All-around education helps us glimpse the mind of God

It isn’t every day that we find the likes of Fareed Zakaria and Blessed John Henry Newman in the same sentence and, in a larger sense, on the same page.

The first is the familiar CNN commentator on foreign policy and a recognized contemporary expert on international relations, the son of immigrants to the U.S. from India. The second is the 19th-century cardinal, a noted educator, writer, and convert to Catholicism from the Anglican faith who is rapidly en route to recognized sainthood. He is, of course, also the man for whom our distinguished secondary school in Columbia is named.

The points of agreement between Zakaria and Cardinal Newman have to do with education. They may be found in Zakaria’s 2016 book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” and Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University”, a book born of his time as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in the 1850s.

Both Zakaria and Newman are proponents of the idea that education ought to be as broad-based as possible to be the most meaningful. For Zakaria, a liberal education is one which exposes the student not just to an area of specialization focused on a career field but to the wide scope of human learning. Zakaria is convinced, based on observation and personal experience, that knowing something about a wide range of subjects is foundational for effective writing, speaking, and lifelong learning. He is concerned that narrowing one’s arena of knowing stultifies the imagination and inhibits a person from exploring creative solutions to problems. While he does not use the word, wisdom seems to be what Zakaria feels most needs pursuit in today’s world.

Cardinal Newman would wholeheartedly agree. His essays on education focus, understandably for his time, on what constitutes the appropriate education of a “gentleman.” The classic grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — called the trivium and quadrivium, the three and four basics — are the mainstays for Newman. Of course, he amplifies these with the sciences in general, thought-provoking literature, and a heavy dose of theology, particularly in the areas of doctrine and ethics.

Cardinal Newman’s stance is much the same as Zakaria’s. He believed that a person is ill-equipped to deal with life’s complexities and to understand the varieties of human experiences, as well as the challenge of new discoveries and new ideas, if one has not been exposed to a whole world of learning.

Zakaria’s 21st century point is that an adult who is committed to excellence and productivity must be able to navigate all the types of intelligences and learning styles noted by educational psychologists. She or he should be able to converse with people who know that “string theory” may refer to anything from how to orchestrate violins, violas, and cellos or understanding certain forms of craft, such as macramé, to quantum physics’ ideas about mass and charge and gravity.

Cardinal Newman’s ideas about education date back to St. Thomas Aquinas, if not all the way to Solomon and the Book of Wisdom. Newman says, “All knowledge forms one whole because its subject matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together that we cannot separate off portion from portion and operation from operation” because of God’s providence.

If we grasp what Zakaria and Blessed John Henry Newman have been talking about, we will get what Catholic education is all about. Our graduates have been following curricula that push them to read, write, speak, study, do science projects, become proficient in mathematics and foreign languages, study art and music, engage in physical education and sports, know American and world history and economic and political processes, rack up hours of service, participate in school liturgies, and pray. The reason, of course, is that we want them to be human beings who comprehend something of the complexity of the world in which we live and have an appreciation of what it means to be fully human. In addition, our style of education — a liberal education in the best sense of the word — is designed to give them a measure of insight into the mind of God.

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at