As St. John Henry Newman explains in his book “The Idea of a University,” education is the process by which a mind is formed not just to learn facts and ideas but to be able to think about how they are connected. And when Newman gives an image for that process, he points toward a mountain.
This essay is based on a talk given to Twin Cities high school students in the Verso L’alto program sponsored by the Habiger Institute at the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. —Editor
What are you doing when you’re at school? You may not have thought about it in depth. After all, it’s just learning facts and figures and names and dates and formulas, right? Some of you might like that sort of thing and some might not. But is it really education?
Saint John Henry Newman’s book The Idea of a University is very famous for asking what education really is. It’s also famous because it doesn’t just ask but also answers. And the answer might surprise you. He says in his sixth discourse (or lecture), titled “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning,” that the “end of education” (and by that he means the goal) is “philosophy.” That might seem a bit abstract or unreal. After all, when you think of philosophy you probably think of men with long beards sitting on top of mountains in a yoga position or perhaps rather geeky people at college pushing their glasses up as they look at long patterns of logical symbols on a chalkboard. For Newman, long beards, yoga, and even formal mathematical logic are not absolutely necessary; the mountain is.
Newman’s understanding of philosophy is “Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge.” Education is the process by which a mind is formed not just to learn facts and ideas but to be able to think about how they are connected. And when he gives an image for that process, he seems to be pointing toward a mountain. “I say then, if we would improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level….” Whenever we are educated in any subject, whether big or small, there is a huge mountain of facts that must be scaled by means of learning the principles and basic methods of how to organize them in our minds. If we don’t, we can learn all the facts we want to, but we’ll still be lost just as we are when we visit a new place without a map to help us understand where we’re going (even if the GPS can get us to specific places).
Who has not felt the irritation of mind and impatience created by a deep, rich country, visited for the first time, with winding lanes, and high hedges, and green steeps, and tangled woods, and every thing smiling indeed, but in a maze? The same feeling comes upon us in a strange city, when we have no map of the streets. Hence you hear of practiced travelers, when they first come into a place, mounting some high hill or church tower, by way of reconnoitering its neighborhood. In like manner you must be above your knowledge, not under it, or it will oppress you; and the more you have of it, the greater will be the load.
You will have to sit upon the mountain, Newman says, or the mountain will be sitting on you.
Of course, there will always be a certain sort of person who thinks it impressive to walk around with a mountain on his head. Many writers of books and textbooks, Newman says, glory in showing off the load they are carrying around on their shoulders. He writes of “authors who are as pointless as they are inexhaustible in their literary resources.” These brainy writers “measure knowledge by bulk, as it lies in the rude block, without symmetry, without design.” These figures, who like to brag about the number of their footnotes, are often unconvincing because they seem to be “possessed by their knowledge, not possessed of it; nay, in matter of fact they are often carried by it, without any volition of their own.” While they may be impressive to themselves in their non-stop tossing off boulders and pebbles bearing facts, figures, authors’ names, and formulas, their readers often think quite reasonably that their fact-tossing writings are those of a “madman” in whom reason doesn’t play a big role.
Sadly, it is not just writers but teachers who sometimes don’t understand what they are doing. Writing in the 1850s, he observes that for twenty years too many so-called educators had not only decided to “load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge, but to force upon him so much that he has rejected all.” It is not that memorization is bad. It is that memorization of material without an understanding of how that material fits together will not be lasting if it is even done. For too many students, it will mean a rejection of education.
Lesson: If you’re going to try to load the mountain on top of Mohammed, you will not only not bring him to the mountain: you’ll most likely make sure he never gets close to it again.
Now I can’t guarantee that your teachers in high school or college will be any good. The teachers may well be loading you down with facts and figures or long readings written by madmen. But what I can do for you is give you some hints on how to approach your studies in such a way that you will not just do well in school but may well end up heading toward that goal of education. Here are four practical educational tips that will help you ascend the mountain and be truly philosophical.
