Sunday, December 28, 2008

Newman's Ideas of Paideia

This article from the files, called Athens in the Mid-19th Century, is part of a book available online, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate, written by one David Kelsey who is apparently a professor at Yale Divinity School. The theological education debate is not of too much interest to me at present, but I think I printed out the chapter because it dealt with John Cardinal Newman and his book Idea of a University. The chapter summary is as follows:

This chapter present a case study of a mid-nineteenth-century version of the "Athens" type of theological education that was highly honored, at least verbally, in some mid-twentieth-century discussions of higher education generally, in order to draw attention to ways in which the material modifications it introduced have proved to be problematic.
Briefly, Kelsey summarizes the context and subject matter of Newman's important series of discourses. He does this quite well, it seems to me, so that part of it was interesting reading. From there he tries to make the point that Newman's idea of "paideia", or the university education as "formative", while valuable to us as a sort of commentary on past times, is "theologically problematic" and at the same time a break from classical notions of paideia AND outdated. This part seemed ultimately unconvincing to me, though it raises some interesting issues, and I'll try to explain where I see the problem. Just the thing for a Sunday afternoon while I share leftover Christmas-stocking Skittles with whoever happens to pass by the laptop.

Kelsey writes:

... Newman’s lectures are instructive in a cautionary kind of way. Newman’s modifications of the "Athens" type are theologically problematic. His social assumptions, his view of human rationality, and his vision of the fulfilled human life are so alien to North American culture in the late twentieth century that they may help to distance us from our own assumptions about social values, human rationality, and the fulfilled life. At the same time, his historical and cultural distance from us may help to highlight features of the "Athens" type that are inherently worrisome when the type is adopted by specifically theological education.
The content of Dr Kelsey's criticism seems to have two main threads. One is that Newman broke with the traditional, classic notion of paideia as a fostering of virtue:

Newman explains the overarching goal of teaching by reference to those who are taught, not by reference to what is taught. By this move he embraces paideia as the model of excellence in schooling. However, it is a modified paideia because his view of human rationality is different from the view classically assumed by paideia. The goal of teaching "is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence"....

Newman’s notion of intellectual excellence is analogous to a traditional understanding of moral excellence as "virtue." But it is only analogous, not identical. Here he departs from the classical paideia model for which, as we said, cultivation of the mind’s excellence was identical with coming to an intuitive grasp of the Good. It involved a conversion of the person. Intellectual and moral excellence are one..

This is interesting to me for two reasons.

One is that Kelsey never really explains why, if Newman did break from classical notions in distinguishing intellectual excellence from moral excellence, it is theologically a problem. Surely the common tradition that Christians share tells us that:

For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.... so, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand....I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7)
Surely, even throwing out the Christian tradition, it is apparent just from normal life experience that moral goodness and intellectual excellence are not identical to each other; that cultivating the intellect does not directly lead to cultivation of character, nor is moral excellence always found in the best educated or the most intellectually gifted (in Idea of a University, Newman discusses this topic at length -- I don't have space to write it out in this post, but it is surprising that Kelsey brushes over it without apparent notice).

I know that to the ancients, paideia was meant to foster "arete" in a larger sense -- a word meaning "excellence" which incorporated all human forms of excellence -- virtue, rational capacity and physical health and athleticism. However, from what I understand "paideia" in this sense was a larger topic than "how a university ought to be set up." It incorporated everything that goes into the formation of youth. I'm not even sure Newman uses the word paideia in his discourses; in fact, I'm pretty sure he does not. So to bring up the term in its general meaning and then use that to critique Newman's work as a departure from its general meaning seems roughly analogous to criticizing my homeschool because it does not have a full-fledged agricultural program like our local high school does.

Also, since the two concepts (of moral excellence and intellectual excellence) are capable of distinction-- in other words, they may overlap but are not identical sets -- it follows that making the distinction can be allowed even though the two may contribute in different ways to a bigger whole. (Newman goes into this in more detail and I hope to blog more about it a bit in future, but for right now I'm just writing out the general point).

