The Idea of a University: Knowledge As Its Own End

Written by on July 30th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Liberal Arts, about Pedagogy Newman

|||Newman, John Henry. Idea Of A University. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.|||

Bodlein Library There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection of the intellect. There is an ideal perfection in these various subject-matters, towards which individual instances are seen to rise, and which are standards for all instances whatever The Greek divinities, and demigods, as the statuary has molded them, with their symmetry of figure, and their high forehead and their regular features, are the perfection of physical beauty. The heroes, of whom history tells, Alexander, or Caesar, or Scipio, or Saladin, are the representatives of that magnanimity or self-mastery which is the greatness of human nature. Christianity too has its heroes, and in the supernatural order, and we call them Saints. The artist puts before him beauty of feature and form; the poet, beauty of mind; the preacher, the beauty of grace: then intellect too, I repeat, has its beauty, and it has those who aim at it. p. 92

The aim of Newman’s fifth discourse is to answer the question of whether a University ought to teach with an eye toward Utility. In Previous discourses Newman had shown that one cannot truly separate the various sciences in so far as their subject matter of knowledge “is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator.”1 Before he answers this question, however, Newman turns to an illustration to show the fittingness of every science in a center of learning, despite the fact that a student could only pursue at most one or two subjects. The purpose of having the seat of every science in the same place is so that, as Newman puts it, “an assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other [may be] brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.”2 Newman sees the University as the gathering of the intellectual traditions of all the sciences toward a unified aim, which is both knowledge and liberal mindedness. Liberal Mindedness is for Newman, of course, that habit formed through life whose attributes are “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”3

The answer to the question of whether a University ought to have some useful end is answered by Newman with a resounding but qualified yes. Newman says that the use of a liberal minded education “has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end, though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end.”4 Knowledge seems to be the means through which other goods such as wealth, power, or honor are sought, although Newman explains that this relationship is beyond the scope of the discussion of the University. He does, however, affirm that knowledge is an undeniable good, “the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining.”5

Newman is quick to point out that “knowledge for its own sake” is the “common judgement of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind.”6 Cicero says of knowledge, “This pertains most of all to human nature, for we are all of us drawn to the pursuit of knowledge; in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace.”7 For the ancients, Newman points out, knowledge is “the very first object to which we are attracted, after the supply of our physical wants,” since it is a “condition of our happiness”8

Newman explains an interesting point in exegeting classical thought. While Cicero talks much about how we can only pursue the higher intellectual goods, namely the sciences, after we are “free from necessary duties and cares” he neglects to contemplate “in the least degree the reflex or subsequent action of knowledge, when acquired, upon those material goods which we set out by securing before we seek it.”9 That is, such knowledge, which is the aim of the University, is sought after, or beyond, the need for a reciprocal utility. While Newman himself does not go so far, we might even say that the use of knowledge gained through liberal learning reciprocates for the sake of more leisure; that the usefulness of knowledge is found in its particular ability to grant us more time to pursue the True and the Good, through reducing the time needed to perform any necessary duties or cares. Such a view, however, would presuppose leisure and happiness as the aim of men’s actions, something not universally acknowledged.

After having established the basis for seeking knowledge for its own sake, Newman turns to explaining the distinction between the intellectual and liberal. The intellectual, he points out, is exercised generally even toward a use. For example, a doctor who administers medicine uses an intellectual art, namely of the healing of the body, but does not do so liberally (for the sake of the knowledge of how to heal) but practically (to actually heal the body). On the other hand, pursuits often disassociated with university life (although perhaps only in rhetoric, not practice), such as recreational sports or activities, stem from a liberal and not an intellectual mind; it is not for some practical purpose, such as the strengthening the body or the resolving of the will, that one partakes in such leisurely activities, but for the sake of simple enjoyment. For as Aristotle says, “Of possessions those rather are useful, which bear fruit; those liberal which tend to enjoyment. By fruitful, I mean, which yield revenue; by enjoyable, where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using.”10 We must remember that it is the aim of the University to seek liberal knowledge, that is knowledge for its own sake, and not to seek all knowledge generally, even if, sometimes, the two overlap.

