The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated

by John Henry Newman
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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259

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.

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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

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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

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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 defining the education of a gentleman, Newman insisted that the limit of what the university could cultivate was a person of broad knowledge, critical intelligence, moral decency, and social responsibility. However, it could not transform fallen sinners into saints, nor could it prepare the individuals under its charge for what Newman identified as genuine moral virtue. For this, what was needed was reference to the faith and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. However, even here, Newman was careful: While insisting that theology be accounted a “science” and therefore given a place alongside other forms of knowledge and while believing that Catholic doctrine specifically was a fit subject to include in any Catholic university curriculum, he nevertheless emphasized that the teaching of Catholic doctrine was only for the purpose of exposing the limits of the natural world and what could actually be known about it. At times, Newman also seemed to be saying that the teaching of doctrine was necessary to show the fallen state of the physical world, but at no time was the teaching of Catholic truth to be seen as the pursuit of the perfection of Christian souls. Education was for university professors, salvation the province of priests and bishops.

Newman’s Legacy

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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 edition), has had great impact on the definition of a liberal arts education as it evolved during the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, both in Europe and in the United States. Even here, the assessment will necessarily be a mixed one: Newman’s demand that theology be taught as a science alongside other sciences has met with increased rejection at all but specifically religious and sectarian colleges as has his suggestion that the university is not the proper place for the pursuit of research. Nearly all modern interpreters of the tasks of higher education reject his “Eurocentric” view of civilization and the arts it produces, along with his limiting distinction between liberal and professional education.

Nevertheless, his advocacy of the teaching of the full range of what is currently known as a worthy end in itself, his insistence on the cultivation of a critical intellect and a sense of social responsibility, and his more “liberal” (for his time, at least) defense of the freedom of academic inquiry within the boundaries of a particular academic discipline continue to resonate throughout the world of the university. Modern interpreters of the tasks of higher education, even when they disagree with Newman, nevertheless find almost unanimously that they must continue to come to terms with him. Indeed, as one commentator put it, “No work in the English language has had more influence on the public ideals of higher education.”


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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 Henry Newman. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. This book offers a history and criticism of Keble and Newman. Included are a bibliography and an index.

Hollis, Christopher. Newman and the Modern World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Biographical sketch that examines Newman’s ideas and contributions to religion as they affected his contemporaries and the subsequent actions and pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church. Good source of information about both the major events of Newman’s life and the impact his writings have had on changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

Ker, Ian. The Achievement of John Henry Newman. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1990. This brief study of Newman’s major works is meant as an introduction to his thought. The author includes many quotations from Newman’s work, looking at Newman as a writer, theologian, and philosopher.

Ker, Ian, ed. Newman the Theologian. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1990. Though this work focuses on Newman’s theological writings, it contains a valuable biographical study and a bibliography useful for anyone interested in Newman.

McGrath, Francis. John Henry Newman: Universal Revelation. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997. A good treatment of Newman’s contributions to the theology of revelation.

Martin, Brian. John Henry Newman: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Brief, highly readable biographical sketch, profusely illustrated. Provides short analyses of Newman’s major works, including his novels. Stresses the difficulties Newman had in dealing with the conservative party within the Catholic Church.

Trevor, Meriol. Newman. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. The standard biography. Provides well-documented sources, illustrations, and an extensive index.

Ward, Wilfrid. The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1912. First major biography of Newman. Makes extensive use of personal correspondence and private papers as well as anecdotes from those who knew him. Despite the title, deals almost exclusively with years Newman spent as a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

Yearley, Lee H. The Ideas of Newman: Christianity and Human Religiosity. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978. Scholarly study that analyzes Newman’s attitudes toward humanity’s innate need for religion. Contains a good bibliography.

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