From John Henry Newman's Era to Our's

Randall Stephens

Today I spoke to students in my civ class about the historic significance of the Pope Benedict's visit to England. (It helped that we had gone over the reformations of the 16th century in previous weeks.) While in England--along with facing the largest protest of a papal visit in history--the Pope beatified John Henry Newman on September 19. Newman achieved fame in the 19th century as one of the most critical thinkers of his age, a leader of the Oxford Movement, and a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

English philosopher and public intellectual Roger Scruton seizes on the moment to write about Newman's views on higher education. Oh how things have declined, laments Scruton in the American Spectator. "What is expected of the student in many courses in the humanities and social sciences is ideological conformity, rather than critical appraisal," he writes, "and censorship has become accepted as a legitimate part of the academic way of life." He ventures into choppy political waters and makes some sweeping indictments of the new American system. Seems overdone to me. Don't think hyper-political correctness is the problem.

Still, Newman's eloquent summary of the mission of the university and his ode to the life of the mind is well worth revisiting.

Excerpt: John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (reprint: 1852, London, 1899), ix, 101-102.

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.

Such is a University in its essence, and independently of its relation to the Church. But, practically speaking, it cannot fulfil its object duly, such as I have described it, without the Church's assistance; or, to use the theological term, the Church is necessary for its integrity. Not that its main characters are changed by this incorporation: it still has the office of intellectual education; but the Church steadies it in the performance of that office. . . .

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies, which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal." A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical haunt. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.