Knowledge, as being of itself a treasure

“Knowledge, as being of itself a treasure…”
St John Henry Newman

St John Henry Newman was canonised earlier this month on 13th October. This is a pretty big deal. I’m a Catholic, but I haven’t been to Mass for years. In fact, in between the last time I went to Mass and now, I – a Brummie Catholic of English, New Zealand and German descent – married a non-practising Presbyterian of Northern Irish and Scottish descent, so it really has been a while! I’m not a Newman scholar or any sort of expert, but I would like to write about why Newman’s thinking is important to me. Fast forward a few years from when Newman was part of my daily life as a pupil to today, and I don’t go to church any more, but as I’m told by many practising Catholics, you’re always part of the club and will be welcomed with open arms if you want to return. Thank you to my friends Clive Wright and Rachel Thompson of St Martin’s Catholic Academy, Stoke Golding who regularly remind me! 🙂

As a child, I prayed a great deal for St John Henry’s canonisation as I was baptised and confirmed in the church that he founded: the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception, Edgbaston. I also attended one of the schools he founded: the Oratory School, Birmingham, just down the road from the church. So, although not a practising Catholic any more, I’m pretty chuffed he’s now a saint. Cardinal Newman, as he was referred to then, was a familiar and revered name in our house and in my primary and secondary schools. Dad was Catholic too but never went to Mass, so every Sunday, Mum, my sister and I used to hop on the number 8 bus on Gerard Street and make the 20 minute journey to Edgbaston and the Edwardian Italian baroque majesty of the Oratory, built in 1907 after Newman’s death in 1890. So we weren’t local to the Oratory, but the church sort of found us. My Mum hadn’t been to Mass for years until she found the Oratory. She returned to the church in her 40s after my older sister had been very ill and in the Birmingham Children’s Hospital for a while. While my sister was in hospital my Mum met the hospital chaplain, a priest at the Oratory, and it all went from there: we were baptised at four years old (me) and eight years old (my sister) under the incensed, tunnel-vaulted, star-spangled roof of Newman’s Oratory.

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The nave of the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception, Birmingham

The Oratory, with its cool marbled columns that I danced around after Mass, elaborately columned pulpit that I sat under playing with my dinosaurs, and its huge sky-blue dome that I gazed up at during the Apostles’ Creed, circumferenced with elegant angels and rosy-cheeked cherubs and flanked by scroll-bearing prophets, was a huge part of my childhood.

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The high altar of the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception, Birmingham

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The interior of the dome of the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception, Birmingham

I am eternally grateful for the support our church and schools gave us as a family. I wrote a little about that here. But this post is more about Newman and me.

It was serendipitous that I came across some of Newman’s writings over the past year, the year in which I feel I have really worked out my values as a school leader and what I unequivocally believe in and stand for. Many of us hear talk of values in schools: abstract nouns trying to harness the concrete, trying to encapsulate what we think and feel and do, what we say we subscribe to, what we and our pupils are supposed to believe. A proliferation of those values began to inexorably roll out of photocopiers and laminators and appear magically on school hall walls overnight about ten years or so ago: this was the time when the head teacher cult of personality was most rampant (and still is in some parts). That’s a whole different blog, and something I have tentatively explored here, and will continue to explore. I suppose my point in mentioning it in this blog post is that I have truly pinned my knowledge colours to the values mast, but there hasn’t been a single Damascene event that led to this. My beliefs of knowledge as freedom and knowledge as equality of opportunity that I hold so dear have, I think, always been there, but the seductive siren call of tinselly ‘pedagogical’ frippery lured me off course for a while to a Hades fire pit of PLTS and ‘engagement’. Colleagues I have met on Twitter and through organisations like researchED, Parents and Teachers for Excellence and the Midlands Knowledge Hub have helped me return to what I’ve always believed in. Now I’m clear and have stripped away that which is extraneous and detracts, I’d like to write about something that is a personal possession, part of which stemmed from my link with the Oratory and therefore Newman: knowledge.

Earlier this year I stumbled across Newman’s lectures on the aims of education, delivered in Dublin in the newly-founded Catholic University of Ireland, and published in 1852. Newman was dedicated to education. He founded two schools for boys (one of which is my primary school – it became mixed gender later in the twentieth century and moved to new buildings in the 1970s); he also founded the Catholic University of Ireland. The lectures I came across were later titled The Idea of a University and are a statement of the value of “the disciplined intellect” that Newman argues can be developed by a liberal education. Newman’s view of a liberal education can be read largely independent of his Catholicism (and independent of his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism – all Oratorians are converts), but I’m sure one could argue that his religion did affect his views on education. But that’s not really what I’m interested in in this blog post. Newman clearly admired “intellectual enlargement”. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, and the son of a banker. He was a fearsome intellectual and an orator and writer of great skill and “devastatingly effective in disposing of opponents.” (Catherine Robson, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, p.63), including Thomas Hardy. I’m interested in how Newman’s thinking has affected me and my view of education. I’m the daughter of parents who had massively high expectations of me, but we were a family in poverty. I am not an Oxford graduate. I am not the daughter of a banker. We lived in an area of Birmingham not too far away from the Oratory (20 minutes on the number 8), but hundreds of miles away in terms of high intellectual expectations of children in the 1980s and 1990s. I love the areas in which I grew up – Hockley, Lozells and Handsworth – they helped form me – but they were socially isolated places in the 1980s and 1990s. There were high levels of crime and violence. I remember the riots in the 80s and hanging out of our bathroom window, watching the looters rattle down our street clutching TVs and video recorders. People who didn’t live there had little reason to visit and strong incentives to stay away. Conditions like these are bad for everyone, but particularly difficult for children, trapped in cycles of poverty. Knowledge – other than knowledge of how to get by in those conditions – wasn’t an expectation of some of us kids from Lozells back then. And yet, still, Newman resonates. I’d like to explore why this is and take some of Newman’s ideas and apply them to my own considerations and values about knowledge and equality. I am very mindful that this is my own interpretation of Newman’s writings. I think this is fine. This is a blog post about what I believe and what resonates with me.

