Lumen Magazine_Winter 2020

St. Newman and Online Learning

Second, we should ask ourselves whether there is anything in principle that precludes the cultivation of a philosophical habit of mind in online education. Again, there is no “a priori” reason to think that this cannot be the goal of online education or that online education cannot achieve it. Such a habit of mind is rather a mysterious thing – not easily conjured, even in person. Nonetheless, it can, and must, remain the standard of judgment for the success of both on-ground and online programs. The goal of any true university program is the cultivation of such a habit in students. That we are aiming at this goal is not in doubt, if we are thinking with Newman. For Newman, the indispensable means of education is personal influence, and this emphasis serves as a further test for designing an online course of study true to Newman’s principles. Personal influence – a notion developed less in Idea

and more in Rise and Progress of Universities – is an overriding, even predominant, theme of Newman’s entire life and has an especially strong role for his theory and practice of education. At the Catholic University of Ireland in the 1850s, for example, Newman places the highest value on the personal influence of tutors and professors: “With influence there is life, without it there is none; … an academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.” ( Rise , 74) Because we agree with Newman, personal influence has always been an important part of St. Thomas Catholic Studies, and that value can be seen in the development of the department’s online graduate program. It affects countless things, great and small. Lectures are recorded in professors’ offices, allowing

far-flung students a peek at faculty members’ book titles and art. Students receive welcome videos, rather than dry welcome emails. Students hear the tremor of emotion as a favorite professor reads and interprets a poignant passage from Virgil. Guest faculty sometimes appear in online classes, helping students get acquainted with more than just their immediate teachers. In such ways, faculty help point Catholic studies students – both online and on ground – toward deeper love of what is true, beautiful and good. A final way of thinking with Newman about online university education may be found in Newman’s phrase “genius loci.” He describes it variously, as “a self-perpetuating tradition” or “the spirit of the place,” which will depend “mainly on the intercourse of students with each other .” While authorities can’t create this spirit, they can encourage, foster and influence it.

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