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Seeking Wisdom in the University: David Deavel on John Henry Newman and the Pursuit of Wisdom

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This review is by David Deavel, Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies, University of St. Thomas and a recent MacLaurinCSF speaker.

Frederick Aquino, An Integrative Habit of Mind: John Henry Newman on the Path to Wisdom

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is a figure whose stature seems to grow with every passing year. Though he left the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic in 1845, his influence in Protestant circles continued and continues to grow. On theology—particularly the theology of the Church—he continues to be loved even by those who strongly disagree with him. Reformed theologian Carl Trueman has recently written, “One [of] my favorite theological writers is John Henry Newman—and he is my favorite precisely because he offers different answers to the most fundamental questions and thereby demands that I refine and sharpen my own thinking. If I read Newman and remain unchanged, I know something is not right.”

Amusingly enough, Newman never actually considered himself a theologian in the technical, professional sense, despite the marvelous contributions he made to the study of doctrinal development, the Arian crisis, and many other subjects. While he was always a Christian and a priest first and foremost, he put his intellectual energy into philosophical questions about the nature of belief, knowledge, and wisdom. To this end his two great works are the collection from his Anglican days known as Oxford University Sermons (1843) and from his Catholic days The Grammar of Assent (1870). But like the ancient philosophers, this pursuit was not simply about a theory, but about life. In his work there was no strict line between the practical and the theoretical because, for creatures, all true wisdom has to be grounded in concrete experience and issue in change to one’s experience and behavior. In other words, philosophy (literally “love of wisdom”) was not a specialized subject for people with advanced degrees, but instead a subject for everybody. Philosophy was about education—what he called “my line.” And his thoughts about that subject have been immortalized in the series of theoretical and practical lectures known as The Idea of a University (1852).

Frederick Aquino, a long-time student of Newman and professor of theology and philosophy at Abilene Christian University, has been probing Newman’s understanding of how and under what conditions we gain knowledge and understanding (what the professional philosophers label epistemology) and how university education can facilitate those gains. His very good short book, An Integrative Habit of Mind, mirrors Newman’s technique of treating theoretical and practical aspects of the path to wisdom side by side, with an eye to showing what Newman can offer the professional philosophers and those involved in educational theory. If they can abide the academic prose, undergraduates and lay readers will gain much from Aquino’s treatments, particularly his third chapter focusing on suggestions for thinking about education as a formation of persons.

Aquino’s contention is that forming and keeping an “integrative habit of mind” is necessary for anyone who seeks wisdom. What is this habit? Aquino describes it as the ability “to grasp how various pieces of data and areas of inquiry fit together in light of one another, thereby acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand” and also to figure out “how this kind of understanding applies to a given situation.” In other words, wisdom involves having the big picture, a good sense of the details and how they relate to each other, but also how to apply that knowledge to given situations. Wisdom requires deep theory and prudent practice.

Aquino’s first main chapter, “Broadening Horizons,” indicates another requirement: the ability to engage others from “radically different points of view” in such a way that, even if one does not finally adopt their views, one can gain from them an even better understanding of the issues at hand. Engagement of others doesn’t mean approaching their thought as if one doesn’t have any convictions of one’s own, either. When paleo-Calvinist Carl Trueman reads the Catholic Newman, he is engaging in precisely the sort of practice that makes for wisdom. But unlike Descartes, who claimed to have doubted everything in order to build a foundation for true knowledge, Trueman no doubt doesn’t simply leave his Reformed convictions behind.

Aquino, following Newman, advocates the development of the virtues needed for true engagement—“interest in truth, intellectual honesty, concern for evidence, capacity to listen and to follow counterarguments, the ability to see how things hang together”—but firmly maintains that focusing on those virtues doesn’t “bypass” the very real questions of “authority and autonomy” that lie at the heart of most serious intellectual arguments. Instead, this focus helps one to behave well in situations where one does disagree. And it acknowledges that authority and autonomy are not, as some Enlightenment thinkers had it, implacable enemies. Humans begin with the acceptance of authorities whom they trust—this is neither unreasonable nor bad. It is only by a patient development of one’s own thinking and a probing of what we have been taught that we can come to the point where an autonomous informed judgment is possible. This development is not only a learning of rules or principles, but also an apprenticeship in how to think, whom to trust (and when), and how to persevere in being open-minded enough to gain from others while not being so open-minded that one can never make a critical judgment.

This emphasis on the what and the how of learning is continued in the second chapter, “A Matter of Proper Fit.” While this chapter is the most technical and academic in tone (thinkers are always “cognitive agents” or even “cognizers”—ack!), it is in many ways the most intellectually rewarding. Modern philosophers of knowledge tend to divide into camps of “externalists” and “internalists.” Roughly speaking, the externalists count it as knowledge if you get to the right answer while the internalists make the proper process of getting to the right answer the criterion for knowledge. One side focuses on what, the other side on how. Aquino doesn’t propose that Newman can solve all of the philosophical debates, but he thinks Newman offers hints of a mediating position. To be wise, sometimes it is important to focus only on the answer, while sometimes one has to go back to thinking about how to get there. In bumper sticker terms, it’s not the destination or the journey, dude. It’s both. A batter who focuses too much on anticipating the coming pitch will not be able to hit the outside fastball when it arrives—too much conscious thought is detrimental to his hitting. But if he misses enough of them, he’ll have to spend time in practice thinking through how to detect the signs of fastballs, sliders, and curves. Developing the “proper fit” between conscious knowledge and practice is the name of the game.

Christian readers will understand this chapter as very applicable to the life of faith, and no wonder, since Newman’s Grammar of Assent was written in order to defend unreflective simple reasoning of Christians against cultured despisers who think that believing in something one doesn’t fully understand or can’t explain on paper is simple superstition. But Newman also encouraged religious believers with the capacity and duty for it to explore their worldviews even though it could be dangerous and uncomfortable. Simple believers sometimes need to ask tough questions about how they came to their beliefs, while Christian intellectuals must sometimes tame their own capacity for criticism and complexification in order to believe that they might understand.

Wherever one starts, however, the goal is the same: a connected view of the world, or what some call a worldview. The third chapter is full of hints about how to achieve this connected view and what those involved in university education need to do to encourage its development. Aquino has suggestions about curricular and institutional issues to be sure, but his main focus is on the personal side of education, on educators forming a real “community of inquirers” who not only model how to work in their particular disciplines, but also how to listen and ask questions of others who are treating the same subject from a different discipline. (Here it may have been useful for Aquino to consider Newman’s notion of the “circle of knowledge” that grounds the need for interdisciplinary work in The Idea of the University.) While a syllabus full of good readings and assignments is important, true teachers realize their “embodiment” of a connected view is most important to students. Aquino quotes Newman about how ideas come to life more in “personal documents” than in “dead abstracts and tables.”

For a number of reasons, the modern university is not always the place for finding wisdom. Connected views of things have been damned too long as “metanarratives” that are oppressive. The nature of specialized research has also encouraged scholars to focus ever more narrowly on subjects such that the forest cannot be seen for the trees. Finally, the mass entrance of students into university education has forced changes on to the traditional university structure. But given its resources, the university still has a potential for leading students and faculty to understanding and breadth. Those who see and desire this potential would benefit greatly both from the wisdom of Newman and from Frederick Aquino’s valuable mining of it in this book. If they study Newman and are not changed, they should know, however, that something is not right.

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