Living teaching: The genius loci

My most memorable moments in Dublin came through encounters with living people, the many warm individuals who introduced me to life in the city and country, and from all the enriching, direct experiences, some of which I’ve tried to recount here.

But oddly enough, I also value the encounters I had with people who live on only in their writings or institutions. I say “oddly,” because I could easily have come to know them somewhat without being physically present in Ireland, and yet I seemed to need the tradition of place, or genius loci, to open the book.

One of these is Cardinal John Henry Newman. I didn’t know much about his work, other than valuing the many Newman Centers on university campuses. Frankly, I had a negative view, that his focus was on education for “gentlemen,” and that he held an elitist and sectarian approach to learning. At best, his ideas were locked away in 19th-century Ireland and unlikely to be relevant to my world today.

Cardinal John Henry NewmanFortunately, a colleague, Leo Casey, was able to gently point out that my conception was based on not knowing anything, and to suggest that if I did open a book, I might learn something.

In this case, the book was Cardinal Newman: The Catholic University, which contains a selection of his writings. University College Dublin, which he presided over, published it in 1990, to commemorate the century after his death. One of the essays in the collection is entitled “Living Teaching rather than passive reception of facts.” It’s from his The Idea of the University, and introduced me among other things to the term, genius loci.

Newman writes about “young men,” but I believe that today he’d quickly revise his essay to include all people. He asks a provocative question: Suppose we

had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away…[which of these would be] more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity

Newman is quick to say, in his 19th-century style, that he can’t fully endorse the second model, as he considers “idleness an intolerable mischief.” But he has “no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.” He explains as follows:

When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day…students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalize, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are inter-relations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character…

that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci

Here then is a real teaching…it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no inter-communion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy

Newman recognizes the limits of such self-education, but nevertheless argues, the result is better than for

those earnest but ill-used persons, who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust…they leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness.

How much better, he says,

to eschew the College and the University altogether, than to submit to a drudgery so ignoble, a mockery so contumelious! How much more profitable for the independent mind, after the mere rudiments of education, to range through a library at random, taking down books as they meet him, and pursuing the trains of thought which his mother wit suggests! How much healthier to wander into the fields…

[or from] the beach, and the quay, and the fisher’s boat, and the inn’s fireside, and the tradesman’s shop, and the shepherd’s walk, and the smuggler’s hut, and the mossy moor, and the screaming gulls, and the restless waves, to fashion for himself a philosophy and a poetry of his own!

Newman’s style is dated, but his questions are more relevant today than when he wrote. Our university education, indeed formal education at all levels in both the US and Ireland, often strives to do little more than load minds against examinations. We run from the idea of genius loci and see no need for living teaching.

Meanwhile, university administrators worldwide now measure success against a benchmark of mechanization. Efficient, modular, and uniform delivery of certifications is the goal. Newman reminds us that achieving that goal means not only that students will “throw up all they have learned in disgust,” but that society will ultimately throw up the university in disgust as well.

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