In his book The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman argues that the goal of education in a university should be the cultivation of a “liberal” type of mind. In Latin, liber means a “free man” as opposed to a slave, and the education appropriate for such a man is an education in the “liberal arts.” In this way, students might be lured away from the servile and toward the gentlemanly.
Newman uses the term “gentleman” in the way it was commonly used in his time: to refer to the free man who uses his freedom wisely by becoming a man of broad culture, taste, and learning.
An educated gentleman should live with a confident bearing toward the world. He should be able to look upon the variety of human life and the vastness of the cosmos with an eye that takes it all in. He may not be an expert, but he knows how to think about any of the things he sees, and more importantly, he knows how to think about them all together as a unified whole.
The servile man, by contrast, sits with hunched shoulders and head down, toiling at his one assigned task. Being a slave to a particular kind of work, he will naturally become knowledgeable about one very specific subject. He knows exactly how to stack Widget A on top of Widget B, and he can tell you anything you want to know about these two specific widgets—but no more. He does not share the gentleman’s flexibility and liberality of mind, capable of approaching the whole of life with intelligence and dignity.
Newman specifies the ultimate aim of such cultivation thus:
Our desideratum [desired thing] is, not the manners and habits of gentlemen … but the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.
Newman does not conceive of this as a simple ability exercised in discrete mental acts but rather as a broad “habit of mind,” an attitude toward reality that colors all one’s thoughts, words, and actions: “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom ….”
If only we could reliably expect such a habit of mind to come out of our universities today.
The distinction between the gentleman and the servile man is not at all a class distinction. There are many who go to work in suit and tie who think in exactly the cramped mode that Newman describes. The kind of person who only ever evaluates knowledge in terms of its use to his specific widgets—whether they be paper or spreadsheets, and whether the widget factory be a tiny cubicle or a corner office. Conversely, there are blue-collar workers who have cultivated their whole soul beyond their work through wide reading and deep reflection.
How then do we cultivate this kind of soul in our students? The goal of the ideal university graduate may seem rather daunting and remote to the homeschooling parent preparing to teach geography to an eight-year-old, but rest assured that teaching geography is exactly what we should be doing. Newman argues that the gentleman’s habit of mind develops over long study in all those disciplines that teach a knowledge of the world. That eight-year-old may not go on to be an airline pilot, but when someone mentions the Danube, he will have a picture in his mind of a more-or-less definite line on a map. Possessing this general picture of maps and places, he will enjoy a certain confidence as he moves through life: the confidence of the man who knows where he is.
As this student continues to learn not just geography but math, science, history, and literature, his mental map will hold not just cities and rivers but trees and weather systems, peoples and poems, fictional heroes and historical scoundrels. Educated in the classical manner, he will be able to situate all these little pieces into the whole of his learning, locating them somewhere on the map and locating himself in their midst. He will have a comfortable familiarity with them and an ease in handling new pieces that are similar to the ones he already knows. He will not panic when he cannot place them immediately because long experience has taught him that all the truths that are really true will ultimately fit together into a single map.
By contrast, many contemporary experts would have our student educated with a view toward efficiently learning the narrow skills that he will “actually use someday.” A man educated like this would know how to use the more recondite features of Excel, but he probably would not know what “recondite” means, and he certainly would not know where he is in the world.
Newman calls the integrated vision of reality a “philosophical habit of mind,” which is a little different than what you would get by reading Sartre in a college philosophy class. What Newman means by philosophy is a science that is distinct from all the other specific sciences and is “in some sense a science of sciences,” that is, a discipline of mind that stands back from the details and reflects upon their meaning as they relate to one another and to the totality of reality. Philosophy is the science that pulls all the local maps together and draws up a single—hopefully coherent and accurate—map of the whole.
Naturally, this map of the whole will not be finished all at once by the eight-year-old; he will draw it bit by bit throughout the entirety of his life. He will make adjustments as he goes, and at crises or conversion moments of his life he may need to erase and redraw whole continents. But he will not have anything to put on the map if he does not begin by learning that the sources of the Rhine and the Danube are quite close to each other, that King David lived long before the Peloponnesian War, and that moths are different from butterflies.
As he deepens and matures, familiarity with the process of drawing and redrawing details on his map will inculcate in our student the desired disposition of mind. He will sit at a dinner party and know how to say something intelligent about subjects other than himself. He will read an article and know how to have opinions other than those handed to him. He will take his family to an art museum and know how to interact with the art through means other than his phone. He will face a difficult moral decision and know how to think in terms other than those of his passions. In short, he will have the mind of a gentleman.