By Chip Prehn
“Of education, information is the least part.”
Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752)
Can information replace liberal knowledge? This question lingers in my mind as I remember last summer when I spent a few days showing some friends around Washington. These friends are well-educated Gen-X parents with two young children. As we toured the city, I was amazed at the way all four members of the family could deliver useful knowledge at the speed of light. They simply “Googled” a question and — voilá. I too love the way I can use my smart phone and PC to quickly access useful information. Though my fingers are less dexterous than my Gen-X friends (and far less dexterous than my friends Millennial and younger), I’m just as euphoric as everyone else about the information I can have in the palm of my hand in seconds. May God be praised for the information age!
But I am concerned. The impressive information access mentioned above is nine-tenths acting; it involves very little thinking. The right answers are packaged for us. They are preconceived. Are we devolving into hunter-gatherers of the cyber age, even as our information technology gets more and more advanced?
A reader may well ask how atomic energy was discovered without information, how we landed a man on the moon without information, or how we cure diseases without information. The bold but entirely true answer is that it was not information that ignited anything or cured anyone. These remarkable achievements were accomplished by well-educated persons who had been taught how to use tools — including accurate information — to solve problems. They were thinkers. They had submitted themselves over time to the somewhat difficult process of acquiring liberal — that is, liberating — knowledge and learning (the classic intention of the liberal arts). They worked slowly over much time and applied human intelligence, reason, and good information to the real-world problems which fascinated them.
We should not be surprised that John Henry Newman (1801-1890) recognized the moral weevil in the bloom. He too lived in the age of information. The age did not begin in the 1970s with the fiber-optic revolution. The phenomenon goes back at least as far as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and his Great Instauration. By the end of 16th century, Western thinkers were sure that “useful knowledge” — they thought they had discovered something new — allows humankind to control nature and thus guarantee the flourishing of our species. They were right and they were wrong; so it goes with human wisdom.
In 1831, Newman gave his fourth University Sermon, entitled, “The Usurpation of Reason.” Ten years later he took on an English prime minister over the same subject in the “Tamworth Letters” to the London Times. Another decade passed before Newman offered a fine summary of his views on information, liberal learning, reason, faith, and education in The Idea of a University (1852).
In the Oxford sermon, Newman makes a crucial and I think haunting point: “When we consider how common it is in the world at large to consider the intellect as the characteristic part of our nature, the silence of Scripture in regard to it (not to mention its positive disparagement of it) is very striking.” His text is St. Matthew’s gospel, 11:19: “Wisdom is justified of her children.” The rational faculty is God-given, and certainly amazing, but it is a tool, does not justify itself, nor does it bring us all the knowledge we need.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5–6)
Faith and reason derive their respective wisdoms from different sources, and, at the end of the day, the truths of faith are superior to the truths of reason because what faith “sees” and reason cannot see is in fact beyond this world: the eternal realm of God’s glory. We must recall that the man who preached this sermon was an Oxford don and an admired scholar of undisputed intellectual attainments.
What Newman attacked in 1841 was the notion, perhaps carelessly broadcast by Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), that literacy and formal education improve a person morally. “If virtue be a mastery over the mind,” Newman wrote to Times readers, “if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in libraries and reading-rooms.” Knowledge does not necessarily make a person better, and it does not form character except in the planned ordeal of its acquisition.
Newman would have no intellectual barbarians. The Idea of a University (1852) was his third great discussion of the distinctions between faith and reason, liberal knowledge and mere information. Newman took it for granted that, if the aim is high, if the higher nature is the concern of education, then everything else will fall into place. Keeping first things first does not mean that students will not develop cash-valued skills or land good jobs after all.
Our desideratum is not the manners and habits of gentlemen… but the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive, just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercises of years.
The goods Newman describes above are not gained in solitude with even the most dazzling hand-held device. An entire community — a scholastic fellowship — is required if a person is to get liberal education of the Christian sort. Sucking information out of an electronic feeder is not education. Information, like reason, is but a tool in the hands of those who are aiming for higher things.
In a mostly forgotten but superb little school-days novel, Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) put these words in the mouth of Mr. Don, a wise old teacher: “Information is nothing — an illusion of thoughtless parents. For information you would purchase a text-book. … For education you live in a society” (The Twymans: A Tale of Youth). What students are learning from their teachers and each other far outweighs the accumulating information. Newman wrote in the Tamworth letters,
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason but through the imagination by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.
Newman anticipated what can happen to schools and colleges when educators and lawmakers get in too big a hurry to improve the status quo or cater to the market.
Strong relationships are essential among the respective members of the scholastic community. When it comes to education reform, creating and maintaining the right sort of community life makes all the difference between quality and mediocrity. Bishop Butler, quoted at the beginning of this essay, was perhaps the most learned person in eighteenth-century England, yet he insisted that information is “the least part” of education. The creation and maintenance of just the right kind of community is key because it is itself imparting the most useful tuition of all: moral principles and insights. The scholastic community is itself educative. It’s not all about information and useful knowledge.
So much depends on the “little things” valued in the scholastic community every day that the elements of a high-quality Christian education are extremely difficult to explain to others. W.A. Muhlenberg (1796–1877), an American inspired by Newman’s published sermons, established two schools on Long Island that were admired across the nation. Yet Muhlenberg wrote surprisingly little about his method, because life in his scholastic brotherhood was too rich, mysterious, and multifaceted. Articulation of the ethos was almost impossible. Instead, the Doctor extended warm invitations: “Come, stay with us and see for yourself.” The Muhlenberg-type Church school was replicated by the Doctor’s disciples all over the United States, but they too wrote very little and tended to say, “Come and see.”
When describing the community life of a great school, Christian intellectuals often revert to a metaphor Jesus favored: a deeply integrative Christian school is a kind of body mystical wherein each member gains from and gives to all the others. Being part of such a body requires a certain amount of submission to others, which is not only a first step toward character but necessary for sound learning. The school is the Church in her scholastic mode; thus, while the standards are high and lowered for none, grace is required and is ever available. God’s grace is mediated in Christ to and by each member of the body scholastic: “I am the Vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). As we contemplate vines, branches, the sap and the flower, we realize that Christian formation is hardly about light-speed information. Butler, Newman, Muhlenberg, and their disciples were adamant that “information is the least part” of education because information fades so quickly, while the impressions made by other human beings linger on, influencing the heart for a lifetime. Good (or bad) examples stick. The main lesson, in any classroom or on any playing field, is the teacher.
Committed Christian parents and educators must actively resist the tyranny of information in our schools, parishes, and other training venues. Because the things of the spirit can never be measured in terms of the flesh (Rom. 8:5–10), we must not be afraid to use our simple Christian language when talking about the most complicated educational processes. Our religion teaches that truth is not an intellectual phenomenon alone but is based on a relationship with the Truth Incarnate. We are bound to believe that the eternal Logos (or Meaning) of God was made man and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The Word made flesh said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Education in the truest sense of the word will begin here, in the Word made flesh — in the Body of Christ or Catholic Church. Why settle for less? This ambition on behalf of the next generations ought to unite us. Shouldn’t we be using substantial resources for this mission?
A skeptical reader might ask whether the education approved by Butler, Newman, Muhlenberg, and their heirs is “practical” in the twenty-first century. I would answer the question by saying that it is really a matter of faith.
Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a director of The Living Church Foundation.