Kelsey writes:
It was central to paideia that the cultivation of human reason would, contrary to Newman, inherently yield not merely the "gentleman" but the good person. What is questionable in Newman’s proposal is the view of human personhood that underlies the content of his theory of teaching.
This seems to be the other main area of criticism.... that Newman has a parochial idea of what education is meant to accomplish. Newman, Kelsey thinks, conflates the product of university education with a fine English gentleman. In this, Kelsey's view of what the ancients meant by "the good person" seems a trifle over-simplified. Even I know that the Greeks, when talking about the philosopher's calling, were talking about a very specific class -- free, Greek-born male. Their notion of paideia in this respect is quite as limited as Kelsey thinks Newman's is.

Kelsey goes on to discuss the qualities of a gentleman that Newman describes in a famous passage (I put the passage under the body of this post, too, in case you don't want to link-surf) . This is his criticism in part:

It is troubling that these values that mark the excellence of a gentleman turn out also to be the virtues marking intellectual excellence. The identification of the virtues that mark intellectual excellence ought to be warranted, not by the accidents of socio-economic status that privilege a few, but by a picture of human rationality that applies to all persons. That is exactly what Newman claims to do. ..... But why the remarkable coincidence that makes this way of identifying intellectual virtue so troublingly like ideological justification of the values of a cultural elite established by prevailing socioeconomic power arrangements?
Kelsey does admit that it is unfair (anachronistic is the term he uses) to reach back in time to judge a person's thinking by today's standards. To me, this seems patronizing. Remember that Newman was giving his lectures in Catholic Ireland where the bishops were trying to decide on the scope and ends of a Catholic university which they were proposing to bring into being. Newman was not trying to lecture on a Utopia where women, for instance, would take their place in the halls of academe. He was speaking to an actual situation. But he was laying down principles that would apply to a wider extent in theory than they actually did, at that time, in actuality.

The link on the Gentleman I mentioned above says it this way:

Taken in isolation, Newman's descriptive definition, which appears an exemplary idealization of the British gentleman, appears a standard, unsurprising presentation of a sociopolitical ideal clearly related to specific class interest. In context, however, his statement immediately appears more complex, since he does not address those with political or even economic power. In fact, his intended audience of Irish Catholics were doubly disenfranchised as members of a colonized people and a despised, only recently permitted religion.

In addition, as David J. DeLaura points out, for Newman, "the insuperable defect of humanistic culture," appears in the limitations of the gentleman, who has 'no means for transcending the limits of the natural man (p. 238).'"
The last point was actually the one I noticed very clearly when I read Newman's description of the gentleman in context. I had never read the whole thing before, just the excerpted passage, and I had never realized that to a certain extent the description of a gentleman is the description, almost the critique, of the limits of the cultivation of human intellect in itself.

Such are some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will form, apart from religious principle. They are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate; they form the beau-ideal of the world; they partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic. They may subserve the education of a St. Francis de Sales or a Cardinal Pole; they may be the limits of the contemplation of a Shaftesbury or a Gibbon. Basil and Julian were fellow-students at the schools of Athens; and one became the Saint and Doctor of the Church, the other her scoffing and relentless foe.
Why this view, even granting that it really is a departure from classical notions of the role of human reason, is "theologically problematic" to any Christian, really perplexes me. Surely St Paul, who with all his education and intellectual training and sense of moral responsibility, held the coats for those who stoned St Stephen, would heartily come down on Newman's side of the fence -- that intellectual education does not and cannot stand in for the religious life in a human person?

Oh, and why am I bothering to write this out? Well, because it's fun ;-) and also because reading the article did motivate me to read further through The Idea of a University than I ever have before, and after reading it I am even more of a Cardinal Newman fan than I was after reading Apologia pro Sua Vita. I wish I understood him better than I do, but I did not have the kind of education he recommends, unfortunately (more about his recommended kind of education some other time). Since I wanted to blog about Newman's idea of education and I don't really have enough knowledge to do it in a scholarly way, tackling a Question is an easier way to do it than just skimming superficially over the top with no specific focus.

(Passage by Newman on the ideal gentlemen is below)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder. [From The Idea of a University, 1852]

No comments: