Bryan Pilkington

In his lectures on the work of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman at Seton Hall University during the summer of 2022, Professor Kenneth Parker required participants to read or reread sections of Newman’s The Idea of a University. Participants were then charged with offering a short scholarly piece engaging the seminar’s focus from one’s own academic discipline, the result of which the reader finds here. Professor Parker, founder directed the St. Louis University Prison Program and currently the Ryan Endowed Chair in Newman Studies at Duquesne University, helpfully situated The Idea of the University, particularly Newman’s discussion of knowledge within his broader discussion of university teaching, in Newman’s historical context and shared relevant details of Newman’s time and life, as befits a professor of historical theology. Responding to subject matter in this three-day seminar, even for someone who works primarily on practical problems in the field of bioethics, requires taking seriously the situatedness of persons, in addition to the complex and rich theoretical concepts Newman engaged, applying both—given the aims of bioethics—to practical, concrete issues. The challenge of the charge is slightly greater as respecting Newman’s views of the integration of knowledge and the consistent culture of multidisciplinarity in the programs supported by Seton Hall University and its Center for Catholic Studies requires a bit more: a piece from a discipline that might be relevant to a variety of disciplines. If the following comes anywhere close to meeting this understanding of the charge, it will be due to sympathetic readers and charitable interpretation.

Newman begins the first part of Discourse V of The Idea of a University, highlighting the integration of knowledge:

I have said that all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator. Hence, it is the Sciences, into which our knowledge may be said to be cast, have multiplied bearings one on another, and an internal sympathy, and admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment. They complete, correct, and balance each other. This consideration, if well-founded, must be taken into account, not only as regards the attainment of truth, which is their common end, but as regards the influence which they exercise upon those whose education consists in the study of them.[1]

Though a number of points can be drawn from this description, especially for those teaching at a liberal arts university, I wish to highlight two. First, if Newman is correct, then it is a broad education that must be offered, not merely specific training in particular competencies of a particular profession or skill set, if one aims to teach the students that he has in mind (though he does share gratitude for those with “mechanical” knowledge in the sixth part of Discourse V). That such integration is grounded in the acts and works of the Creator adds a strong emphasis, if not rhetorical and argumentative force, to this claim. Second, Newman argues that this is not the case merely for the sake of truth and those who seek it, but it is relevant for those who are educated in the various disciplines.

Continuing his focus on students, those who receive an education that “a University will give them,” Newman connects his discussion of knowledge with the rich concept of dignity, noting the knowledge is “something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the sense convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea…in this consists its dignity.”[2] Though he goes on in Discourse VIII to connect knowledge to religion, in Discourse V he is concerned to offer an argument for the good of liberal arts education, as such, and not dependent for its value on usefulness (not even on the production of virtuous persons). He writes, “Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.”[3]

How might Newman’s arguments about the importance of education, the roots of its dignity, and the benefits of that education—intellectual excellence—for all persons be relevant in the field of bioethics? The concept of dignity—albeit applied to a different category of being—might hold the key. Recent work in bioethics has highlighted the potential benefits of reflection on dignity—not of knowledge but of persons—in healthcare spaces, teaching health spaces,[4] and especially when considering the vulnerability of particular persons.[5] Dignity is an especially helpful concept for addressing bioethics issues because of both its universality and in specificity—it applies to all, individual human persons—and due to the variety of sources that might support claim of dignity – e.g., the Catholic Intellectual Tradition or international human rights law. Within bioethics, it has been argued that respect for dignity leads to three normative implications, that is, three ways in which human persons in health-related spaces require special treatment: they must not be humiliated, denied necessary opportunities to realize their humanity, or killed. The anti-humiliation prohibition is of special importance here. There are a variety of ways in which a person might be humiliated or placed in a humiliating situation. One such instance, most relevant for applying some of Newmans’ ideas about education to bioethics, is where a person is asked to act or respond without relevant information. The importance of informed consent within medical research and therapeutic endeavors speaks to this notion. To not be in possession of relevant information or to lack knowledge, especially about one’s own health, makes it extremely challenging to make good decisions. How could one have a “view of things” if one lacks the relevant information from biological, physical, psycho-social perspectives about the disease or, more broadly, health issues that one faces?

Given the diversity of persons, their variety of contexts and cultures, and the increasing awareness of the interconnected and extensive implications of broad factors on a person’s health, such as unjust social structures, internalized sexism and racism, as well as food and other resource deserts, what now should be understood as “relevant” knowledge is much broader than what might have been taught in health professions education 50 or 60 years ago (at the advent of the field of bioethics). This is not to suggest that the kind of liberal arts education which Newman argues for must be supported on the grounds that it is useful (in health practices and training), lest this argument fall to objections he considers and the well-rehearsed arguments in favor of the “mechanical.” Rather, it is to make two claims or, better, to offer to readers from diverse disciplines (some of which are health professions educators, others who work in disciplines which have influenced bioethics) interested in the work of this seminar and in Newman two suggestions and a question: First, all persons should have opportunities for a liberal arts education, in light of their dignity. Second, to move about the world and to practice one’s profession well (at least if one is a member of the health professions), one ought to be liberally educated—not simply for its usefulness, such education is good in itself—but to be able to engage the perspectives needed to execute one’s professional obligations well. Finally, in response to the importance of education, the dignity of knowledge and of the person, special challenges faced by the vulnerable, and the university’s raison d’etre, might all universities be encouraged to support or begin programs like the St. Louis University Prison Program?

[1] Newman, J., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 75.
[2] Newman, J., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 85.
[3] Newman, J., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 91.
[4] Pilkington, B. Ethics Education in the Health Professions. In: Brown, M.E.L., Veen, M., Finn, G.M. (eds) Applied Philosophy for Health Professions Education (Singapore: Springer, 2022), pp. 219–232.
[5] Pilkington, B. Teaching Dignity in the Health Professions. In: Brown, M.E.L., Veen, M., Finn, G.M. (eds) Applied Philosophy for Health Professions Education (Singapore: Springer, 2022), pp. 339–350.