Faith and reason, student welfare and a role for parents: Cardinal Newman’s vision of education was way ahead of its time

Aristotle praised the value of the golden mean: the perfect balance to be found between two competing extremes. At The Oratory School near Reading, where I work, we believe that our founder Blessed John Henry Newman’s ideal of a Catholic education represents just such a balance.

In a world in which the very concept of truth has been made increasingly subjective, a Catholic school, with its ethos firmly rooted in the Gospel message, provides an anchor – a secure base from which our students are able to grapple with and understand the world. For Newman, however, this should not be a blind faith that relies on doctrine by rote. Rather, he argues for a community that uses reason to inform its conscience (“The aboriginal vicar of Christ”, as he put it in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Thus students are helped critically to evaluate the arguments that they are presented with. Crucially there is a freedom implicit here. Newman was adamant that the young “for the most part cannot be driven” and respond far better to an open atmosphere of discussion and debate.

Catholic education should not be regarded purely in pragmatic terms. In Newman’s The Idea of a University he recognises the way in which all subjects should be seen as inculcating virtues together. That includes geography and chemistry, which provide key parts of a student’s human development. The alternative is to leave all pastoral development to RE departments or simply to view academic subjects in brutal isolation from each other. In a Catholic school, academic endeavours develop these virtues in parallel with the sporting, co-curricular and, above all, spiritual aspects of a student’s life. Newman was promoting the value of educating the whole person long before it became fashionable.

A vital aspect of Newman’s view of education is this remarkably modern balance between “vigorous intellectual training” and a “thoroughly Catholic atmosphere” that his friend and fellow convert Edward Bellasis and other supporters were looking for in the new school. In the past critics have noted that, unlike so many English public schools, Catholic schools have not become academic hothouses.

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