Reading. When you are trying to read a chapter or a book, it’s very easy to let words pass by your eyes on the page without really understanding them until… zzzzzzzz. What you need to do when you are reading any piece of non-fiction is to ascend that mountain right from the beginning. If you have to read a book, look first at the table of contents to see what the chapters are. Then read the introduction to the book, which will usually explain how the book works as a whole in a few pages—including one or two paragraph summaries of each chapter. If you have to read the whole book, you’ll be able to take it in a lot better if you know what each chapter is supposed to do. If you’re only supposed to read one or two chapters, you’ll understand them a lot better if you know how they fit into an argument or, at least, have read the short summaries of them in the introduction. If you just have an article, you can do the same thing. Read the introduction to the article and then look through the sections to get a sense of what the article is like.
If you’ve done this, then when you read you will be able to read a lot more quickly because you’ll have an idea of what the parts of the book or article are supposed to be doing. You will also have much more of a sense of what you need to underline or highlight in the reading to have a sense of the way the author is trying to argue or explain a point.
I recommend that for each paragraph or section you write in the margin a brief summary of what is going on in that part of the article. Then, when you get to the end, go through your own summaries of what was happening. Even if you can’t remember every detail, you’ll remember a great deal more than if you just tried to remember everything.
If it’s a whole book or an extremely long article, I recommend that you either use those blank pages at the front or back of the book or write on a separate piece of paper (or in a computer document) an outline of the whole thing with page numbers listed for each section.
You’ll be astonished not only at how much you remember of the book or chapter but also how much more you understand your teacher’s comments and how much you will have to say in your discussion.
Studying. If you’ve read in the way I’ve described, studying will be a cinch. You’ll just need to go back over the outlines you’ve made and the notes in your margins.
And, though I hesitate to give you this information, I think you’ll figure it out anyway: If you have not been keeping up with the reading and the material and you have to cram for an exam, you will know how to do it properly. I don’t recommend procrastination or not doing your work, but as the Roman poet Terence put it, nihil alienum a me humanum: nothing human is foreign to me. Life happens and so does laziness. And when one of them does and you have to read a great deal in a short amount of time in order to be tested on it, if you follow the pattern we’ve talked about in reading but place an emphasis on getting the main points without puzzling out every single small point, you will be able to cover a lot of material in a very short amount of time and be able to talk or write about it with at least as much accuracy as the many students who have tried to get through it without preparing themselves to take in what they were reading.
Writing. You’ll also be able write about subjects in essays, whether on tests or papers, with a great deal more success because you’ll have a sense of what you’re writing about. If you’ve been making little outlines of your reading, you’ll understand that the best writing provides the clearest outlines—and you’ll get the point that thinking about your own essay as a connected piece of thinking is really what makes your own essays work best. Understand that sometimes coming up with that outline will be the hardest part, but you’ll have outlines of your reading material from which you can take arguments, facts, figures, and quotations that support your points. Once you’ve done this outlining and collecting of resources the writing will not only take less time than you thought but be more rewarding because you’ll have the sense that you’re putting together something with a structure, not just tossing rocks and pebbles of facts and figures.
Talking. The more you read and write in this way, the more you’ll be able to formulate things to say and ask in class that go well beyond, “Is this going to be on the test?” You’re going to find that if your speech isn’t exactly poetry, it is turning into good prose. You’ll be speaking in paragraphs that have points to them and are not populated by “umm” and “like.” And you’ll be able to approach your teachers outside of class to engage in conversation with them that involves not just what you’re reading and talking about in that class but how that material connects to other classes you’re taking or other ideas you’re thinking about. Those conversations will often be more important even than the lectures in class. You will get the sense in them that the mountain you ascended is part of a big range of mountains, all of which are connected into one big universal mountain of truth.
“Education is,” Newman says, “a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation.” It is not just the learning of new things; it is the climbing up a mountain of new things and understanding how they are related and what they mean. What I’ve described as ways to do that climbing may sound tiresome. But if you’ve ever climbed a mountain you know that the exhaustion you feel on the way up is considered in a different light once you’ve gotten to the peak and can see where you’ve been in that view below. The person who was panting and grumbling a minute before ends up with a smile, a song in the heart, and a gleam in the eye that sees a marvelous and rich land.
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