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Broadening the curriculum

Toward liberal knowledge

Author - John Heywood


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The implications of Newman’s thesis for the curriculum are profound. The relationships that he sees range across the spectrum of subjects.

[…] all the branches of knowledge are, at least implicitly the subject matter of its teaching; that these branches are not isolated and independent one of another, but form together a whole or a system; that they run into each other, and complete each other, and that in proportion to our view of them as a whole, is the exactness and trustworthiness of the knowledge which they separately convey; that the process of imparting knowledge to the intellect in the philosophical way is its true culture; that such a culture is a good in itself; that the knowledge which is both its instrument and result is called Liberal Knowledge.

(Discourse 9: Duties of the Church towards Knowledge)

At issue is the meaning of ‘universal’. Today we take it to mean ‘all inclusive’ but as Culler (1955) points out this was not the case in Newman’s time especially as it was used in the context of university education. At that time its usage derived from ‘uni-versum’ and meant ‘turned into one.’ There was, Culler (1955) writes ‘a desire to see things whole that forced men to look at the whole body of things, and therefore the true character of a university is not that it teaches all the sciences but that whatever sciences it does teach, it teaches in a spirit of universality’. But this does not mean that it can be done within a single specialism, for each subject has something of its own that is specific to itself to offer. Newman wrote:

If we might venture to imitate […] Lord Bacon, in some of his concise illustrations of the comparative utility of the different studies, we should say that history would give fullness, moral philosophy strength, and poetry elevation to the understanding. […] the elements of good reason are not to be found fully and truly expressed in any one kind of study… [moreover,] if different studies are useful for aiding, they are still more useful for correcting each other.

(Discourse 7: Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill)

Each study has its own characteristic way of thinking.[9]

The significance of Newman’s thesis can be illustrated from the consequences of his view of the practical end of university education which was that of ‘training good members of society, its art is the art of social life, and its end fitness for the world’, Necessarily ‘man’ who is at the centre of this aim has to be viewed in all his relationships.

What is true of man in general would also be true of any portion of reality however minute. If we wished to know a single material object–for example, Westminster Abbey–to know it thoroughly, we should have to make it the focus of universal science. For the science of architecture would speak only of its artistic form, engineering of its stresses and strains, geology of its stones, chemistry and physics of the ultimate constitution of its matter, history of its past and literature of the meaning which it had for the culture of a people. What each one of these sciences would say would be perfectly true to its own idea, but it would not give us a true picture of Westminster Abbey.

So wrote Culler in 1955 to further illustrate Newman’s idea. To get a true picture the sciences would have to be recombined and this recombination is the object of university education. We might go further and add that it is through such recombinations that advances in thought and practicalities are made. But Newman did not think recombination was the same as all the subjects taken together. It ‘is a science distinct from them all and yet in some sense embodying the materials of them all.’ This activity is what Newman called liberal knowledge and at other times, as Culler notes, philosophy, philosophia prima, Architectonic science or Science of the Sciences. He did not pursue this in any great detail but in the today’s jargon it would seem to be a reflective activity of synthesis. An ability to bring all the parts together in order to make a judgement for which reason the subjects of the curriculum cannot be taught as entities isolated from each other. To gain such a comprehensive view study of as wide a range of knowledge as is possible is necessary.[10] The consequences of this capability for the educated person so produced were set down by Newman in the oft-quoted statement about the ends of a university education in Appendix 1. This statement clearly shows the importance of development in the ‘affective’ as well as the ‘cognitive domain’. Recent thinking in educational theory helps to clarify this point. I have not taken account of the significance that Newman attached to residence and the organisation of a university. Although of equal importance that must be a discussion for another day. In any case this argument stands or falls in its own right.[11]

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