Good Writing, and Right


Can it be true that the best writer of an entire century wrote on education? If you have taken a graduate degree in education or received a teaching credential, you will have your doubts; but when asked who was the best writer of English prose in the 19th century, James Joyce said John Henry Newman, the author of The Idea of a University.

Part of the book is a discussion of whether a liberal education is useful[1], with Newman maintaining that it is. I find it worth reading for a number of reasons.

The first is the refreshing idea that education can reform itself while preserving the best of what it has already done well. Usually, when we read educationist reform literature we hear glib talk about revolutions, paradigm shifts, and ash heaps of history. The historical background of Newman’s book was the reform of Oxford from its time of decline, castigated by Gibbon, to its return to the forefront of teaching and learning. The decline was reversed, but no one threw out the baby with the bathwater, and, mirabile dictu, no one thought the reform needed to be based on research.

The second is that Newman thought his case worth making by using the very methods cultivated in a liberal education: critical intelligence, sharp reasoning, clear prose, the presentation of vivid particulars, and other solid but transparent means available to those given a solid general education. When the argument is so made, it stands before any generally educated person for approval or rejection. How different from the methods used by specialists in the “science” and “research” of education, conceived obscurely and written poorly.

The third is the writing itself. Newman, like many past masters of English, had an expansive view of what the sentence could do, and therefore let it expand, contract, or ramify depending on the job each one had to do. Readers of work by Sir Isaiah Berlin will recognize a kinship of Newman’s and Berlin’s prose styles. (Let me say here that I have assigned Berlin to 11th– and 12th-graders, who after an initial startlement at his style, find themselves slowly but increasingly able to work their way through sentences fitted precisely to the thoughts they convey.) The following is an extract of two sentences from Newman’s “discourse.” One, elaborately but soundly and correctly constructed, makes an argument by precise analogy. The other summarizes.

“Again, as health ought to precede labour of the body, and as a man in health can do what an unhealthy man cannot do, and as of this health the properties are strength, energy, agility, graceful carriage and action, manual dexterity, and endurance of fatigue, so in like manner general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense then, …  mental culture is emphatically useful.”

The means of persuasion are entirely generalist and transparent. The reader of this sentence has nothing more special to do than get it: no protocol to evaluate, no proxy values to examine and vet, no imprecision of language to clarify. Instead, we are called on to use what William James calls our sagacity and what Blaise Pascal calls esprit de finesse to weigh and judge what Newman says.

They are the same faculties of mind that, having cultivated in a good education, a graduate student can then apply in turning to a specific calling such as the law, business, architecture, or education. They will increase and complement advanced special knowledge with skill and the potential for understanding that a trained and agile mind possesses.

They are the same faculties of mind that a good high school education will also start to develop.

[1] Discourse 7. Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill, from The Idea of the University by John Henry Newman.


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