St. John Henry Newman saw Catholic education as “real cultivation of the mind.” CNS/Crosiers

The higher calling of Catholic Education

  • February 24, 2021

In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman (now Saint) outlined his vision of a liberal education that spoke of the virtues and purpose of a university. Originally an Oxford man, his famed conflict at Oriel College — where he argued with the Provost that a tutor needed more engagement with undergraduates — resulted in Newman being cast out of his beloved institution and turning instead to a life of research.

It wasn’t until many years later that he was drawn back directly into the academy when he was invited to help found the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. And although there were too many obstacles for the university to succeed, it galvanized Newman’s love for and understanding of the unique gifts of Catholic education. Indeed, in his Letters and Diaries he is quoted as saying, “from the very first month of my Catholic existence … I wished for a Catholic university.”

Newman’s now famous treatise reminds us of the unique charter of a liberal arts, and of a Catholic, university: “The end of university education,” he tells us, is to provide “a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings and their respective values.”

Newman recognizes that true education is about the “real cultivation of the mind,” one that “grasps what it perceives through the senses … which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey.” Newman was not advocating for a narrow definition of one area of study but for the importance of developing critical thinking skills, a well-rounded understanding of poets, historians, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians and more. It is this comprehensive field of understanding, embedded in an unshakable moral foundation, that would allow graduates to enter “with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”

This flexibility and transferability is often what our Catholic universities use to defend and define the liberal arts education that we provide. In response to the demand, at times from government itself, that we should focus exclusively on the trades or jettison the arts writ large to focus on true vocational training for jobs, pundits like myself write impassioned articles debunking the false notion that our graduates fail to forge incredible careers.

We cite extensive evidence of the impact that Arts graduates have at the top of Fortune 500 companies, heading top law firms and more. And while this defensiveness is predictable if tedious, it is a reminder of the danger of contemporary society’s devaluation of the principles of a Catholic, liberal education.

Beyond the public apologia, however, our Catholic institutions in Canada do more than defend against narrow pigeonholing. The true work of our institutions is to create holistic learning hubs, where intellectual culture is not chauvinistic but pluralistic by nature; where social capital isn’t defined by dollars but by public accountability; and acts of charity are not tax write-offs but imbedded in the very purpose of human understanding and behaviour. Yes, we want our students to have incredible careers, and they do — but we remind them always that they have a higher calling, which is to transform society for the better and to advocate for the common good.

For John Cappucci, the principal of Assumption University in Windsor, Ont., “the greatest challenge facing Catholic higher education is demonstrating that attending a Catholic university or college is more than just learning about Catholicism. It is about linking Catholicism to the challenges of the daily work. For example, following the example of Pope Francis’ Laudado Si’.

"Yes, we want our students to have incredible careers ... but we remind them always that they have a higher calling, which is to transform society for the better"

Peter Meehan, president at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., argues that “the journey to truth includes both faith and reason. Uniting the heart and the mind, faith and reason allow us to explore the questions facing humanity, from biological and business ethics, ecumenism, aging, death and dying, to the ecology, globalization and issues of responsible citizenship and government. Confident in Christian truth without being proselytizing or triumphal, we see liberal arts education as underlying a deeper human need to grasp the world in all of its complexities.”

These values are timeless, but they are also relevant to our contemporary challenges. David Sylvester, president of Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, makes this point about the pandemic itself: “Catholic universities, because they are fundamentally oriented to building up the common good and their long-standing community partnerships, have been at the forefront of the COVID response and have been real pillars of hope not just for their students, staff and alumni, but for their neighbours. It really did expose the need for the work that Catholic universities undertake and the servant leadership our students and faculty provide.”

Catholic colleges and universities have also been at the heart of creating important ecumenical conversations, understanding that dialogue between faith communities is critical to an empowered and empathetic world. One of the challenges Catholic postsecondary institutions often face is that they are assumed to be theological schools or exclusive enclaves. In fact, our institutions are open to all, and they revel in the conversation that they generate with different faith communities, and indeed with the wider world itself. In the end, our institutions focus on the life of the student, pushing for a holistic education: mind, body and spirit.

Recently, at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, I was delighted to receive two letters from both a parent and a former student, thanking the institution for the foundational learning and the comprehensive education we provide. The reason for the correspondence: the student had just completed both an internship at the Indiana University School of Medicine and graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, and then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship position with the Harvard School of Medicine and Boston Children’s Hospital.

For the father, our small Catholic university allowed his daughter “to develop academically, emotionally, personally and spiritually.” He concluded, “As the Chinese proverb says, ‘When you drink water, think of its source.’”

For his daughter, it was the pastoral and individualized experience that allowed a “soft-spoken” and shy individual “to grow and gain courage to participate and ask questions.” She concluded: “The path towards a PhD truly takes a village, and I am privileged to have had you all as teachers and mentors.”

The 22 Catholic institutions represented by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada all look to this type of testimonial to encapsulate the goal and the values of our institutions. As Pope Francis has argued, Catholic education is called to build a humanism that “proposes a vision of society centred on the human person,” and that draws on “the great testimonies of the saints and holy educators, whose example is a beacon” that can illuminate our service, and that is dedicated to the “mission of offering horizons that are open to transcendence.” That surely is the “end” of Catholic higher education — and in that respect our work is just beginning.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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