Newman's Idea of a University

It would be reasonable to interpret the beatification of John Henry Newman this month as a sign that "now is the acceptable time" for a much-needed reform of Catholic higher education, since Newman stands for the "ideal of an educated laity."

Newman was a formidable scholar, one of the leading intellects in Oxford during the Victorian period, and perhaps the greatest stylist in the English language in any age. He was the general editor of a series of new translations of the Church Fathers into English, carried out by the best scholars in Oxford. His "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" is usually counted among the "Great Books." His poem about the journey of a soul after death to Purgatory, "The Dream of Gerontius," is a masterpiece and later became the text for an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar.

Newman was passionately concerned about education throughout his life. He was a magnetic tutor at Oxford with a large personal following. When the bishops of Ireland wished to found a new Catholic University in Dublin, they invited Newman to serve as rector. After Newman left Oxford and became a father in the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, he founded a school for boys associated with the Birmingham Oratory. Hilaire Belloc was his student there.

At the founding of the Irish university Newman delivered a series of lectures on university education, which form the basis of "The Idea of a University," yet another masterpiece. But "The Idea" is one of those books that is often cited but not frequently studied. As Newman's beatification approaches, it is helpful to remind ourselves of its main themes.

1. Newman's most important argument is that a true university needs to have a vibrant theology department at its center. He argues in the following way. A university, he says, by its very name proclaims to be a place where universal knowledge is imparted to students. (If an institution is primarily engaged in research, he says, it should call itself a "research institute" rather than a university and should not be engaged in educating undergraduates.) But the greatest and most central object of knowledge is God and his attributes. All subjects are illuminated and made more coherent by knowledge of God as the beginning and end of the universe. To leave out the study of God, then, is an even more serious deficiency than if a university were to exclude, as a matter of principle, the study of an important field such as biology or mathematics.

It follows that "secular" universities are pseudo-universities -- and also any institution where theology is no longer taught as true, such as institutions where "religion" or "comparative religions" have replaced theology.

Newman observes that the faculties of a university are meant to constitute a community of scholars. When theology is removed from its proper place, the community degenerates, because the principle of unity of the disciplines has been removed.

Furthermore, there is no longer a standard for judging the relative importance of the various disciplines. This is the origin of the individualism which marks a modern researcher, and the "consumer mentality" which governs course selection and competition among faculty for enrollments.

Also, once theology is removed, departments no longer observe their proper boundaries. Since theology is no longer present to "check" and keep other disciplines in place, these tend to encroach on the ground that is proper to theology. That is the origin of the ideologies and substitute religions which thrive in the modern secular university, such as scientism, naturalism and left-wing political activism.

2. Newman's second important claim is that a university properly has as its goal, not preparing students for a career, but rather forming in them the "virtues of the intellect." The reason is that the mind or intellect is one of God's greatest gifts to us, but like everything human it needs to be cultivated. The mind has its proper excellences and virtues. But we will not attain these unless those who educate us aim at them deliberately. It is not possible to acquire any virtue by accident, any more than one could become a good athlete or musician without deliberately and persistently striving for excellence.

However, most universities implicitly or explicitly adopt a different goal. They say that they are preparing students to make more money or have a career. Or in their "distribution" and "core" requirements they display little understanding of intellectual excellence.

3. Newman also argues that intellectual excellence is not the same as good character or holiness. The goal of a Catholic is to become holy. So a university which imparted only intellectual excellence would potentially be leading its students astray. That is why it is necessary as well that a university have a good culture -- and be animated with the spirit of Christ -- so that, in those important years of formation, the university is actually helping its students become good.

Newman's teachings on university education, like "Ex Corde Ecclesia," certainly present a standard to bishops, university administrators, and other Catholics who are "in charge" and have authority for universities and colleges. But it would be a mistake to say that Newman is speaking only to them.

The soon-to-be Blessed John Henry Newman speaks also to parents and college-bound seniors. He asks you to distinguish between what "the many" seek in a college education, and what you should be seeking, if you evaluate and esteem university education rightly.

Michael Pakaluk has recently accepted an appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University, where he is also chairman of the Philosophy Department. His most recently book, "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God," is soon to be published by Ignatius Press.