Newman High: More Lessons for Secondary Teachers

By Vincent and Rebecca Vaccaro
Published in Newman Today & Education
November 18, 2020
13 min read
Newman High: More Lessons for Secondary Teachers

John Thompson’s post entitled “Newman High: Some Notes on Newman for Secondary Educators,” raises some important and timely questions for those teaching at the pre-college levels. We write to share one resource and three additional lessons from Newman that may further help secondary educators strengthen their professional practice.

Jane Rupert’s “Newman on Pedagogical Practice”

In the Summer 2020 issue of the Newman Studies Journal, Jane Rupert, a scholar focusing much of her professional life on Newman the educator, published an article entitled “Newman on Pedagogical Practice.”[1] In it, she provides two insights into Newman’s thoughts on teaching pre-college subjects that are directly relevant to Thompson’s discussion. First, Rupert identifies that “mental steadiness [is] required to connect facts with ideas.”[2] She argues that current pedagogy’s “exclusive focus on sense and personal experience” leaves out the important components of human reasoning needed (a) to tie ideas to principles and (b) to arrange those ideas and principles into coherent wholes that can be both explained to others.[3] Second, she notes that the contemporary emphasis on “sense observation, personal experience, and conclusions [that] students themselves draw from observation and experience” slowly and steadily erodes the traditional moorings of Western learning and teaching stretching back two- and one-half millennia.[4] Thus, her insights reiterate Thompson’s call for a return to an “historical guild” of teachers and learners, which seems to have been replaced in contemporary education by a legion of experimental thinkers seeking both personal and group insight into the “reality” they experience.

Building Esprit across the Curriculum

The creation of such an “historical guild” requires a sense of community and shared purpose, something that can be difficult to create or maintain in schools where the foci of academic departments often seem at odds with each other. In The Idea of the University, Newman observes, “Our rule is to recommend youths to do a little well, instead of throwing themselves upon a large field of study.”[5] What most readers new to Newman do not fully appreciate is that The Idea of the University is not a single work based on a set of lectures to the people of Dublin. They are actually a set of spoken lectures (I–IV), a set of written lectures (V–IX), and a series of papers and addresses on various topics relating to the Catholic University of Ireland and its various student groups.[6] Although it may at first be painful to read the discussions of grammar, composition, and Latin writing (“Elementary Studies,” par. 1–3), as Rupert shows,[7] they are well worth the effort. They must be viewed not as three independent subjects—subjects, which in at least two cases play little to no role in secondary education today—but as part of an approach to instilling respect for and appreciation of learning, as seen in the following quotation from the introductory portion of “Elementary Studies:”

“And in like manner it is the education of our intellect; I say, that one main portion of intellectual education, of the labours of both school and university, is to remove the original dimness of the mind's eye; to strengthen and perfect its vision; to enable it to look out into the world right forward, steadily and truly; to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks “about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, define, and reason, correctly.[8]

For Newman, elementary subjects were understood as building blocks of knowledge, not ends in themselves. In most cases, especially writing Latin and Greek, there is little practical value (even in Newman’s time). However, what they do provide is an opportunity to practice skills that build mental and intellectual discipline in students. Students master the art of learning in an environment uninfluenced by what it will provide. There is a benefit to the comradery of having mastered something “useless”—i.e., pride in the process and community of accomplishment, not in the result. For Newman, elementary studies are just that, preparations. So, we suggest that elementary and secondary educators view them as such and use them as means of establishing a sound foundation for learning skills essential for later study, e.g., the ability to express one’s ideas clearly and forcefully both to oneself and others.

Lesson 1: Following Thompson’s desire for cross-curricular study, we suggest that teachers use reading and writing across-the-curriculum as a means of building esprit among all segments of the school community. Teachers can carefully select the cross-curricular reading and writing assignments, expect every student to complete them successfully, and notice that shared learning experiences will become a critical part of the group learning process.

Realizing Education as a Long-Term Process

One of the realities of building any lasting educational community is that it transcends its immediate historical moment. Like a parent, its work continues even when its students have graduated. In order to achieve this end, one must realize that its construction does not happen overnight, nor can its success be attributed solely to the efforts of one person. As Newman noted, “[A university] is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.”[9] Although Newman here was addressing a university audience, his point is about the school being a nurturing mother (alma mater). When Newman first arrived in Dublin, he was informed by the Jesuit provincial there that there were no students for the university to educate.[10] The country was simply too poor to support such a luxury, and, even if the Irish could afford the time and funds, there were too few young men academically prepared for university-level education.[11] Newman immediately planned for evening classes to attract working adults who desired to learn, knowing well that the Irish populace, poor as they were after the potato famines of the 1840s, had contributed over £22,000 to the founding of a Catholic university. Newman’s initial effort at evening classes failed to get much response, so the classes were suspended. After a break of a couple of years, young men approached Newman and his colleagues on the university faculty to restart the classes—this time with a core of around one hundred students. The students who voluntarily attended these classes did so at their own expense after having worked a 10 to 12-hour day.

“Discipline of Mind” is Newman’s parting advice to this group. We suggest two quotations that capture the heart of Newman’s advice to these students who would receive little, if any, direct tangible benefit from attending evening classes. The first reminds them why they choose to make the sacrifice of coming:

“You have come, not merely to be taught, but to learn. You have come to exert your minds. You have come to make what you hear your own, by putting out your hand, as it were, to grasp it and appropriate it. You do not come merely to hear a lecture, or to read a book, but you come for that catechetical instruction, which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you. He tells you a thing, and he asks you to repeat it after him. He questions you, he examines you, he will not let you go till he has proof, not only that you have heard, but that you know.”[12]

The second suggests how teachers and students should approach the hurdles of learning: “Even did I wish merely to get the intellect of all Dublin into our rooms, I should not dream of doing it all at once, but at length. I should not rely on sudden, startling effects, but on the slow, silent, penetrating, overpowering effects of patience, steadiness, routine, and perseverance.”[13]

Lesson 2: Education is a multi-year process. Each year provides a foundation for what is to come. Success in students comes from helping them realize that education is long-term, and is something that requires patience, determination, perseverance, and willingness to accept and overcome setbacks. Teachers need to instill these virtues in their students. No matter how good any teacher believes he or she is as a teacher, true education takes time, and the realization that a teacher is only a small part of a very lengthy, slow process.

Creating an Enduring School Culture

Newman’s image of the school as a mother, painstakingly nurturing lifelong values in her children that they will then live out in their own lives and pass on to their own children, speaks to the ideal culture contemporary schools strive to create. When considering pre-university education, Newman stated, “The work is not much, or not a great deal; and is more [of] influence than of instruction.”[14] This remark comes from a letter from Newman to friend Thomas W. Allies concerning plans to establish a school for Catholic boys. Specifically, it related to the demands and importance of those selected to teach. The school was primarily planned for boys ages nine though about sixteen, although younger students were also considered for attendance. As compared to the expectations for those teaching at a university level or tutoring those preparing for university admittance, Newman knew that the reputation of this school would come not simply from the quality of the instruction given, but from the way the culture or influence of the school affected the attitude and willingness of those in attendance. He realized that teachers shape, instill, and reinforce the school culture in such a way that the school culture influences every decision that students make.

Newman called a school’s culture its genius loci—what makes the school what it is. It is not simply something that the school officials decide upon and enforce. A school culture must grow from within over a period of years. As Thompson correctly appreciates, the foundation for Newman’s school culture comes directly from the doctrines, practices, and traditions of the Catholic religion. That is not something teachers in secular schools have available to them. What they do have access to is a process common to most schools today, the articulation of a carefully defined mission, vision, and core values. When prudently developed and instilled, these attributes make each school the unique social institution it is.

Even though Newman firmly believed that research should never be a function of a university, he knew that to be an effective teacher one must be current in one’s field of expertise. This requires study and research. With that in mind, Newman established a professional journal, the Atlantis, in which the professors and other friends of the Catholic University of Ireland could share their interests and advancements in their fields of expertise. The journal began as Newman was departing Dublin. In each of the first two issues (1858 and 1859), Newman contributed an article. Both articles address the Benedictine approach to education and life. Newman planned that these two essays would be followed by essays discussing the Dominican and then the Jesuit approaches to education. Not surprisingly, at the age of almost sixty and having resigned his position at the university, Newman never completed the series. However, what he did write is worth pondering.

Benedictines are monks; they live in a stable environment and maintain a very regulated life of prayer and physical labor. Newman viewed this as a life in accordance with nature—not merely the physical nature of farming, but also the spiritual nature of performing homage to the Creator of nature. Work and prayer in conformity with physical and spiritual nature, for Newman, is a life of poetry—a life not addressing reason, “but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love.”[15] For the Benedictine, life involves study, not to expand knowledge or impress others, but to “listen” to what can be learned from others in the past and to pass on (by painfully copying manuscripts) what one hears. Newman phrased it as follows:

“And when he began to compose, still he did so after that mode which nature and revelation had taught him, avoiding curious knowledge, content with incidental ignorance, passing from subject to subject with little regard to system, or care to penetrate beyond his own homestead of thought,—and writing, not with the sharp logic of disputants, or the subtle analysis of philosophers, but with the one aim of reflecting in his pages, as in a faithful mirror, the words and works of the Almighty, as they confronted him, whether in Scripture and the Fathers, or in that “mighty maze” of deeds and events, which men call the world's history, but which to him was a Providential Dispensation.”[16]

