Newman and the Ideal of a University

A Notre Dame Professor Explores Its Pertinence to His Own Institution

When he was sixty-three years old, John Henry Newman published a memoir, the Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), which very soon achieved the status of a classic of autobiography. In it he recalled with special poignancy his arrival at Oxford nearly a half-century before and the first residence to which he was assigned: “There used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms there, and I had for years taken it as the emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University.” The poignancy arose from the fact that when Newman’s conscience directed him to depart the Church of England for the Church of Rome, he had to give up Oxford too, because the university was in those days an exclusively Anglican institution. “I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway.”

So it was that during the second half of his long life (1801-1890) Newman remained divorced from the university he had loved so deeply, but, even so, he never ceased to be an Oxford man. His interests, his habits, his priorities had long been fixed, and the change of confessional allegiances did not affect them. Indeed when he became a Catholic priest and the pastor of a large working-class parish in Birmingham, he and the other convert-priests associated with him patterned their lives as closely as possible upon the model provided by the colleges of Oxford — purified, to be sure, and elevated but nevertheless always reminiscent of Christ Church and Oriel and Trinity. They intended themselves to be English gentlemen and scholars, even as they performed the tasks of the parochial ministry.

The distinction which, nineteenth century Oxford drew between “college” and quite unfamiliar to us, is crucial to an understanding of Newman’s educational ideal. True to its medieval origins, Oxford still bore the character of a guild of masters and apprentices, distinguished at its foundation early in the thirteenth century from other guilds — of tailors, for instance, or ironmongers — by its educational objective and, implicitly, by its clerical personnel, since education in the middle ages was virtually the preserve of the clergy. A bachelor’s degree was a license to teach. It signified a proficiency in the liberal arts analogous to the skill, gained after long years of training, of a master craftsman in silver or leather. The teaching process, in the beginning, took place in rented rooms, and for solemn occasions, like the conferring of degrees, the whole university gathered in the Oxford parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. The university was not a place one could point to; it was not a campus. It was rather a corporation, a band of brothers almost, a group of people bound together by a common interest.


At first Oxford students found what board and lodging they could in the town. Then, toward the end of the thirteenth century, when the university was about fifty years old, the all-important collegiate system began to develop. Though the evolution of each college differed in detail, the basic characteristics of the process were shared by all. A benefactor provided an endowment in land which would support a certain number of men who would otherwise be unable to pursue their studies. These scholars, called fellows (and nicknamed “dons”), took up residence together in a “college” — a word whose root meaning, from the Latin, was simply a company or assemblage. They governed themselves according to a set of specific statutes which to varying degrees reflected the wishes of their patron. They chose a presiding officer from among their ranks, and set up a method whereby new fellows could be supplied to replace those who died or departed. To be elected fellow of any college a man had to be a bachelor; he had to have spent, in other words, seven years already in the university and to have gained his arts degree. All these arrangements were calculated to free the fellows from financial worry and to give them a congenial atmosphere for the research which was their fundamental obligation.

Originally, therefore, a college was a place for advanced scholarship in theology, medicine, or law, not for instruction. But little by little the character of the colleges underwent a momentous change. Undergraduates came to be accepted into the colleges where they took up residence while they followed courses in the university. And as an inevitable consequence the function of the fellows, or at least of some of them, also changed. They gradually took upon themselves the task of instruction of the undergraduates in their midst, and so a new set of officers emerged from among the fellows: a dean to supervise discipline and tutors to engage formally in teaching.

By the time Newman came up to Trinity College as an undergraduate, Oxford had developed into a group of independent corporations — the colleges, whose spires the Catholic Newman saw from the railway — within the larger framework of the university corporation. If a man were designated — as Newman was from his election in 1822 until his conversion to Catholicism in 1845 — Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, it meant he belonged to two corporate structures. The university gave final examinations, granted degrees, and offered general lectures through spokesmen now called professors. Oriel College, along with its research functions, was also charged with the day-to-day job of drilling and instructing its undergraduates who would ultimately stand for their degrees. Nevertheless, the university and the college remained in another sense indistinguishable, because the same people —whether undergraduates or fellows or professors — made up both.