To clarify, Newman is not saying that the useful arts demean or cheapen liberal learning. He says, rather, that “using […] [the] physical sciences in the service of man, does thereby transfer them from the order of the Liberal Pursuits to, I do not say the inferior, but the distinct class of the Useful.”11 That is, the “Liberal Pursuits” in so far as they are useful are not liberal; “And so in like manner, we contrast a liberal education with a commercial education or a professional; yet no one can deny that commerce and the professions afford scope for the highest and most diversified powers of mind.”12 We should not fall into that common trap of associating the more esoteric with the more liberal, or the simple with the vulgar; instead, and this is Newman’s point, we should recognize that a liberal education is characterized by leisure and a nobility of spirit.

Newman anticipates a common objection to the idea of liberal learning, which is the reduction of “noble” to generalized and relativistic terms. He says, “now, as to the particular instance before us, the word ‘liberal’ as applied to to Knowledge and Education, expresses a specific idea, which ever has been, and every will be, while the nature of man is the same, just as the idea of the Sublime, or of the Ridiculous, or of the Sordid.”13 That is, Newman rejects the nominalist interpretation of Noble. Nobleness, for Newman, is a concept which has universal extension, much like the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. In his defense, and against the assertion that different men at different times have claimed different things to be noble, he says, “there have indeed been differences of opinion from time to time” but “still these variations imply, instead of discrediting, the archetypal idea.”14 It is for this reason that later Newman relates knowledge to the rational and the good, first saying, “Knowledge is called by the name of Science of Philosophy, when it is acted upon, informed, or if I may use a strong figure, impregnated by Reason.” and “I only say that, prior to its [knowledge] being a power, it is a good; that it is not only an instrument, but an end. In one case it is called Useful Knowledge, in the other Liberal.”15

Now we must ask ourselves in what way an understanding of Liberal Studies, which has itself as its own end, can be differentiated practically from useful education. Or to put it in slightly more pragmatic terms, should the pedagogical method differ when the end differs. At first glance Newman seems to say yes, “You see, then, here are two methods of Education; the end of the one is to be philosophical, of the other to be mechanical; the one rises toward general ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external.”16 but he qualifies this statement later. It seems that, for Newman, knowledge itself is of a universal nature. Hence, the acquisition of knowledge is always liberal. The practical arts come about from an application of some universal knowledge to a particular and practical problem; the reduction of universal knowledge to “practical” knowledge is the reduction of the judgement of the intellect to sensation and recollection; we may act on sensation specifically, but the formulation of some general principle, such as ‘man is a rational animal’, lies beyond mere observation, toward something more universal, namely a concept.17

Somehow the assertion that all knowledge is liberal seems an ideal but impractical notion. Given our desire for some other good such as money or security, it would seem that knowledge could be sought as a means to an end–for some useful purpose–and not liberally, as its own end. For example, suppose we knew that, given the increase in both price and demand for oil, off-shore drilling is profitable. And suppose we wished to model the construction of an off-shore drilling rig. Let us consider what resources we would need to do so: first, we would need access to materials, a construction crew, and distribution equipment–but more than these, we would need, or our team would need, an expert knowledge of fluid dynamics, thermal distribution techniques, advanced mathematics, textile resistance, etc., or to put it in more general terms, an expert knowledge of the required sciences and mathematics. Is it appropriate to say that one is educated in science and mathematics for the sake of off-shore oil drilling–does one only study those specific scientific techniques which further one’s business–or is it expected that the scientific minds involved should have learned their science and mathematics generally, not toward the application of some particular problem, but toward all problems which may require science and mathematics. That is, should we expect someone to learn science and mathematics for its own sake, but also require that they are able to apply that knowledge to some real world application. The learning of science and mathematics in such a way is liberal. Newman connects the relationship between knowledge and the application of knowledge by saying that “knowledge is not a mere extrinsic of accidental advantage, which is ours today and another’s tomorrow, which may be got up from a book, and easily forgotten again, which we can command or communicate at our pleasure, which we can borrow for the occasion, carry about in our hand, and take into the market; it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment.”18 And he says this because he recognizes a difference in kind between knowledge and competence. Knowledge is not a ‘do-it-once’ sort of thing; the ability to do some task must be distinguished from the knowledge of how to do that task. Aristotle outlines this difference in the beginning of his Metaphysics.19 “And this is the reason, why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of University as a place of education, than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word.”20

