I really think learning should be optional, ma’am.” This statement comes from one of my ninth graders in response to yet another lecture of mine on how important it is for students to bring their literature books to class—a particular hurdle in my case because I teach at a military school. Bringing books to class requires that my cadets carry them from Hocker Hall, the farthest barracks, and that without the aid of a book-bag shoulder strap. My fourth-class cadets are still in the middle of the plebe system, during which many everyday conveniences are forbidden them.
Learning optional? My seminary husband and I beg to differ. Since graduating from college a year and a half ago, concert tickets, art museum passes, and books for our growing home library have monopolized our Christmas and birthday lists. Our fervor is closely related to our background in the liberal arts. At Hillsdale College, we read widely in the great books, majored and minored in classical languages, and took a smattering of courses in history, religion, philosophy, science, and the arts. We learned just enough to know that we knew nothing near enough about the world. And if I had to choose one fellow who had influenced particularly my understanding of what it is to learn, it would be John Henry Newman.
Newman’s vibrant voice shattered my preconceptions about education on several occasions during my undergraduate years. In a Literature of Conversion class, I was moved by his sermons and gripped by his prose in Apologia pro Vita Sua. Most important, however, was The Idea of a University, which I read parts of in three different courses. The most significant of these was “Artes Liberales,” an exploration of the history and literature of liberal education. I poured through the entire Idea in great detail for this class and wrestled with my classmates concerning the question of what end learning ought to satisfy.
All seemed well, noble, and good until Commencement ended and I was hurled into real life as a teacher myself. My modern, nonclassical classroom has put my youthful idealism to the test. How can I disagree with my colleagues—and Mr. Locke—who advise that “children’s time should be spent in acquiring what might be useful to them, when they come to be men, rather than that their heads should be stuffed with a deal of trash”? Useful = produces high SAT scores. Useful = will get them into the college of their choice. Useful = contributes to their success in the military, or their father’s business, or their entrepreneurial career goal. Few parents or administrators are seeking Newman’s idealistic “formation of the intellect” that will equip children to move beyond the limits of a particular profession.
Or are they? In reality, no one I work with knows who Newman is. But I’m also hearing many terms I’ve never heard before: differentiated learning, innovative teaching techniques, Harkness method, Liberation Pedagogy. I soon discovered that all such phrases have a common goal—to make school “exciting.”
Before this is dismissed as pandering, is it not also the presupposition of Newman to rediscover man’s innate desire to know and engage and shape the intellect by fulfilling it? Since the formation of intellect begins with natural engagement, cultivating interest is a substantial part of the process. What is asked of me, then, is not entirely different from what I’ve been hoping to create. It only remains to see how my learners will respond.
As an experiment, I give my students a dose of Newman. We’re plowing through John Knowles’ classic A Separate Peace, and I take advantage of a side comment that Gene Forrester, the story’s narrator, makes about one of his classmates. Of Chet Douglas, his academic rival, he says: “I began to see that Chet was weakened by the very genuineness of his interest in learning. He got carried away by things; for example, he was so fascinated by the tilting planes of geometry that he did almost as badly in trigonometry as I did myself.”
So I put the question to my students: Which is the better goal: to enjoy learning for its own sake, or to forget about the actual learning and just do everything you can to get to the top? A discussion breaks out with some heated comments. Responses are mixed, but most students acknowledge the importance of personal satisfaction in the process. They naturally know that their natures should desire to know.
In another lesson, I photocopy a page from the “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill” chapter in my copy of Idea and underline some key statements. This Newman is an important guy, I tell them. He was a big deal in his day and did lots to shape education as we know it. They respond with interest. A student walking by steps into the room to join the conversation. “This is really philosophical,” he comments. Of course it is, I reply. The philosophy of education has been up for debate for years. Another student says that he knows he’s heard this somewhere before. Certainly, I respond. It goes all the way back to Plato’s Republic: “All men by nature desire to know.”
The bell rings and they split for fall break. “You’ll finish this when we come back, won’t you?” one student asks. Again, they naturally desire to know more about their natural desire to know.
And so begins my first attempt at Newman. My first direct attempt, that is. For the challenge of integrating learning with practical achievement is a daunting one, involving great subtlety, as many students are driven to consider meaningful only what is useful. I must make the end product worthwhile while stealthily cultivating an interest and affection for language, history, literature, and the arts into my “practically oriented” lesson plans.
Classes resume and the adventure begins. My students stare blankly at the verse of “Ozymandias” until I assign a sketcher who draws the colossal wreck, allowing us to discover Shelley’s image line by line. Students compose descriptive paragraphs about their favorite piece of art. Cars and beer movies do not count. They are forced to invoke their senses to describe something beautiful, and the most successful try to disguise their proud smiles as I read their essays to the class. The word fratricide in a novel sparks a conversation on the etymologies of other -cide words: suicide, regicide, infanticide, etc. They discover Latin roots. They vote on which “cide” is the most heinous, and I launch into an explanation of the classical view of matricide as the most heinous of all crimes, as demonstrated in The Orestia and 1984. Those most adept at poetic meters get to hold the chalk and gently coax their struggling classmates into understanding. They complain about learning to identify the predicate nominate and objective complement: “We’ll never need to know these in a job!” No, I agree, but the English language is an intricate and powerful tool, and great craftsmen must understand every fragment of their material.
So my students finally embrace Newmanism—with much praise and enthusiasm on my part—without directly connecting his philosophy to our daily exercises. Modern education may hold the idea of impractical learning slightly suspect, but all agree heartily about the great value of engaging students in subject material. Newman himself, moreover, does not attempt to divorce the two. He asserts repeatedly that the fruit of learning ought to be the power of the intellect, which is tremendously useful to whatever task it undertakes. “A cultivated intellect . . . brings with it a power and a grace . . . and enables us to be more useful,” he promises. Simultaneously, the idealistic English teacher is gratified, society is pleased, and adolescent curiosity is fulfilled through the intellectual successes of these engaged young men.
Kathryn Walker is a seminary wife and English instructor at Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania.