Newman High: Some Notes on Newman for Secondary Educators

John Thompson holds graduate degrees from Duke University and Harvard University. He has taught for ten years at the elementary, secondary, and university level. His research focus is on the resources the Christian tradition provides to develop and improve secular education. John and his family live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates where John teaches in the secondary department at the American Academy of Abu Dhabi. 

This month, many teachers like myself will be returning to our classrooms. It will be, like many things right now, challenging and uncertain. While some about our schools will be unfamiliar and new, much will remain the same. One aspect that will remain is a central and timeless question for all educators—How can we be better teachers?

I will be entering my tenth year of teaching high school. Being a teacher means you inhabit a kind of alternative universe folded into everyday life that only someone who has spent time educating young people understands. For those teachers reading this, you know what I am talking about. For non-teachers, I will pull back the curtain and let you in on at least one secret of the high school teacher universe—we educators spend a whole lot of time thinking and talking about how to improve our classrooms. You see, teachers are a special lot. Most of us don't see our classroom as our job. Rather, it is our vocation. We teach because we care . . . a whole lot. I have spent time in countless meetings, professional development seminars, curriculum writing sessions, and professional evaluations all focused on how I can be a better teacher.

Unfortunately, education, at least at the practical level, is struck by a kind of malady. I call it the malady of the trendy, new thing. In the desire to develop our ability as educators, teachers are constantly turning to shiny, novel philosophies of pedagogy and instruction in hopes that it will make their classroom a stronger learning environment. I am not suggesting that just because these methods of instruction are new that they are wrong; many of them are quite helpful to me as an educator. What I am suggesting is that there are other historical resources a teacher might utilize in their quest to hone their craft rather than simply turning to this year's trendy model.

To be a teacher means you are a part of a historical guild that stretches back to Socrates lecturing in the Agora (and probably even further). That means lots of people who have come before us have asked some of the same questions about education that teachers still ask today. Perhaps they can enlighten us concerning how to improve our classrooms this year. John Henry Newman is a voice as relevant to teachers today as it was almost 170 years ago. I am not the first person to draw upon Newman as a source for considering how to improve contemporary education. Many people have done so far better than I could.[1] While these scholars have paid attention to how Newman might have something to say about higher education, I have yet to see anyone think particularly about Newman in the context of secondary education. Though Newman is focused on university-level education, the age range of students for his school is more comparable to the age of contemporary high school students. Thus, Newman's philosophy of education within The Idea of a University appears to be an excellent resource for secondary educators who are seeking out ways to improve their classrooms. As a high school teacher who cares about his craft, I turned to Newman's The Idea of a University with a novel question, "Does Newman have anything to say to me to improve my high school classroom?"

I think Newman offers excellent advice for contemporary education. Essentially, Newman's primary argument in The Idea of a University is the need for schools to have what I will call "a traditioned curriculum" or central and guiding educational principle. One necessity of a traditioned curriculum is the requirement of the moral and intellectual formation of our students as a central concern for the school. To accomplish this, the delivery style or teaching philosophy of each teacher must be personal and pastoral. Thus, Newman offers important insights on curriculum, robust student development, and pedagogical style.

In The Idea of a University, Newman argues for a "traditioned curriculum," which leads to the formation of a "traditioned way of knowing" among the students. A traditioned way of knowing for Newman is "the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence."[2] In other words, all learning for Newman should be cross-curricular and focused on a central concept or ideal. For Newman, this is an intentional quality that begins among the faculty. Newman conceives of a school featuring faculty across all departments uniting for a shared purpose. However, instead of glossing over differences among the disciplines, "they learn to respect, consult, aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes."[3] A faculty with this sense of shared purpose creates an "intellectual tradition which is independent of particular teachers" within the school, which aids the student in the formation of "a habit of mind which lasts through life" engendering "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom"[4] within the student.

The purpose of a traditioned curriculum is to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge in the university. Or, as George Marsden puts it, a traditioned curriculum overcomes the modern university's lack of "[any] central point of reference [or] overarching philosophy."[5] This lack of any centralized tradition leads to "students becom[ing] educated in specialized knowledge, but [becoming] poorly equipped to evaluate the inter-relationships of these parcels or to weigh their relative importance."[6] While the fragmentation of knowledge created by the over specialized atmosphere of the modern university is seeping into secondary education, the real problem for high schools is the inability of faculty to see connections across disciplines. In my experience, most high school students consider subjects as antagonistic toward each other, especially between the liberal arts and the sciences, an antagonism fostered by the inability of high school teachers to make cross curricular connections. Newman challenges secondary teachers to take up this task of seeing subjects as interrelated, and he challenges notions that each subject exists within its own buffered universe. While colleges face their own unique challenges concerning over-specialization, I am certain that high schools can achieve this aspect of Newman's educational vision. To do so, however, requires faculty make cross-disciplinary and integrative curriculum a primary concern.

A traditioned curriculum has at its core the moral and intellectual formation of students. For Newman, the purpose of education is the development of people, rather than resumes. This is an important lesson for secondary educators and their students because far too often students strive to build up their resumes in hopes of wowing admission committees. Thus, learning is conceived of in almost professional terms with the goal of university admission, rather than as an end in itself. Newman suggests that teachers and schools should push back against this notion and strive to develop an environment where students grow as intellectual and moral beings—to develop people who can exist and flourish in public life as public people. Newman writes, "University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end,"[7] which is the production of "more intelligent, capable, active members of society."[8] As they are currently conceived, most large modern universities lack the communal structure to have any real sense of formation across the student body. Yet, high schools usually operate as a type of large community whereby students are forced to cohabitate as a single community (as opposed to being at best a collection of independent communities like the modern university). Thus, an opportunity exists at the secondary level to intentionally formulate a learning environment that spurns professionalism as an educational goal, a difficult task in the current cultural climate, but not an impossible one.

To achieve this difficult task, a specific mode of pedagogy or curriculum delivery is necessary—a mode Newman himself recognized. In The Idea of a University, Newman suggests that students come to university not "merely [to] hear a lecture, or to read a book, but . . . for the catechetical instruction, which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you."[9] For Newman, the university should be a place where teachers and students "co-operate with a pure esprit-de-corps"[10] toward the object of knowledge. Newman's designation of his pedagogical style as "conversation" and his description of students and teacher "co-operating with an esprit-de-corps" (group pride or loyalty) is important because it demonstrates that he views education as a personal enterprise. Newman forged his teaching philosophy during his time as tutor at Oxford, especially when he played a large role in the reform of Oxford's tutorial system in 1829.[11] As an Oxford Tutor, Newman disagreed with the overly formal relationship between tutor and student. The tutor, he felt, was far too impersonal and distant. Instead, as Ker puts it, Newman "regarded it as his own responsibility to find time outside the formal lecture routine for the personal tutoring of more serious students . . . with such youths, he cultivated relations, not only of intimacy, but of friendship, and almost of equality, putting off, as much as might be, the martinet manner then in fashion with College Tutors."[12] In his own writings, Newman would call his teaching style an "act of personal intercourse."[13] To teach was, in essence, to have a pastoral responsibility to students demanding walls constructed to distance teachers and pupils be torn down.

Most secondary teachers realize that in order to have student engagement a personal relationship must be constructed. It is simply easier to motivate students to complete classwork if they understand that their teacher cares about them as people. Yet, this often occurs simply due to individual teacher personalities rather than intentional professional development. I have never heard of a teacher taking a course in student-teacher relationships (at least one suggesting that teachers should develop the kind of relationship Newman is suggesting). Instead, most instructional philosophies suggest teachers maintain an authoritarian relationship with their students with the role of disciplinarian as a the teacher's default position. If Newman is right that one primary goal of education is the moral and intellectual development of a student, then the delivery of curriculum must be personal and pastoral. On this point, Newman challenges teachers to make their classrooms more inviting and caring to the students that walk through its doors. Friendship rather than impersonal discipline should be the default.

