Thursday 24 February 2011

Newman on Higher Education

When Archbishop Cullen appointed Newman as Rector of the proposed Catholic University of Ireland in 1851, it was to spearhead the Church’s response to a scheme designed to enable Catholics to obtain degrees within the secular, utilitarian system devised by Sir Robert Peel: the Queen’s Colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway. As Newman wrote, the University was intended to attract American as well as Irish students, and to become a centre of Catholic cultural renewal for the whole English-speaking world, “with Great Britain, Malta (perhaps Turkey or Egypt), and India on one side of it, and North America and Australia on the other.” It was an extraordinary vision, and even if this first Irish Catholic university was reabsorbed by the secular system after Newman’s departure, it had provided the occasion for a series of discourses on education (The Idea of a University) which continue to influence Catholic thinking today. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), defining the basic constitution of a modern Catholic university, clearly bears the mark of Newman’s thought. 

Today, Newman’s ideas are more urgent and relevant than ever. Zenit has recently published a useful series of articles on this theme by Fr Juan R. Velez ("Newman's 'Idea' for Catholic Higher Education", Part 1Part 2). The tensions between “liberal” or progressive and “conservative” or authoritarian elements in the Catholic academic world tend to come to a head over the

Wednesday 16 February 2011


Fractals are infinitely complex and beautiful patterns produced through the repetition of a simple formula or shape, patterns which often appear rough or chaotic and which can be found everywhere in nature (the surface of the sea, the edge of a cloud, the dancing flames in a wood fire). I have written about them briefly before.

What appeals to us in such patterns, perhaps, is the combination of simplicity and complexity. They allow our minds scope to expand, and our imaginations to take off in the direction of the infinite, but at the same time to rest in a unity. It is similar to the reason we love science. Scientists are seeking the simple secret at the heart of the complex - the formula or combination of universal laws that governs all of reality and explains why it works or appears the way it does.

Something similar is happening in art, when the artist seeks unity of concept or meaning or mood in a complex scene or sight or landscape.

Not all beauty is produced by these "recursive algorithms" or the repetition of self-similarity at different scales of magnitude. Sometimes a pattern is just there in the thing and does not repeat itself. But beauty always has something to do with order, which means the finding of a unity of form in something complex - a balance between the Many and the One. The finding of unity gives us joy (which is why we call it beautiful) because it enables us to recognise the Self in the Other, outside ourselves. It causes us to expand our boundaries to include the other thing as grasped and understood, or at least as situated in a relationship to us. Fractal patterns are a version of that experience. We sense the unity, but because it is expressing itself as never-ending complexity, it never gets boring.

Therefore all beauty, including fractal beauty, reminds us of God, who is both infinitely simple (in himself, as pure love) and yet infinitely complex (in what he contains and creates).

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Child-centred education: 3

We all know there is a child still within us. That child has many aspects. It is ignorant, selfish, immature, confused. It may be desperately in need of love it has never received. But it is innocent and pure. I think it was in that sense that Georges Bernanos wrote, “What does my life matter? I just want it to be faithful, to the end, to the child I used to be.”

Christianity has given a particular importance to childhood. It certainly transformed, over time, the way children were perceived in classical civilizations. From the statement of Christ, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15), it followed that there was something valuable and to be imitated in the state of childhood. Normally children are told to grow up and become like adults, not the other way around. Childhood is an undeveloped stage, but in some ways it also represents a more perfect state, in which we

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Child-centred education: 2

More notes from a work in progress.

Another great figure in child-centred education is Rudolf Steiner (d. 1925), the founder of a school of spiritual philosophy called Anthroposophy and the inspiration for around 1000 Waldorf Schools around the world, including this one in Edinburgh. The schools began in 1919 when Steiner was invited to create one for the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, based on the ideas in his 1909 book, The Education of the Child. Steiner believed in the need to educate with the spiritual as well as emotional, cultural and physical needs of children in mind, and believed that they progress through a series of developmental stages corresponding to the evolution of human consciousness itself. Abstract and conceptual thinking develops late, around the age of 14, and so the early years are more focused on art, the

Thursday 3 February 2011

Child-centred education: 1

Notes from a work in progress.

Insight into the true value of the child can be traced back to Christ, though it has to be said it remained mainly implicit during most of the succeeding centuries, and before the eighteenth century childhood was often considered merely a stage of weakness and immaturity to be got through as quickly as possible. We'll come back to the child later in this series. The modern period saw a transformation of educational theory and practice. In the wake of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) and the Romantics, most developments reflect a greater respect for the nature and natural development of the child. Rousseau himself – not a great educator, but a considerable influence through his novel Emile – believed in the natural goodness and value of the child,