All quotes are from The Idea of a University by St John Henry Newman

“Knowledge, indeed, when thus exalted into a scientific form, is also power; not only is it excellent in itself, but whatever such excellence may be, it is something more, it has a result beyond itself.”

As a scholar of language and of literature I’m fascinated by Newman’s use of the verb “exalted”. It also somewhat contradicts my assertion earlier in this post: that Newman’s view can be read independent of his faith. “Exalted” is a verb loaded with Catholicism, fizzing with joyful connotations from the Magnificat (“Et exultavit, spiritus meus”/ “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour”). In his lectures, Newman seems to equivocate a little over both science and theology. On the one hand, he did support in theory the traditional view that the medieval liberal arts were the staple of a liberal education. On the other hand, his practice seemed to be more flexible. In this extract, though, knowledge is “exalted” into a scientific form. And not only that, it has power, and has “something more”. Knowledge of our subjects is powerful, and we elevate and illuminate and exalt it by talking about it and discussing it within our subject communities; by debating its structure and origin. Newman’s assertion has great resonance and value. Knowledge is something more. Yes, I loved English at school. Yes, it was very likely that I was always going to choose to study English at university. But my knowledge of Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth? I didn’t study that as part of my GCSE in history or as part of my A level in history. It was part of my KS3 study, and I found Richard to be a fascinating king. So fascinating that I’ve visited Bosworth Battlefield many, many times. So fascinating that my good luck mascot is a small, plastic white boar (he was next to me on my desk for every GCSE exam, every A level exam, every undergraduate and postgraduate degree exam). My knowledge of Richard III, his reign and his death is knowledge that has a result beyond itself. It wasn’t for an exam. It was because it was interesting. And that knowledge is part of my heritage, our heritage. We all own it. It has a result beyond itself. It has a result beyond the hardship and difficulty of my childhood and teenage years. Far beyond that.

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My lucky mascot of a white boar, the emblem of Richard III

“When I speak of Knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea.”

Knowledge, to Newman, is liberty. It frees us to perceive, to take a view, to see beyond, to reason, to have an opinion. To deny knowledge is to deny liberty. We are experts. We have degrees. We are knowledgeable. We, therefore, have the capacity to think as experts. Why, then, of course it must be our duty as teachers to share this knowledge. I have written before about how, although there was sometimes scant food on the table when I was a child, I was blessed in other ways: the table creaked under the immense weight of the joy of Keats and the pull of Toni Morrison and the bleak misery of the trenches and the beauty of Schubert and the angles of Brutalism. Without this fascinating knowledge – as an end in itself – I wouldn’t know what I thought about lots of things, simply because I hadn’t come across them. This wasn’t knowledge I had fortuitously bumped in to because I was somehow ‘knowledge lucky’. It was carefully discussed and planned and thought through by the teachers at my school. Some of that knowledge was taught by my family. My mother – a huge Burne-Jones fan – is responsible for my love of the Pre-Raphaelites. My grandfather – a child of Edwardian England and the pull of progress – was a huge fan of modern architecture, hence my love of Modernist and Brutalist buildings. He was also a gardener. So when I look at trees in a park, I don’t just see a great green mass of treesiness (thank you to Clare Sealy for this wonderful neologism!): I see sycamores and horse chestnuts and oaks and can smell hawthorn blossom before I see it. All this wasn’t knowledge to pass an exam. And it’s living, breathing knowledge; knowledge that still walks with me. I don’t gaze in awe at Burne-Jones’ paintings and stained glass because of a GCSE I’m going to take in Burne-Jones. Of course not. I gaze at it and love it and appreciate it and question it because it is knowledge as an end in itself. I might have been meticulously taught about the Pre-Raphaelites and thought they were rubbish. That is fine, because I’d studied and understood and was free in my knowledge to make that decision. But how does one perceive and understand, or reason, or have an opinion, if one doesn’t know something in the first place?

“Knowledge…it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, it is a personal possession…”

God I love this from Newman. Knowledge illuminates. It helps one to see, judge, understand, evaluate. And I definitely don’t just mean the substantive knowledge – the ‘stuff’ of our subjects. The subtlety and nuance and power of the disciplinary dimension of our subjects is vital and shines a light on the subject itself enabling pupils to think, evaluate, challenge, create. And to do that effectively, one must keep doing it. Teach our kids our subjects’ traditions. Induct our kids into them. Create the conditions for graft, perseverance, practice. And grafting so the application of knowledge becomes a habit, moving manual to automatic. Freeing up our children’s thinking so that there’s automaticity of knowledge so that the impact on working memory is reduced, and the knowledge habit enables them to think. This liberty of thought is at the heart of Newman’s philosophy of education.

And, finally, knowledge as a “personal possession”. What knowledge gifts we have to pass on to the generations rolling ahead of us. And what weighty responsibility we have. This knowledge, this powerful knowledge, this entitlement – it belongs to us all. Our own personal possession. Ours to carry around with us forever. Ours to cherish. Ours to illuminate the world around us. Ours to access all that is beautiful about humanity. Knowledge as a leveller: ours to make sure that a child from Hockley can sit at a table with a child from Harrow and confidently talk, understand and engage in conversation and debate.

I’m going to end this post with my favourite of Newman’s lines from his lectures: “Knowledge, which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labour.” And so, school leaders, I urge you to think beyond the frameworks and the specs and the option blocks. This is far more. Knowledge as being of itself a treasure. Knowledge of its own end, and precious.