Newman's traditioned curriculum suggests to contemporary high school teachers that cross curricular connections are important in creating a healthy intellectual community. What is needed is an intentional, unifying concept or idea. Having this integrated curriculum encourages moral and intellectual development of students through a personal student-teacher relationship, which can be characterized as pastoral. To form a secondary institution in this way is without a doubt challenging in our contemporary secular context. For Newman, the unifying idea for a traditioned curriculum, moral and intellectual student development, and pedagogy as friendship was the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. While I am inclined to agree with Newman on the power of theology even in a secular university to serve as the glue for which to unite different disciplines, I am not sure suggesting that the Catholic Church be a unifying principle for any non-Catholic, non-Christian school would work. So, does that mean that Newman's argument for a traditioned curriculum has no application for secular schools?While I think this question elicits much more than what I can offer in this brief essay, for the purposes of answering our original question—Does Newman offer any assistance to those of us trying to improve learning within contemporary secondary education? —let me simply say that Newman's use of Catholicism as the tradition grounding his educational philosophy does not disqualify that philosophy from applying to secular schools. While even though secular schools do not have the benefit of a norming and regulating tradition like the Catholic Church, faculty and administration of any school can come together to construct their own unifying, intentional tradition.

For example, in the International Baccalaureate curriculum—one of the many types of secondary curriculums available—a core epistemology course, "Theory of Knowledge," attempts to serve as the central strand for the entire curriculum. In this class, students focus on themselves as "knower" and the primary ways they obtain knowledge (reason, faith, experience, emotion, etc.) before considering different types of knowledge. Students are encouraged to consider links across subjects along with the differences. The purpose is to destroy the notion that any one discipline owns a specific way of knowing. By undergoing this kind of epistemological therapy, students are meant to shed the notion that any area of knowledge is distinct, separate, or superior in regards to other areas.[14] As the students explore, argue, think, and challenge different ways of knowing, they are called to exercise and develop specific learner traits (such as risk-taking, caring, inquiring, reflecting, etc.). The purpose is to aid the student in their moral and intellectual development. This entire process is largely independent, though the student is guided by multiple faculty members who help the student think through this two-year course. Thus, the "Theory of Knowledge" course seems to have at least the potential to fulfill many of Newman's educational ideas.

I am not suggesting that the "Theory of Knowledge" course has the robust structure of the Catholic Church. Yet, what I am suggesting is that the course provides at least one example of a secular institution seeking to form a traditioned curriculum of the kind that Newman suggests in The Idea of a University. The reason I highlight the International Baccalaureate Curriculum is that it is unique in providing this type of unifying course which encourages cross-curricular thinking and moral student development. The success that I have seen of this type of class to foster a recognition among students and faculty of the interconnectedness of subjects suggests that all schools and curriculums should have something like it within their own curriculum. While, in the end, what I am describing is simply not the same as what Newman describes for his university, it doesn't mean that Newman's important theory of education should be limited to parochial schools. His words can help all teachers and schools better educate students and, thus, are worth thinking about.


[1] See for example the excellent essays in Yale University Press's publication of Newman's The Idea of a University (1996).

[2] Newman, Idea, 103.

[3] Newman, Idea, 76.

[4] Newman, Idea, 77.

[5] George Marsden, "Theology and the University: Newman's Idea and Current Realities" in John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Frank Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996): 302–17 at 304.

[6] Marsden, "Theology and the University," 304.

[7] Newman, Idea, 134.

[8] Newman, Idea, xxix.

[9] Newman, Idea, 369.

[10] Newman, Idea, 380.

[11] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37–41.

[12] Ker, John Henry Newman, 38.

[13] Ker, John Henry Newman, 39.

[14] While this course clearly does not fulfill the same role theology does for Newman's university, its role in the curriculum has some clear parallels, especially as a cross-curricular and unifying element. 

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