Opinion: the kind of liberal education espoused by the man to be canonised this weekend can contribute to upholding democratic citizenship

By Manus CharletonSligo Institute of Technology

An Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism and became a priest and cardinal, John Henry Newman will be canonised on 13 October 2019. He was the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1851 (UCD since 1908).

In his Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, Newman argued that universities should include a liberal education for all their students. While he relates liberal education to universities, it can apply also to other educational levels, colleges, institutes and to self-education.

Today liberals and populist nationalists are in conflict in the US and many European countries, with populists accusing liberals of being elitist. For populists, the term sums up those who push for a society that provides liberal polices that are not supported by "ordinary people". Liberal policies include providing for abortion, same-sex marriage, gender diversity, neo-liberal economics and globalisation. Populists also accuse liberals of imposing their standards of political correctness. Conversely, liberals accuse populists of being illiberal and against progress. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Fr Michael Collins talks about his new book "Newman: A Short Biography"

But neither elitism nor populism are educational aims. For Newman, the aim is to develop the mind and it is facilitated through a liberal education that is egalitarian not elitist. He argues that liberal education is consistent with the ordinary natural process that enables learners to develop their minds and think for themselves. Its roots are in "the mere experience of life". It can be recognised by "simple common sense". It is not "mere knowledge". It goes beyond knowledge to bring about what he calls "enlargement of the mind". 

Newman gives the example of someone brought up in a quiet village who experiences a metropolis for the first time. This person "does not stand where he did, he has a new centre, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger". Similarly, those who travel to see the world can learn from experience about "the principles and modes of thought of various parties, interests, and races, their views, aims, habits and manners, their religious creeds and forms of worship". They can see and appreciate people’s differences and similarities.

The mind is expanded by "exuberant riches and resources" through the lens of the physical sciences, especially cosmology. Those who explore "the arguments and speculations of unbelievers" can also experience "a sense of expansion and elevation – an intoxication of reality" and an "illumination" of "the subjective state of mind." 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Leap Of Faith, an interview with Fr Dermot Mansfield, the author of "Heart Speaks to Heart: The Story of Blessed John Henry Newman"

The crucial difference between expanding the mind and simply acquiring knowledge is that the mind acts as a "formative power". This happens when our mind assimilates "the objects of our knowledge" by making them "subjectively our own". It is "the movement onwards" of our "mental centre" that "gravitates" towards an outcome comprised of "both what we know, and what we are learning". It is a process that includes analysis and comparison and leads to informed judgment and systemisation while remaining open to revision. 

Liberal material for study is broad-based, diverse, and free from selection to suit a particular religious moral purpose. It lies in classic works that reveal humankind in its "history", in its "passion, intellect, conscience, power", and in its "great deeds" and "hateful crimes". 

Newman argued against the view that it is sufficient for university education to serve society’s economic needs and provide for the professions, and that anything further is useless. He regarded liberal education as a good thing, like physical health. This makes it useful in a general sense without having to be for a specific purpose. Its general usefulness enables teachers to avoid being "absorbed and narrowed" by their specialism and instead develop a broad view of how it relates to other specialisms and to society.

Liberal education empowers citizens to be informed, questioning and open to different points of view

It also helps students take up different types of jobs and perform them with more ease and versatility than otherwise. And it is especially useful as preparation for dealing with a contested social and political world, whereas knowledge education on its own can result in having no opinion or only unsupported assertions. 

Democracy has become endangered from the conflict between liberals and populists. The conflict has involved spreading false information, verbal abuse, threats, and manipulating voters en masse with propaganda using personal information about them taken from their internet use. It has also led to violence from extremists. In 2016, British Labour MP and Remain campaigner in the Brexit debate Jo Cox was murdered.

Liberal education, such as Newman espoused, can contribute to upholding democratic citizenship. It empowers citizens to be informed, questioning and open to different points of view, as well as recognising citizenship duties and responsibilities. It can also help achieve "freedom from littleness and prejudice."

It stands, too, in contrast to practices that suggest we now live in a supposedly "post-truth" era in which assertive emotional preference and tribalism count for more than reasoned argument and open engagement. Reviving the understanding of liberal education by reclaiming and promoting its roots and merits would help reduce the conflict.  

Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics, Politics and Morality & Social Policy at Sligo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