Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) is the most celebrated Catholic educator of the modern period. As testimony to his reputation, Pope Benedict XVI’s praise at the Mass of Newman’s beatification should suffice: “I would like to pay particular tribute to his vision for education, which has done so much to shape the ethos that is the driving force behind Catholic schools and colleges today. Firmly opposed to any reductive or utilitarian approach, he sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline, and religious commitment would come together.”
Were Newman alive today, would he not express his emphatic disapproval for distance education?
So it would seem, and for weighty reasons.
It is a common feature of distance education programs for their students to study largely on their own and often at their own pace. But Newman held that “to be self-taught is a misfortune… for in most cases, to be self-taught is to be badly grounded, to be slovenly finished, and to be preposterously conceited.”
Furthermore, distance education is a euphemism for online learning, but the instruments of learning commonly made available over the internet—articles, blog posts, short videos, PowerPoint presentations, and the like—risk the application of Newman’s critique of familiarity with periodical literature as a “barren mockery of knowledge” and of his judgment that “nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study.”
Finally, throughout his educational writings, Newman bore witness to the importance of physical proximity, as here: “such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse.” And a real sharing of life was integral to this conception, which he sometimes framed in terms of an “atmosphere” that the students would breathe. Moreover, his conception of the college as a place of moral formation would be difficult, if not impossible, to square with an educational experience limited to online interactions.
But against a premature closure of the issue stands Newman’s own response to a variant of the question at hand. He framed that question in terms of the technology of the Victorian era—inexpensive printing—but its relevance today is clear: “Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?” And his answer can also be applied to our digital culture: “Our seats are strewed, our pavements are powdered, with swarms of little tracts; and the very bricks of our city walls preach wisdom, by informing us by their placards where we can at once cheaply purchase it. I allow all this, and much more; such certainly is our popular education, and its effects are remarkable.”
Such a liberal allowance will not surprise those who are devoted to Newman’s memory. It is true that he not only admitted, but defended the elite character of university education. Yet he also spent himself in service to the poor Irish immigrants of Birmingham and keenly loved the missionary impulse in Christianity. His own adventure in Ireland—the work of founding a Catholic university in Dublin—was an act of generosity born from his commitment to Catholic education as a means of promoting the “spiritual welfare” of Christ’s people. If he were to look out at the state of Catholic higher education in North America today, it seems likely that he would share Benedict XVI’s concern about the “increasing difficulty encountered in transmitting the basic values of life and correct behavior to the new generations” and judge that if some forms of distance education prove to be effective in transmitting the faith, then they may be embraced.
But are the times so desperate that Newman’s dearest convictions about education must be shelved? Surely not. Indeed, those of us who are involved in the work of Catholic distance education have much to learn from his educational vision.
To begin with, his conception of the teacher remains valid. He had much to say about the subject, but perhaps spoke of it most eloquently in a letter to his former mentor, Richard Whately: “Much as I owe to Oriel in the way of mental improvement, to none, as I think, do I owe so much as to you. I know who it was who . . . taught me to think correctly, and (strange office for an instructor) to rely upon myself.”
Years later, when collating his letters, Newman added this note: “A remarkable phrase is to be found in the above letter, ‘strange office for an instructor, (you) taught me to rely upon myself.’ The words have a meaning, viz. that I did not in many things agree with him.” Here we have an astonishing testimony of gratitude. Although the teacher’s lessons had been mostly set aside, his influence remained, and it was valued. Iron had sharpened iron. When Newman wrote about the dangers of being self-taught, he wrote from experience, because he knew how his own teachers had saved him from those snares.
If the form taken by our distance education minimizes the influence of teachers by privileging discussion boards in which students mainly talk to one another, or by the perpetual recycling of prepackaged materials (whether video, audio, or text), or by the predominance of automated grading, then that education will indeed run afoul of Newman’s principles. But if our distance education programs create opportunities for students and teachers to enjoy rich and sustained interactions, then they may offer a partial fulfillment of his vision.
In his Idea of a University (1852), Newman argued for an education that would inculcate a “philosophical habit of mind,” by which he meant “the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all.” He had in mind a finely-tuned, craftsman-like appreciation of the different fields of knowledge, and he did not think that such a habit of mind could be attained easily. It required much inquiry, testing, and debate.
To acquire such a habit, he insisted, was not a matter of memorizing data. Rather, to attain this vision, he said, “we must ascend … we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them.” He would be appalled at the notion of an “outcome-based education” that was indifferent to inputs. No, the essential work of questioning, disputing, analyzing, and reflecting cannot be reduced to a formulaic output. It is a matter of gaining an intellectual habit, for which much slow and patient thinking is required.
To the extent to which our models of distance education become indifferent to inputs and practices and concentrate on measurable outcomes, so also will they likely run contrary to Newman’s principles. Just how is one to measure a “philosophical habit of mind” after all? Perhaps reasonable attempts at it could be made, but it seems a dubious quest. In the absence of a convincing rubric, those models of distance education that encourage students to gauge their progress against the wisdom that lives and speaks in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and the inspired authors of Sacred Scripture are our best bet.
Finally, there is Newman’s insistence upon the community shared by the teachers themselves, as here, from the celebrated fifth discourse of The Idea of a University, on “Knowledge Its Own End”:
This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are 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. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes . . . [and] a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life.
The importance of what in Newman’s day was the conversation in the common room can scarcely be underestimated. Emails, phone calls, video conferences, and the like cannot sustain the kind of faculty collegiality that Newman lauds here. And so, if our distance education programs have only a virtual existence, in which professors are rarely in the same room with one another, then they will not meet his standard. But if distance education is a means to make available to those who cannot travel far the goods shared by a real, living community of scholars, then perhaps it can be defended on Newman’s terms.
In conclusion, then, the habit of mind that Newman took to be a Catholic education’s true end—in a word, wisdom—can indeed be the goal of a distance education program. Such programs, to be sure, face special challenges because of the constraints of the media through which they operate. But if those challenges are met with creative fidelity to the Catholic tradition, then distance education can make a significant contribution to the transmission of the faith in our time.
Christopher O. Blum is author of Rejoicing in the Truth: Wisdom and the Educator’s Craft (Christendom Press, 2015) and the Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute’s Graduate School of Theology. To learn about the Augustine Institute’s approach to distance education, visit https://www.augustineinstitute.org/distance.