The Benedictine would only find satisfaction in a life in conformity to nature, the ultimate gift of a loving Creator. Newman captured the culture of the Benedictine life in this way:

“The monk proposed to himself no great or systematic work, beyond that of saving his soul. What he did more than this was the accident of the hour, spontaneous acts of piety, the sparks of mercy or beneficence, struck off in the heat, as it were, of his solemn religious toil, and done and over almost as soon as they began to be. If today he cut down a tree, or relieved the famishing, or visited the sick, or taught the ignorant, or transcribed a page of Scripture, this was a good in itself, though nothing was added to it tomorrow. He cared little for knowledge, even theological, or for success, even though it was religious. It is the character of such a man to be contented, resigned, patient, and incurious; to create or originate nothing; to live by tradition.”[17]

The Benedictine learns to listen, to value what is heard, and to become satisfied with what is taught. It is unfortunate that Newman never was able to share his depth of understanding of the Dominican and Jesuit educational cultures. However, posterity does have one last gift from Newman the educator—the Oratory School.

Established in the late 1850s, the school was a place for educating the sons of converts from Anglicanism. The school was needed because upon the conversion of their parents, Catholic boys were immediately excluded from attending English public and private schools. Newman and his Oratorian colleagues agreed to established the Oratory school at Edgbaston to fill that void. The story of the Oratory school has already been well-told by Andrew Nash in his Newman’s Idea of a School (1990) and Paul Shrimpton in his A Catholic Eton (2005) and need not delay us any further.[18] Its importance is seen in Newman’s remark to Allies quoted above about the importance of the teacher as influential in the life of students assigned. As Thompson points out, a school’s culture combines a “central and guiding education principle” with a moral or pastoral role of the school’s entire staff.

Lesson 3: Educators must try to build a long-term culture that gives the school its lasting identity and character, not simply one that satisfies the immediate or pressing needs of today. This will take teachers and administrators months to discuss, clarify, modify, and articulate and years to inculcate. Once firmly in place, like the Benedictine philosophy of prayer and labor, it guides all students who listen.

Ultimately, we agree with Thompson’s acknowledgement of the stumbling blocks educators in secular institutions must expect to encounter when applying Newman’s ideas to their own pedagogy. Newman believed in objective reality and objective truth. He also believed that any curriculum that excluded theology (or revealed truth) was flawed by incompleteness. Thus, we, like John Thompson, suggest that although secular educators cannot complete the intellectual and pastoral journey Newman saw as a full education, Newman’s writings hold a treasure trove of guidance for secondary educators working in secular institutions today.

[1] Jane Rupert, “Newman on Pedagogical Practice,” Newman Studies Journal 17, no. 1 (Summer 2020): 103–116.

[2] Rupert, “Newman on Pedagogical Practice,” 108.

[3] Rupert, “Newman on Pedagogical Practice,” 104, 108.

[4] Rupert, “Newman on Pedagogical Practice,” 103, 113.

[5] Newman, Idea, 352.

[6] Newman’s Idea contains only nine of the original ten lectures. Lecture Five, which was the last one delivered in person in Dublin, is no longer part of Part One on University Teaching.

[7] Rupert, “Newman on Pedagogical Practice,” 105–111.

[8] Newman, Idea, 332.

[9] Newman, “What is a University,” in The Rise and Progress of Universities, HS, iii, 16.

[10] LD, xvi, 38n2.

[11] Newman, Idea, 480.

[12] Newman, Idea, 489.

[13] Newman, Idea, 493. Here Newman is quoting from an article he wrote previously in the University Gazette, an informal house organ that he used to keep the university community and others interested in university affairs informed of progress at the school.

[14] Newman to Thomas W. Allies, LD, xviii, 164.

[15] Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” HS, ii, 387.

[16] Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” HS, ii, 427–28.

[17]Newman, “The Benedictine School,” HS, ii, 452).

[18] See Andrew Nash’s Newman’s Idea of a School was published by Oratory School Association and Paul Shrimpton’s A Catholic Eton is available through Gracewing Press.

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Newman and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius
Vincent and Rebecca Vaccaro

Vincent and Rebecca Vaccaro

Vincent Vaccaro is a retired civil servant with over forty years of Federal service. For almost three decades, he annually taught a graduate seminar in the philosophy of education for the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education (Northern Virginia Center).  Rebecca Vaccaro teaches British and American Literature to high school students in Alexandria, VA. Her specialization is Victorian literature with an emphasis in children's and young adult literature. The Vaccaros are currently working on an article on Newman and creating school culture and a book on Newman's lessons for teachers.


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