Since Knowledge must be something greater than some fact or experience, but a knowing, a liberal education cannot concern itself with simple facts or isolated experiences. Instead, a liberal education implies a “communication of Knowledge” where we “imply that the Knowledge is a state or condition of mind” and because this knowing has itself as its end–since we seek the cultivation of our mind, and not some practical agenda–“we are thus brought once more to the conclusion, which the word ‘Liberal’ and the word ‘Philosophy’ have already suggested, that there is a Knowledge, which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labor.”21

Now that it is clear that knowledge is sought for its own sake, even if one intends some practical application, it is left to argue whether an education should be aimed at making man better. Newman quite firmly opposes education as having some direct moral quality. He says, “supposing, as the objectors assume, its [Knowledge’s] direct end, like Religious Knowledge, is to make men better; but this I will not for an instant allow… I insist upon it, that it is a real mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage.”22 We must clarify this point, however. While it is not the direct aim of education to make man more moral, just as it is not the aim of education to apply knowledge to some useful cause, nevertheless the application of knowledge to man’s moral condition has a tendency to improve his moral behavior. Knowledge of the Good, the True and the Beautiful tend to steer one’s mind toward God. And yet, it need not; it can, and does, happen that we find an immoral ethicist, a degenerate priest, a hateful pastor. The two, knowledge and righteousness, are distinct things. To be educated does not mean one must needs apply that noble learning rightly; “knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justice of view faith.”23

Nevertheless Newman does not wish to use liberal education as an excuse to neglect our moral refinement. We must learn to refine our moral being along with our intellect. For “there is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of a person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.”24 Understanding the role of education, understanding the nobleness in forming an educated and gentle spirit, even amid a world of utilitarian needs and moral decay, is the first step toward the perfection of the intellect. The importance of the university is for Newman something more than that practical acquisition of experiences, more than the taming of the passions, but as we have seen, a habit, an illumination, characterized by leisure and a nobility of spirit which we seek because we recognize in it something noble and worthy of our efforts.

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  1. p. 75 

  2. p. 76 

  3. ibid 

  4. p. 77 

  5. p. 78 

  6. ibid 

  7. p. 79 from Cicer. Offic. Init. 

  8. p. 79 

  9. ibid 

  10. p. 82 

  11. ibid 

  12. p. 81 

  13. p. 83 

  14. ibid. “there have indeed been differences of opinion from time to time, as to what pursuits and what arts came under that idea, but such difference are but an additional evidence of its reality. That idea must have a substance in it, which has maintained its ground amid these conflicts and changes, which has ever served as a standard to measure things withal, which has passed from mind to mind unchanged, when there was so much to color, so much to influence any notion or thought whatever, which was not founded in our very nature. Were it a mere generalization, it would have varied with subjects from which it was generalized; but though its subjects vary with the age, it varies not itself. The Palaestra may seem a liberal exercise to Lycurgus, and illiberal to Seneca; coach driving and prize-fighting may be recognized by Elis, and be condemned in England; music may be despicable in the eyes of certain moderns, and be in the highest place with Aristotle and Plato,—(and the case is the same in the particular application of the idea of Beauty, or of Goodness, or of Moral Virtue)–still these variations imply, instead of discrediting, the archetypal idea, which is but a previous hypothesis or condition, by means of which issue is joined between contending opinions, and without which there would be nothing to dispute about.” 

  15. p. 84 

  16. p. 85 

  17. p. 85. “Let me not be thought to deny the necessity, or to decry the benefit, of such attention to what is particular and practical, as belongs to the useful or mechanical arts; life could not go on without them; we owe our daily welfare to them; their exercise it the duty of the many, and we owe to the many a debt of gratitude for fulfilling that duty. I only say that knowledge, in proportion as it tends more and more to be particular, ceases to be knowledge. It is a question whether knowledge can in any proper sense be predicated of the brute creation … it seems to me improper to call that passive sensation, or perception of things, which the brutes seem to possess, by the name of knowledge. When I speak of knowledge I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the sense; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea. It expresses itself, not in a mere enunciation, but by an enthymeme: it is of the nature of science from the first, and in this consists its dignity.” 

  18. ibid 

  19. Aristotle distinguishes between experience and art. One may have experience in many things, such as curing oneself, or others, from the flu. This does not mean that one knows the art of healing. Knowledge, in this analogy, is like art. It is the general know-how or know-why behind any experience. 

  20. pp. 85-86 

  21. p. 86 

  22. pp. 90-91 

  23. ibid. “be it ever so much the means or condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy [..] Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University.” 

  24. p. 92