A statue of St. John Henry Newman stands on the campus of Newman University in Wichita, Kan., just one of many colleges across North America that has incorporated his name and work into their institutions. CNS photo/courtesy Newman University

In praise of Newman and a liberal arts education

By  Mary French, Youth Speak News
  • October 28, 2020

Rev. Dr. Peter Gittens, a Toronto School of Theology lecturer, sees first hand the lack of appreciation for the liberal arts which has grown over the past two centuries. He noticed it years ago when teaching at a Catholic school where he saw a lack of focus on theology courses.

“I made it a goal of mine to form a department of theology and to implement a Bachelor of Arts degree with a concentration in theology,” said Gittens. “Opposition to this came from a majority who saw a degree in theology as useless and not profitable, who preferred to major in a secular discipline, which would guarantee them a job with a lucrative income.”

Gittens recently presented a webinar dedicated to the discussion of 19th-century Cardinal John Henry Newman’s book Idea of a University. Even today, Gittens finds Newman’s thoughts retain their importance.

Why study the liberal arts — courses such as literature, philosophy, theology — when you could just as easily learn a trade and go straight into a well-paying job? For many, the latter seems the most logical path to take. Yet Newman saw education in the liberal arts as an opportunity not only to fill students’ heads with knowledge, but to expand their minds, enabling them to comprehend their lives in a more dynamic way. 

Myriam Gilbert, a 21-year-old liberal arts student at Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ont., says studying these subjects has given her a broader understanding of the world, strengthened her relationship with God and enhanced her empathy. Now in the final year of her bachelor’s degree in literature, Gilbert feels she is fully immersed in a journey that will guide her throughout life.

“To go through life’s obstacles knowing there’s something better out there, I’m not on my own, to know the experience of so many thinkers since before the birth of Christ, to have that knowledge and experience passed on… it is a great thing for me to have going forward into the world,” said Gilbert.

Whether it’s via education, social media or other competing voices and opinions, we feed our mind thousands of thoughts and images every day. Newman’s ultimate idea of a university was education that enlightens our understanding of life and leads us towards truth. 

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society,” said Newman in The Idea of a University. “It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”

Gittens said this education does not stop at graduation; rather it prepares one to maintain a learning spirit throughout their lives.

Remaining open-minded, reading a large and varied number of books and looking for knowledge that can be grasped from daily experiences are all ways a liberal arts student can continue to feed their mind. This applies to those who do not have the means or ability to pursue this kind of education.

“A student who was unable to pursue a full liberal arts education can still pursue truth and enlightenment in their lives by recognizing the need for it and seeking truth through good reflective reading,” said Gittens.

Gilbert echoes this sentiment. She sees great value in having and pursuing truth and enlightenment within any career. Yet Gittens finds liberal arts and life-long learning are sadly not recognized today as a legitimate need.

“In Newman’s mind, as useful as acquiring skills is, it is not the education that forms or cultivates the intellect,” said Gittens. “I continue to meet people today, professionals in all fields of specialization, who regretted not to have participated in and benefitted from a universal-type liberal arts and science education at university, and are now encouraging their children of university age not to ignore opportunities to cultivate their intellect.”

(French, 22, has a Bachelor’s of Catholic Studies from Seat of Wisdom College and lives in Barrie Ont.)

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