one in Edinburgh. The schools began in 1919 when Steiner was invited to create one for the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, based on the ideas in his 1909 book, The Education of the Child. Steiner believed in the need to educate with the spiritual as well as emotional, cultural and physical needs of children in mind, and believed that they progress through a series of developmental stages corresponding to the evolution of human consciousness itself. Abstract and conceptual thinking develops late, around the age of 14, and so the early years are more focused on art, the
imagination and feeling. Subjects tend to be presented in a pictorial way, usually involving music, rhythm, routine and repetition (exposure to television and computers is minimized). The system relies on a strong relationship with a Class Teacher who normally stays with the same children from ages 7 till 14. Prior to that, the children attend a kindergarten where child-led play alternates with teacher-led activities in a carefully structured environment. The Upper School curriculum fosters independent thinking and is taught by specialist teachers.

Waldorf Schools are run collegially rather than by a head teacher, and assessment is by the teachers' observation of the children in their care rather than by formal examination. The children are helped to compile their own lesson books by hand in the Lower School, which prepares them for independent note-taking in the later phase. In general, this holistic approach seems to work - children are happy and sociable, and academic standards are often judged to be higher than in conventional mainstream schools.

The Italian doctor, Maria Montessori (d. 1952), a devout Roman Catholic, developed her ideas around the same time as Steiner - by 1907 she thought she had discovered the true "normal" nature of the child by working with the disabled, and her work subsequently was to create an environment in which children (especially young children, up to the age of six) could direct and pursue their own learning. The normalization of the child took place through a state of deep concentration, evoked by some task of the child's own choosing. The younger child has an immense capacity to absorb experiences and concepts which become foundations of the later personality, and a particular sensitivity to music, although abstract reasoning only develops later. The curriculum in a typical Montessori school or play-group is not pre-set, but consists in a series of challenges introduced by the teacher when the child seems ready for them.

Other examples of child-centred pedagogy might be mentioned, but the basic principle is clear. After observing children with loving attention, each of these educators came to certain conclusions about the nature of the child and the developmental stages that need to be taken into account. Each tried to devise an environment in which the child's natural question for beauty, goodness and truth might be pursued and facilitated. There are of course many differences in the exact delineation of the stages, but the rough pattern is similar in each case. The basis for a good education is a certain trust in the self-motivation of the child, combined with a reliance on the creativity, responsiveness and love of the teacher, who sets the terms for the learning environment and allows the child to flourish.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Child-centred education: 1

Notes from a work in progress.

Insight into the true value of the child can be traced back to Christ, though it has to be said it remained mainly implicit during most of the succeeding centuries, and before the eighteenth century childhood was often considered merely a stage of weakness and immaturity to be got through as quickly as possible. We'll come back to the child later in this series. The modern period saw a transformation of educational theory and practice. In the wake of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) and the Romantics, most developments reflect a greater respect for the nature and natural development of the child. Rousseau himself – not a great educator, but a considerable influence through his novel Emile – believed in the natural goodness and value of the child,
wanted education to be adapted to each new developmental stage, and placed great emphasis on the importance of the child’s activity or active involvement in the process. We can trace his influence through several of the best-known educationalists of the succeeding centuries – though we can also see on all sides the bad fruits of an educational approach that centred itself so exclusively on the child that the tradition of Western civilization began to founder and be lost. Let us examine some representative figures, and what can be learned from them.

A century after Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel (d. 1852) is best known for the kindergarten, which was conceived as the centre of an interactive educational process based around the activity of the young child. For Froebel (influenced by his experiences with the remarkable Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed that children have an innate desire to learn), the “game” is the typical form of life in childhood, and play is the key to education, capable of laying solid foundations for the adult personality. (“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul.”) Children in the kindergarten would typically learn through song, dance, gardening and the use of geometrical and other patterned blocks and toys – known as the Froebel “Gifts”. These represent the basic building blocks of the universe and the symmetry of the child’s own soul.

Whereas Rousseau was a freethinker and Froebel from a Lutheran background, Don Bosco (d. 1888) was an Oratorian priest and became a Catholic saint. His approach was akin to theirs in some ways, and yet also rather different. Loving children very much, he was more concerned than Rousseau with their fragility and moral danger, and his educational philosophy was intended to produce “good Christians and honest citizens” – good citizens on earth in order to become good citizens in heaven. Nature and grace are not opposed, but interpenetrate for the sake of a final goal that could be called the supernatural fulfillment of the natural. Education must therefore serve the supernatural dignity and destiny of the child, allowing it to blossom in the social dimension.

Bosco rejected the repressive or preventive approach to education in favour of an approach based on friendship, appealing directly to the heart and to the innate desire for God (“reason, religion and loving-kindness” was one formulation, “cheerfulness, study, and piety” another). His pedagogy made use of music, theatre, comedy, walks and excursions – all in the tradition of St Philip Neri, the Oratory’s founder. Though this approach is still “child-centred”, it places a great responsibility on the person of the educator, since the young person is not expected to flourish naturally in this world without a relationship that offers personal attention and genuine love. But in this context, if such a relationship can be established, grace is able to flow and the development of reasonableness, imagination, empathy and conscience is much more secure. It is a kind of partnership.

Coming: Waldorf Schools, Montessori, Giussani.