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Scholar discusses Catholic education

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, December 5, 2012

John Haldane, professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, spoke Tuesday in the Eck Hall of Law on “The Future of the University: Philosophy, Education and Catholic Tradition.”

University President Fr. John Jenkins introduced Haldane, who is the chairman of the Royal Institute for Philosophy in London and consultant to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome.

“I have known John for a long time,” Jenkins said, “He is a prolific scholar of philosophy … who combines the serious rigor of argument that characterizes analytic philosophy with an expansive imagination, seriousness about issues of faith and aesthetics – things that really characterize Catholic tradition at its best.”

Haldane focused on the philosophy and theology behind traditional modes of Catholic education and these modes’ futures in modern institutions.

“This is no small topic,” he said. “If you ask the question, ‘What is a Catholic university?’ It seems to me you can answer that question in a variety of ways.”

Haldane said a university might consider itself Catholic through its origins, liturgy or sacrament.

“A Catholic university can also operate on the principle that grace perfects nature,” he said. “[The principle] organizes educational activities from this perspective of human nature.”

Haldane said Saint Augustine’s views on education continued a secular, Greco-Roman concern with the practice and cultivation of wisdom.  

“Human excellence and happiness require self-understanding and virtue,” he said. “This is the proper end of philosophy and education. It must also include the study of history, culture and politics.”

Haldane said philosophy practices the love of wisdom and clarifies concepts and arguments and therefore corrects post-modernist postures within the humanities.

“Higher education is in a state of flux,” Haldane said. Economic hardship and pragmatist approaches to education challenge classical methods of education, he said.

“Until recently, education was a privilege of the few, but increasingly it seems the right of the many,” he said.

Haldane said this change came from 19th-century progressive thought and radical philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Herbert Spencer.

Matthew Arnold saw education as an essential means for the transmission of high culture, Haldane said.

“This kind of intensive education formation involves a relatively small amount of students in each class tutored by a widely-read teacher, which cannot be substituted for by online PowerPoint presentations,” he said.

Haldane said there was a distinction between knowledge and understanding.

“Newman was concerned that as well as coming to know the particular and the contemporary, humans need to understand the general and the permanent,” he said.

As the situation in public finances worsens, hard choices about education will have to be made, Haldane said.

“Theologians tell us that God does not will evil, but permits it for the sake of the good that may come from it. Due to that perspective, the financial crises … may yet bring forth benefits for the university if it causes us to engage in this conversation about the value of education,” he said.