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Cultivating Intellectual Resilience: Or, why you should read *that* book
  • Curriculum
  • Formation
  • Literature
Nathan Mueller

For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? 
-St. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University 

I was recently reflecting elsewhere about one of the challenges of teaching for a “Great Texts” program.

Many of our texts are hard. And I do not mean merely in the sense that they might be dense or involve hard to grasp philosophical, theological, or mathematical truths—although they are hard for those reasons as well. No, I mean they are hard in the way that looking in a mirror can be hard. To see an honest reflection of oneself, well, can be uncomfortable.  

Why is literature this way? 

St. John Henry Newman, in his magisterial The Idea of a University, offers a conception of literature on which literature, 

stands related to Man as Science stands to Nature. It is his history. Man is composed of body and soul; he thinks and he acts; he has appetites, passions, affections, motives, designs; he has within him the lifelong struggle of duty with inclination; he has an intellect fertile and capacious; he is formed for society, and society multiplies and diversifies in endless combinations his personal characteristics, moral and intellectual. All this constitutes his life; of all this Literature is the expression; so that Literature is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his Life and Remains.

On this account, literature is a record of human nature as it is. And this poses a problem for the educator and student alike, because the picture of human nature which confronts us in the Great Texts can, let’s face it, often be an ugly one. A repulsive one. An unsettling one. 

Given this fact, it is right to worry that exposure to the ugly side of human nature, might well have deleterious consequences on some of our students. However, lest we be tempted to sanitize the curriculum, to cultivate a course of study which will not ask students to walk through the valley of the shadow of death by instead asking them to read only “Christian” literature, Newman points out that such a task is an impossibility.

Some one will say to me perhaps: “Our youth shall not be corrupted. We will dispense with all general or national Literature whatever, if it be so exceptionable; we will have a Christian Literature of our own[…].” You cannot have it.

Why is Christian Literature, a safe Literature, an impossibility? Newman’s answer to this question is grounded in his thought, articulated above, that Literature ought to be understood as the history, the biography of humanity, and as such will by necessity portray humanity in its fallenness:

I do not say you cannot form a select literature for the young… this is another matter altogether: I am speaking of University Education, which implies an extended range of reading, which has to deal with standard works of genius, or what are called the classics of a language: and I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.

That is, as the Church has always affirmed and the Scriptures teach, human nature is fallen, is sinful. Thus any course of studies which not only fails to acknowledge this fact but intentionally avoids it altogether, has a serious problem on its hands. It will cease to be the very thing which it purports to be!  

However, Newman is not satisfied to merely argue that the educator who seeks to offer a sanitized Literature to their students fails to do what they claim to be doing, as if the educator is merely suffering a case of mistaken identity.  

“Oh! Now I see!” such an educator might say, “I’m not teaching Literature. But what of it? I am still educating my students and, more importantly, I am protecting them. What consequence is it if I am not teaching Literature as such?” 

No, Newman has no time or patience for such a line of reasoning and continues to push the point further. 

Nay, I am obliged to go further still; even if we could [cultivate a safe Literature], still we should be shrinking from our plain duty, Gentlemen, did we leave out Literature from Education. For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except for this world?

The task of education generally, and of a university education in particular, is to prepare students for success in the world. A university education, as he articulates in the “Preface” to the work, has as its target a cultivation of a student’s intellect such that, 

when the intellect has once been properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things, it will display its powers with more or less effect according to its particular quality and capacity in the individual. […] In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.

This is the aim, this is the goal: an intellect which has been cultivated in such a way as to be able to navigate and be successful in world at large, regardless of a student’s future path. 

And so, Newman turns the spotlight uncomfortably on us educators and reminds us that we cannot prevent our students from entering into and directly encountering the world and that sinful human nature of which Literature is the history. 

We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them. Proscribe (I do not merely say particular authors, particular works, particular passages) but Secular Literature as such; cut out from your class books all broad manifestations of the natural man; and those manifestations are waiting for your pupil's benefit at the very doors of your lecture room in living and breathing substance. They will meet him there in all the charm of novelty, and all the fascination of genius or of amiableness.

What a thought!  

Refuse to introduce your students to sinful human nature in class if you wish, but just remember that sinful humanity awaits your student at the door of your classroom: intriguing, enticing, articulate, winsome, fascinating. 

Refuse to introduce your students to sinful human nature in class if you wish, but acknowledge what it is that you have done. 

You have refused him the masters of human thought, who would in some sense have educated him, because of their incidental corruption: you have shut up from him those whose thoughts strike home to our hearts, whose words are proverbs, whose names are indigenous to all the world, who are the standard of their mother tongue, and the pride and boast of their countrymen, Homer, Aristotle, Cervantes, Shakespeare, because the old Adam smelt rank in them; and for what have you reserved him? You have given him “a liberty unto” the multitudinous blasphemy of his day; you have made him free of its newspapers, its reviews, its magazines, its novels, its controversial pamphlets, of its Parliamentary debates, its law proceedings, its platform speeches, its songs, its drama, its theatre, of its enveloping, stifling atmosphere of death. You have succeeded but in this,—in making the world his University.

Our students will be educated. Either by us as a faculty, or by the world. Those are the only two options, argues Newman; and I think he is correct. This is the answer to the questions asked earlier. We must continue to do what is hard, since our students will be educated regardless. 

Let us then not shirk from our responsibilities. Let us continue to seek to cultivate intellectual resilience in our students, for our students.