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Posts Tagged ‘John Henry Newman’

What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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I went on a Cardinal Newman pilgrimage at the weekend. We took a coach from London and spent most of the day in Oxford.

The first stop, just outside Oxford itself, was the site of Newman’s reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. This is how Roderick Strange describes it in his John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive.

When people speak of Newman’s conversion, they are usually referring to the events of 8 and 9 October 1845, that windswept night when Father Dominic Barberi, drenched by rain from his journey exposed to the weather, arrived in Littlemore, the village where Newman had made his home after resigning as Vicar of the University Church and retiring to lay communion as an Anglican. He began to hear Newman’s confession that evening and it continued the following morning. Then he received him into the Roman Catholic Church.

You can see the room where he slept and thought and wrote so many letters; the chapel where he prayed; the library where he and his friends studied and talked.

But what moved me most? His stand-up desk! I’ve used one for the last year, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone else’s. I felt an immediate bond. Mine is an improvised affair, consisting of four metal waste paper baskets from Rymans placed on my normal office desk, with a piece of wood I found in the attic balanced on top. I put the computer on the raised table, and it is just the right height for me to type standing up. I get some funny looks when people walk into my office, but they are getting used to it.

Why do I risk the humiliation? I was getting some back-ache from sitting in the same position for so long; I went to an orthopedic furniture shop to get a fancy chair, and they suggested I try standing up to vary the posture. It has worked like a dream. You can move and stretch and relax without getting stuck in some awkward position for hours; then sit down for a change when you are tired. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the bins (£2.99 each) were cheaper than the chairs (which started at about £400). Apparently, you can get electric desks that go up and down, so you can move from sitting to standing at the flick of a switch; but I think they are out of my league.

Newman’s is a fine wooden desk: The top slopes down towards you so you get a nice angle. The height is adjustable. There is a length of wood at the bottom of the slope to stop the paper sliding off. What more could you want? I’m sure this was the secret of his success.

There is a nice religious note to add as well. When Fr Barberi wanted to celebrate Mass the next day there was no suitable altar (the chapel they used was simply an oratory, and the eucharist would not have been celebrated there). So they brought in this stand-up desk, flattened it and lowered the top as far as it would go, and used it for the altar. So it was from this extraordinary piece of Victorian furniture that he received his first Holy Communion as a Catholic. Out of reverence for this sacred moment, he never used it as a desk again.

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