The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated Analysis

John Henry Newman


During the 1840’s, Pope Pius IX had expressed a strong wish that a distinctly Catholic university be established in Ireland. In 1851, the Archbishop of Dublin acted on that desire by approaching John Henry Newman, who had recently converted to Catholicism and had been forced to resign his fellowship at Oxford. Newman accepted the position of rector of the new university, which ultimately opened in 1854.

In 1852, as part of the effort to convince Irish Catholics that they should send their children to an exclusively Catholic university rather than to Protestant Oxford, Cambridge, or the mixed-religion universities recently established in Ireland itself, Newman gave a series of lectures that later would form the foundation of his most famous written work, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated. Of the nine discourses eventually included, five were given publicly, while the other four were published as pamphlets. When the university finally opened, Newman presented additional lectures at the beginning of each school year, publishing ten in all in what was originally a separate volume. The original nine discourses from 1852 were revised for further publication in 1855, and in 1873 Newman published both volumes together as The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated. This work was revised several more times until 1889, the year of Newman’s death. Ironically, Newman’s ideas were more enduring than his administration of the university he wrote about. His strained relations with the Irish Catholic hierarchy led him to resign his post in 1858, and the university he helped to establish was later made part of the University of Ireland.

The Teaching of Theology

The “occasional” nature of Newman’s original lectures makes it more efficient to group his ideas thematically. Most interpreters delineate three general themes, plus several minor ones taken mostly from Newman’s later lectures. The first major theme surrounds Newman’s conviction that there existed a need for a distinctly Catholic university that would teach Catholic doctrine alongside the full range of more secular academic subjects. Newman’s experiences at Oxford, where the teaching of theology had fallen into increasing disrepute, led him to demand that theology take its place among the academic subjects taught at a university, though the relationship between theology and these other disciplines was the subject of some ambivalence for Newman, an ambivalence that is clearly present in his lectures. Yet Newman was consistent in his insistence that a university should pursue the teaching of the full range of knowledge, otherwise it could not presume to apply the word “liberal” to its definition of itself. Newman assumed that all discoverable knowledge had its source in the work of God, and therefore all physical knowledge should be categorized and shared within the context and framework of Catholic doctrine, which Newman the recent convert repeatedly affirmed as the fullest expression of divine truth.

Unlike more conservative Catholics in his day, Newman stressed that theology should not be permitted to trespass into the realms of other academic disciplines. All knowledge must be taught according to its own definitions and its own nature, each being allowed to remain absolutely free to follow its own course within its own boundaries. However, the presence of theology was necessary to ensure that no single discipline or group of disciplines become successful in an attempt to break out of their assigned boundaries and become absolutes in themselves. Theology was also necessary in and of itself because for Newman, ignorance of the divine source of all physical nature was ultimately no different from ignorance of the physical world itself.

The Role of the University

The second general theme Newman elaborated was that knowledge was to be taught for its own sake and not for any social or vocational usefulness. Drawing more positively on his Oxford experience, Newman made a distinction between “liberal” knowledge and “professional” knowledge, and while not disparaging the latter, insisted that the former was the proper object of university teaching. Central to this theme was Newman’s view that the ultimate goal of a university education was not to provide specific training in a professional or vocation specialty, but rather the cultivation of a “gentleman,” one in whom could be found the proper habits of a disciplined mind and the capacity for social and civic interaction. There is no doubt here that the honing of English gentry as pursued at his beloved Oxford was the model he wished to apply to the Irish masses. Newman, however, went still further by claiming that the university was not the place for the discovery of new knowledge (arguably the main function of the modern research university) but was to emphasize the forming of young minds as its primary, if not exclusive, mission.

The third general theme identified by Newman’s interpreters concerns what Newman himself believed a university could and should do, as opposed to what it could not and should not try. Put briefly, Newman believed that a university should concentrate on the education of the mind and leave off any attempt to save the soul. In...

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Newman’s Legacy

Any attempt to assess the impact of Newman’s ideas must take both his immediate context and subsequent history into consideration. Within his own milieu, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both Newman’s work in Ireland and the ideas he presented in his lectures were somewhat of a failure. Newman’s relations with the Irish Catholic hierarchy were never more than correct, and he could not seem to convince the larger Irish public that a distinctly Catholic university was either needed or even desirable, particularly in the face of the burgeoning Irish middle class and its attempts to raise its status by increased association with the British Protestant gentry. Indeed, there is some question as to the depth of Newman’s understanding of the Irish situation, as there is also about what Newman himself thought he was doing: Was he attempting to establish a Catholic university specifically for the Irish or was he trying to replicate a “Catholic Oxford” for Catholics throughout the British empire? The preponderance of the evidence seems to point to the latter. Even so, Newman’s emphasis on teaching as the proper activity of the university was a timely response to the abuses of the old fellowship system at his beloved Oxford and Cambridge, where precious little teaching was actually being done.

On the other hand, the publication of Newman’s lectures, both the original nine and a varying number of his later speeches (depending on the...

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Additional Reading

Bouyer, Louis. Newman, His Life and Spirituality. Translated by J. L. May. New York: Meridian Books, 1965. Detailed biography illuminating the complex psychology of its subject. Excellent analysis of John Henry Newman’s motives for his conversion, his belief in the importance of the laity, and his insistence on the need for intellectual inquiry for all Catholics. Makes extensive use of Newman’s diaries and letters.

Culler, A. Dwight. The Imperial Intellect: A Study of Newman’s Educational Ideal. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Well-researched study of Newman’s life, focusing primarily on his thinking, writing, and action concerning education. Excellent discussions of the Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated and of Newman’s efforts to found such a university.

Dessain, Charles Stephen. John Henry Newman. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1971. Brief biography by the editor of Newman’s letters. Concentrates on Newman’s religious life and the controversies surrounding his conversion and his dealings with the hierarchy in Rome. Excellent analysis of Newman’s lifelong quest to understand and propagate the notion of revealed religion.

Edgecombe, Rodney S. Two Poets of the Oxford Movement: John Keble and John...

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