A superficial omniscience

Newman argued that precise and accurate reading, rather than merely wide reading, is the key to educational progress, and it encapsulates the approach that he championed against those who urged a superficial omniscience.

His maxim was ‘ “a little, but well”; that is, really know what you say you know’. Applied to the teaching of classics, it was better to have a thorough understanding of how Latin syntax works, ‘how the separate portions of a sentence hang together’, than to have read through many classical authors. Newman’s principle (applied to higher studies) was that ‘A thorough knowledge of one science and a superficial acquaintance with many, are not the same thing; a smattering of a hundred things or a memory for detail, is not a philosophical or comprehensive view.’ (Idea of university)

In his sixth Dublin lecture Newman argued that ‘the practical error of the last twenty years’ was that of ‘distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; […] All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly.’ The likely result was to ‘produce a generation frivolous, narrow-minded, and resourceless’; students would ‘leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness’. (Idea of university)

The paradox was that someone who never studied at a university might well gain a more genuine education than a university graduate.

The great teacher of Newman’s undergraduate days was Edward Copleston who was the first to live out what became the Oxford ideal, multum, non multa. One meaning of the Latin (often given in the form, non multa, sed multum) is ‘much, not many’, though the looser translation ‘depth, not breadth’ gives the sense better. The fuller form of the Latin proverb is multum non multa scire sapientis est, which can be translated as ‘it is wise to know something deeply, rather than to know many things’. Copleston’s abiding claim was that ‘to exercise the mind of the student is the business of education, rather than to pour in knowledge’.


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