Page 4, 1st August 1952

1st August 1952
Page 4
Page 4, 1st August 1952 — 'The Idea of a University'

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'The Idea of a University'


By Fr. Vincent Turner, S.J.

THE Idea of a University is assuredly among the wisest of Cardinal Newman's writings. Th ere is probably no other book that is so manifestly the reflections of a man who has lived intensely, and lived as a Christian, the life of the mind, who is aware by immediate acquaintance of its stresses and strains of the forces that would stunt it and dragoon it, be they from the side of the utilitarians or from that of the authoritarians, of the inertia that prompts a man to rest in his specialisation and to make no effort to relate his particular knowledge to the rest of what he knows in a comprehensive view.

Newman's book, for all that its idea is like the idea of Plato's Republic, a pattern laid up in heaven and only approximately realised on earth, is a charter of Christian humanism no less than it is a charter of Christian academic freedom. Only a man who has made the journey can know what it is like to reach the goal, and only experience, and a long (and perhaps unhappy) experience can enable a man to appreciate to the full the depth of Newman's wisdom, his balance and poise, his courage and optimism, and his common sense.

Room to think

Pr la Idea of a University is a book to be read and re-read. Yet we must be honest.

We revere it, no doubt, but we do not often read it. Newman's is a subtle mind; he does not believe in simple solutions or in the simple Yes-or-No unqualified assertion; his writing is a matter of the right nuance, of touches and retouches. He needs plenty of room to think in, and he has, therefore, a need of amplitude and leisure in style.

He is right; without leisure in the style, there could be no serenity in the thought. But to us, with our preference for the streamlined, terse, crisp prose style, Newman is diffuse, and (to be honest) the demand for so much patience leaves us impatient and bored.

It is, I think, the experiences of many that Newman is an author to be taken up again some day when m ore pressing preoccupations have been met. But it is also the experience of many that, if they chance to refer to Newman to find if he has anything of relevance to the meeting of these present and urgent preoccupations, they discover, again and again, that he knows them and has weighed them and that nowhere else is there a counsellor who has seen all round the questions and whose wisdom inspires so great a confidence.

Liberal education

SINCE this is so, it was a happy choice of the editor of Messrs. I Iarra p's Life, Literature and Thought Library to include a selection from the works of Newman in a volume that bears the title The Idea of a Liberal Education.

The selection, and the editing of the volume, was entrusted to Fr. Henry 'I ristram, of the Birmingham Oratory, and it need not be said that no better choice could have been made. For Fr. Tristram is the greatest living authority on Newman and a man to whose generous imparting of his knowledge COLintIss scholars are indebted.

The selection is made largely from The Idea of a University, of course, and from various essays in Historical Sketches, and is prefaced by a most informative introduction from Fr. Tristram himself.

IT education

HE Idea of a University did not, of course, come out of the blue. Not only has it behind it the pressure of an intellectual man's experience and reflection; there lies behind it a violent controVersy that had gone on in the opening years of the 19th century.

In the sixth year of its existence The Edinburgh Review had started a series of attacks, or "calumnies," on the Oxford conception of what education should be, attacks that, from the Oxford side, were counter-attacked by, above all, two Fellows of Oriel, Copleston and John Davison. The central issue was already that between a liberal and a vocational education.

On the side of The Edinburgh Review Sydney Smith had laid it down as axiomatic that "the only proper criterion of every branch of education is its utility in future life"; on the Oxford side this principle of utility was criticised; it was argued that a "useful education" was self-defeating, and that, in any case, the cultivation of the mind is an intrinsic' good, in no need of justification by a utilitarian calculus.

This controversy is far away and long ago, but, almost 50 years later. Newman drew on Copleston and Davison in the composition of his own discourses. Their thesis is his, though it is matured and raised above the level of controversy.

