Lumen Magazine_Winter 2020

St. Newman and Online Learning

E veryone’s talking about online education these days – and it’s not always complimentary. For many, it’s particularly hard to imagine how online education could fit with the liberal arts. There’s perhaps no one better to help us think about such a pairing in a richly Catholic way than St. John Henry Newman. His The Idea of a University – a foundational text for St. Thomas Catholic Studies – outlines his theory and ideal of university education. It also can offer us some important principles to guide our thinking about the possibilities of online education. In Idea , Newman makes two key arguments: 1) that a university is a place of teaching all knowledge – no discipline can be excluded on principle, and 2) that the characteristic result for students is the development of a philosophical habit of mind. Such a mind is characterized by discipline and an ability to see the reality of things; it perceives relationships and connections, and recognizes and applies proper methods to each discipline. The method of mathematics is not the method of literature, nor is either the method of philosophy or theology. Yet these all together form a whole, as the well-formed mind begins to recognize. Truth is one, and there is a unity to faith and reason. To think about online education with Newman must not mean to entertain a change of ends. There are those in the present day, as there were those in Newman’s day, who argue for utilitarian ends for education and who would say that the sole point of education is productive employment. Newman assails this position in his writings. Of course, liberal education may well, in a secondary way, be useful, he acknowledges, “but that is a further consideration, with which I am not concerned. I only say that, prior to its being a power, it is a good; that it is, not only an instrument, but an end.” ( Idea , 112) Thus, following Newman’s principles, we should first ask ourselves if there is any fundamental incompatibility between online university education and teaching universal knowledge. The answer appears to be no. No subject matter is inherently excluded. All the disciplines of a university and the integration of all fields of knowledge can be both taught and learned either online or on ground.

Dr. Michael Naughton during a lecture for the online graduate course “The Heart of Culture: The Story of Western Education.”

Father Martin Schlag provides a “Deep Down Minute” Lenten study break reflection for students during the spring 2020 semester.

St. Thomas Lumen Winter 2020 Page 15

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