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Education a diverse river wide enough for all swimmers.

In his nine lectures addressed to the Catholics of Dublin in 1853, Cardinal Newman outlined his thoughts on education, later published in the celebrated work, The Idea of a University. Newman made it clear that free discussion was an absolute necessity: "Now while this free discussion is, to say the least, so safe for religion, or rather so expedient, it is on the other hand simply necessary for progress in science."

What Newman proposed was contrary to the views of the Cathobc clerical establishment he was trying to persuade. Knowledge, Newman argued, was a good pursuit in its own right - and not to be feared.

In Newman's mind, the purpose of a university education was simple: liberal education, not because it made the student Catholic or made the student Christian, but because it cultivated the intellect, stretched the imagination and opened the mind to the pursuit of understanding and truth.

In light of certain trends in higher education today, it is helpful to consider the educational ends his ideas did not include - preparing corporate executives, for example, or wise consumers, or even practicing Catholics.

Many Catholic colleges and universities in the United States struggle today, implicitly and explicitly, to uphold the ideals Newman so eloquently articulated, the ideals of a liberal arts education. These are ideals worth preserving, even as the boundaries of "liberal arts" expand and change with the passage of time. In some cases, these ideals are threatened by harsh financial pressures; in others, by the same old clerical pressures Newman once faced from those who, claiming a handle on truth, wield it as a weapon to sanctify a godless world.

U.S. higher education, particularly liberal education, meanwhile, is experiencing its own growmg pains. The classic Western Greek/Roman course curriculum has come under attack from "multiculturalists? who view the old model as too exclusionary in that it leaves out the historical insights, values and experiences of generations of Africans, Middle Easterners, Asians and American Indians, to say nothing of women worldwide.

In the wake of such pressures, other non-Western traditions have made curriculum gains but now face a growing backlash from those who argue that the nation's European democratic or even Judeo-Christian roots are threatened. They point to the "Balkanization" resulting from ethnic-based living units on campuses and ask if they help achieve the high ideals of integrated university life. These expressions of concern are genuine, even if sometimes precipitate.

Newman also wrote, "To live is to change." The world is changing. We are learning about and learning from ethnic groups and cultures many of us never heard of a few years back.

Jesuit Fr. Xabier Gorostiaga, rector of the Central American University in Managua and one of the region's most celebrated educators, writes: "We need a world in which the biodiversity of nature mixes with the biodiversity of cultures." We agree.

Yet the simple and sometimes painful fact remains that we don't know and have barely begun to understand the world we live in, let alone how to react to the complex mix of cultures propelling the human story today.

If "ethnic" or "feminist" studies, that is nonmainstream educational studies, appear to some to "dilute" traditional liberal art courses, or pose plausible threats against Western democratic ideals, solace might be taken from the recognition that, in practice, our Western democracies often have not been all that democratic. Some might view them as elitist and exclusionary. Most would agree the West has some ways to 90.

To become democratic, truly inclusive, for all to come to the table of ideas and ideals as equals, those who have been traditionally excluded, whose identities as a result of historical experience have been battered, need time to regroup, to share their stories and affirm their identity.

If we accept the value of celebrating and embracing the "biodiversity of cultures" of which Gorostiaga speaks, ironically, then, we may have to accept, and even encourage, the "Balkanization" of identity occurring on many of our campuses today.

if the full possibility of the human story is to be learned and shared, if this knowledge is to be celebrated, if we are to come to recognize the common ground of human experience, the voices of all storytellers need to be heard.

Meanwhile, our notions of "Western civilization," in the face of new challenges, are also changing, almost as fast as the makeup of societies in the West itself. And if this is true in the West, it is even more so in the East where age-old traditions are falling in the face of Western ways.

The world, indeed, is in flux. All of it, South, North, West and East. The new constant is change. To embrace democracy is also to embrace tbe democratization of knowledge, a process aided by an honest and open educational climate in which both new ideas and old traditions are revered

Were Newman alive today, he would likely be as pained and perplexed as the best of today's U.S. educators. He would likely bring to the apparent muddle an inner confidence that stems from a belief founded in meaning and tied to the human spirit. He would say today as he did a century ago, let us respect each other and explore knowledge together. It is the only path to take.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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