Ralik of mind

T" goal of education Newman found difficult to describe in a phrase, because, as Fr. Tristram reminds us in the excellent introduction of which I have spoken, and on which I am drawing, Newman deplored the lack in English of a "word to express intellectual proficiency or perfection, such as

'health' . . and 'virtue,' in other spheres."

Since there was no term ready to hand. he called it "by the name of philosophy. philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, or illumination," and his conviction was that it is "the business of a university to make this intellectual culture its direct scope, or to employ itself in the education of the intellect."

Flexibility, elasticity of mind, scrupulous honesty and integrity, respect for the different opinions of other people, a resolute facing of difficulties with an eye to the point ai which these are strongest, serenity, a refusal to be frightened, a measure of scepticism in the face of dogmatisms, a habit of stretching the muscles of the intellectual imagination --these are some of the fruits of Newman's ideal, and fruits communicated within the particular discipline of the university. It may he modern history or English literature or law or natural sciences or littera. humaniores (for it is Oxford that he has in 'mind). "A university teaches all knowledge by teaching all branches of knowledge, and in no other way."

It is hardly surprising that, almost alone of contemporary Christians, Newman was undisturbed by the theory of evolution, or that he watched the progress of the natural sciences with great curiosity and an open mind. It is not surprising that in a lecture entitled "Christianity and Scientific Investigation" that he wrote but never delivered, he declared it to be a "matter of primary importance . . that the investigator should be free, independent, unshackled in his movements"; and the reason he gives is characteristic (for it has a universal application): "Great minds need elbow-rtaom, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought, and so, indeed, do lesser minds, and all minds."

Modest philosopher

'WO one can pretend that his ideal has lost anything of its urgency.

In the universities there are always those who, in a form that is robust or attenuated, presuppose the principle of utility against which he struggled: one wants to see results, all the more quickly if the times are thought to be, whether economically or religiously, times of "crisis."

Christians may want not education but indoctrination against "the perils of the age," or they may want, not a development of Christian wisdom, or intellectual culture, but simple apologetical defence and attack.

There is, I need not say, the pressure of specialisations, and it grows increasingly hard to "take a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near," or to possess "the knowledge, not only of things but also of their mutual and true relations."

Natural scientists are more prone than they were in Newman's day to recognise the strictly limited objectives of their science, and therefore less prone to preach ethics or liberal religion in the name of' science.

But the social sciences do not so readily recognise the limited objectives of their methods, nor are they informed by the humanistic culture that Newman would have thought indispensable to their health.

Philosophers are now much more modest than they were and disclaim, quite rightly, that it is their business to impart a "philosophy of life"; but in philosophy, as I have complained elsewhere, what we suffer from is not so much an overcharge of logical or linguistic method as a defect of contemplation and sensibility; engrossed by techniques, philosophers are liable to drive them like bulldozers over any subjectmatter and in the interests of clarity to decry the unfamiliar use of the familiar word.

Relevance to-day

NEWM AN, then, is never out of date. As I have said, one continually finds that what one had thought was a personal anguish was his own. And Catholics at the universities would do well to read and re-read The Idea of a

versity before they come up: it might save them from some culsde-sac and from several anxieties and from many illegitimate expectations.

How relevant, to quote him again, is Newman's outline of his ideal of the philosophical man. Such a man, he says, "aims at no complete catalogue or interpretation of the subjects of knowjedge, hut a following out, as far as a man can, what in its fullness is mysterious and unfathomable.... His watchword is, 'Live and let live.' Ile takes things as they arc; he submits to them all, as far as they go; . . . he observes how separate truths lie relatively to each other, where they concur, where they part company, and where. being carried too far. they cease to be truths at all. It is his office to determine how much can he known in each province of thought; when we must be contented not to know. . . . It will be his care to be familiar with the signs of real and apparent difficulties, with the methods proper to particular subject-matters, what in each particular case are the limits of a rational scepticism, and what the claims of a peremptory faith."

This little book is most timely; and Fr. Tristram's editing could not be bettered.

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