Broad church: cardinal rules still relevant in an instrumentalist age

John Henry Newman's vision for university revolutionised the global academy. David Grumett discusses its development and impact

September 16, 2010

This weekend, a key contributor to debates about the modern university moves a step closer to sainthood. Cardinal John Henry Newman was an unlikely educational reformer: he failed to gain honours at the University of Oxford and then resigned his tutorship after disputes with his provost about teaching methods and timetabling. But he went on to found a university and deliver lectures with lasting impact.

Newman's vision for the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin) was ambitious. A university was, he argued in those lectures, a place of universal knowledge and mental cultivation. Wisdom should be pursued for its own sake, alongside its attendant virtues of patience, forbearance and magnanimity. This general cultivation of mind was, Newman believed, the best way a university could promote professional and scientific study and serve wider society.

He saw knowledge not as accumulated facts, still less argumentative ability, but as an "acquired illumination...a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment". This was attained by enlargement of mind: the "power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence". To instrumentalise knowledge would be self-defeating, producing students unable to find their feet or make a contribution in the real world - better, Newman suggests, the rounded if mundane education of a poor farming boy.

A university should teach a broad range of subjects. Indeed, the "very name of a University is inconsistent with restrictions of any kind". Newman made provision for the natural sciences, medicine and engineering alongside classics, philosophy, ethics and literature. Theology also had a key place, being the subject in which reason is explicitly brought to bear on questions of ultimate truth and meaning. If theology were excluded, the consequence would be not its neglect but its covert usurpation by other subjects, which would promote conclusions unsupportable by their methodology.

As a poor scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, Newman had suffered from inadequate preparation for honours and a lack of reading lists, despite his prodigious performance at school. These trials undoubtedly spurred his advocacy of tutorial reform following his unlikely election to a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. He disliked many of the "gentlemen commoners" - well-bred and wealthy underachievers from powerful families - and wished to lecture them in classes in order to leave time to teach students with potential in one-to-one tutorials. Previously, only wealthy students had been likely to receive such tutorials by hiring private tutors.

This understandably led to charges of favouritism, but Newman's proposals must be viewed in light of his exalted view of personal tutoring. It made the tutor the key figure in a student's formation, determining curriculum, shaping character and providing oral instruction to complement reading. Newman was also determined to raise performance. Under his methods, which included termly written exams, more students got firsts.

He also regarded the university as necessarily a residential community. If students lived alongside others studying a wide range of subjects, minds would be enlarged and different disciplines would complete, correct and balance each other. Education always comprised a large element of self-education. Better for the active and thoughtful intellect to "range through a library at random" than devote itself to exam strategy and sample questions.

But Newman saw that in Oxford, the colleges had become too powerful relative to the university. When founding the Catholic University of Ireland, he therefore developed a revised model that would become widespread. Academic instruction would be provided by university professors, while tutors in the colleges focused on personal development. Newman was always clear that the university's core business was knowledge, not morality. In his view, the latter could be attained only by the single-minded pursuit of the former.

The university was, for Newman, primarily a place of teaching and scholarship. Research also had value, but could not be equated with the pointless proliferation of low-quality debate and comment. A better model for research is Newman's own work on early Christian writers: intelligent, intense reflection on primary sources that, avoiding both utilitarianism and dogmatism, interrogates questions of fundamental importance to life.

Ever the churchman, Newman nevertheless opposed any attempt by churches to limit free enquiry, because he regarded it as dependent on a vision of truth, unity and illumination of the mind that, for him, was Christianity's most valuable gift to the modern world.

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