Friday, July 14, 2017


In 1851, Newman, then a Catholic priest, was called by Archbishop Cullen to help establish a Roman Catholic univeristy in Dublin.  His discourses on "The Idea of a University" were assembled for such a purpose and later became the book by that name.

In the preface, Newman writes: "The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science."

The advantage of reading Newman is that his clarity leaves little need for summary.  It is useful here, as it will prove throughout, to contrast his idea--explicitly stated and expounded upon in these discourses--with the idea, or rather ideas, of a university today.  No word yet from Newman on the hope that a degree will grant its holder remunerative employment.

Newman argues that the Church offers integrity to the university by way of Her support.  Moreover, if the end at which the university itself aims is this diffusion of knowledge, this knowledge itself is subordinated to the religious aim, Catholic in the case of the University of Dublin, Protestant in the case of other such institutions.  The student "rejoices in the widest and most philosophical systems of intellectual education, from an intimate conviction that Truth is his real ally, as it is his profession; and that Knowledge and Reason are sure ministers to Faith."

The object of the university is not to advance knowledge, for "there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge... for instance... the literary and scientific 'Academies'."  It is lamentable that modern universities are expected to fulfill two disparate aims.  As Newman trenchantly observes, "To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person."  But the university-cum-academy must advance knowledge; so every university student comes to find that professors who are passionate about research are instructors to be avoided.

Newman frankly admits that the Catholic university is created to grant advantages to Catholic students that Protestants have long been obtaining at Protestants universities.  During Newman's day, the English speaking world was overwhelmingly Protestant.  We find something similar in America, not merely with universities, but with the entire parochial system.  And though they have largely abandoned the faith of their founders, the elite colleges in the US remain nominally Protestant.

I found remarkable Newma's observation on periodicals, then a comparatively new phenomenon: "It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment's notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request."  Much the same holds true today, though the trickle of information has become a flood.

His argues that university education should help a man build a bulwark against this torrent.  "Let [the student] once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects."  The university educated man should see things as they are, and not let himself be carried away by the latest fad.


James Blake said...

Newman makes the “the object of the university is not to advance knowledge” argument explicit and follows it up with “If [the university’s] object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.” I was a bit taken aback as this seems incorrect to me given the nature of scientific discover in modern universities. In reality, this most likely means that I will have to be careful with the terms while reading this work. Words have clearly shifted meanings over time and I will have to be careful to read into Newman’s actual meaning.

It is clear Newman is writing in a time that does not much resemble today. A time where university education was geared more at the upper branches of society. Writing in the time of Victorian England, he makes a clear distinction between the university and the “Academies which are so celebrated in Italy and France, and which have frequently been connected with Universities.” Interesting that Italy and France are two of the more Catholic areas (compared to England anyway). Newman seemed to prefer the classical education of his university to the academy; but realized the need for the academy in society so he yearned to keep them separate lest they bleed together.

One can’t help but think Newman was aware of Napoleon’s education philosophy given the time. Considering the English fear of all things Napoleon, one can’t help but note where Newman and Napoleon deviate on education. Where Napoleon attempted to overtly instill a love of the state, Newman prefers the soft power of the Church. The influence being present but enough independence granted. Napoleon seems to have favored merit; Newman seems more geared towards the rigors of tradition. Both seem to have yearned to for an educated class of people that would reliably see the same reality. Napoleon to stave off revolution. We will have to wait to see if Newman gives us a reason.

As Eric notes, Newman has contrarian take on what being an intellectual meant (contrarian according to Newman). One must go beyond having views on the matter of the day, if one even has a view on the matters of the day. For him, views on current events and ideas was too superfluous. Some of the fleeting topics given were Slavery, German Philosophy, and the French Empire. In spite of my jest, Newman clearly does believe that education must be firmly rooted in something deeper than the state of the world as it currently is.

The biggest difference between Newman and the 21st century might lie with his view of creativity. The phrase “reckless originality of thought” seems more likely to be spoken by an out of control AI than any modern human educator. To be fair, our never-ending connectedness makes our love of the original a bit overcooked. It rewards unique yet rootless ideas. Still, innovation is a staple of the modern world and our love of the creative no doubt plays a large role in making that possible. If you accept his premise of the university as something other than for the advancement of knowledge, this stance is more defendable. Nevertheless, a stronger argument needs to be made on this. I am positive one is to come.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I was a bit taken aback as this seems incorrect to me given the nature of scientific discover in modern universities.

Newman sees the university in a very different light from that in which we now see it. But his general point seems sound here: extending our knowledge, say, of the natural world, is a different aim, than, say, instructing students in grammar. So while an academy might have research assistants to aid in the extension of human knowledge, they would not be student per se. You're right to note that Newman uses terms in ways that differ from ours.

The phrase “reckless originality of thought” seems more likely to be spoken by an out of control AI than any modern human educator.

Quite true. I may be projecting here, but Newman may be thinking of Rousseau and company here. The French Revolution was still in the recent past. A little learning is a dangerous thing, etc.

I think it might be helpful to distinguish between knowledge in the sense Newman uses it--Aristotle's episteme--with which is valued in our world--techne. See here. Newman did not live in a world of perpetual technological innovation. There are dangers here, too, but I think his warning pertains to people who remain ignorant of the best that has been thought and said. Given the history that stands between us and Newman, I think his us of the term "reckless" is just.