In 1851, six years after Newman had joined the Catholic Church, the bishops of Ireland invited him to participate in their plan to found a university in Dublin, and, soon after, they offered him the rectorship of the proposed institution. At first he hesitated, not unaware of the difficulties involved in such a venture. But, as he observed later, “from first to last education, in [the] large sense of the word, has been my line,” and the prospect of contributing on a grand scale to the well-being of his new co-religionists, in a field in which he was demonstrably an expert, filled him with exhilaration. “It will be the Catholic University of the English tongue for the whole world,” he said exultantly. And of course he realized from the start that the academic environment in which he had grown up and in which he had gained so lofty a reputation, explained why he had been given the invitation in the first place. “Curious it will be,” he told a friend, “if Oxford is imported into Ireland, not in its members only, but in its principles, methods, ways, and arguments.”

The Catholic University of Ireland did not prosper. The contentiousness of the bishops, the poverty of a country so recently ravaged by the horrors of the massive famine, the reluctance of English Catholics, particularly the few of them who possessed some wealth and standing, to associate themselves with an Irish institution, all contributed to the want of success. Newman himself remained at the helm until 1858, by which time it had become clear that only a fragment of the dream he had cherished would survive on Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. This bitter disappointment proved to be only the first in a long list of frustrations and failures which afflicted Newman during his years as a Catholic, so much so that, as he confided to his private journal, “I fear … the iron has entered into my soul…. As a Protestant I felt my religion dreary, but not my life — but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.”

But “my campaign in Ireland,” as Newman came to describe it, was not without permanent fruit. The bishops’ original invitation to him had included a request “to give us a few lectures on education.” He agreed to do so, and found the task immensely difficult. Though the “discourses,” as he called them, were well received, “they have oppressed me more,” he said, “than anything else of the kind in my life….  I am out on the ocean with them, out of sight of land, with nothing but the stars.” Ultimately he published them, together with other lectures and essays written while he was rector, in one of the most celebrated of all his forty books, The Idea of a University.

Celebrated the Idea well may be, for its gorgeous prose and its broad, yet subtly discriminating, treatment of the field of higher education. Yet one might legitimately ask whether it does not propose an ideal rather than a living idea. Is the book more than an historical curiosity? Does it have anything valuable to say, after all this time, about university education? More specifically, does the Newman of Dublin and Oxford have anything relevant to say to the Notre Dame of the late twentieth century? In some regards the answer is definitely in the negative. Newman, first of all, was talking about the education of an elite; the mega-universities of out day, with their commitment to provide utilitarian training to virtually everybody within commuting distance, would have been beyond his comprehension. In accord with the mores of his own time, he gave no thought to coeducation. He knew nothing of elective curricula or undergraduate majors or auxiliary enterprises: a university book store, he would have supposed, was a place to find books. The term social science would have been a mystery to him. He took for granted the primacy of classical studies and mathematics, the core of the Oxford curriculum, and, more generally, of the need for all students to be thoroughly versed in the liberal arts before embarking upon any specialization. In these and similar convictions and assumptions, Newman clearly lived in a different world from ours.

But in other respects the Idea witnesses to timeless truths, worth pondering because, if for no better reason, educational reformers routinely bring them forward to correct the excesses of this or that bout of innovation. No one, for example, has expressed more eloquently than Newman the constantly recurring denunciation of “the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; of considering an acquaintance with the learned names of things and persons, and the possession of clever duodecimos, and attendance on eloquent lectures, and membership with scientific institutions, and the sight of the experiments of a platform and the specimens of a museum, that all this was not dissipation of mind, but progress. All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly.”

To take another instance, perhaps closer to home: How often these days do we not hear the complaint

that graduates even of prestigious universities lack fundamental verbal skills? Says Newman trenchantly: “Till a man begins to put down his thoughts about a subject on paper he will not ascertain what he knows and what he does not know; and still less will he be able to express what he does know.” Drill is what is needed to develop the art of writing, and indeed “formation of mind” in whatever discipline depends not upon “that barren mockery of knowledge which comes of attending on great Lecturers, or of mere acquaintance with reviews, magazines, newspapers” but upon “that catechetical instruction, which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you.” Thus speaks the sometime don and tutor of Oriel College, Oxford.

And thus might be underscored a problem of growing concern on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Drill and “catechetical instruction” take time. Conversation between professor and student demands the ready availability of the former to the latter. To be a good teacher at the university level involves intense preparation and the willingness to expend much energy and imagination in presenting the required material.

But what happens when the professor is convinced that his professional standing — indeed, his very employability — rests not upon his teaching but upon his productivity and visibility as a researcher? What if tenure and promotion are judged to flow chiefly from an accumulation of articles in specialized journals? Such a perception does not seem out of accord with Notre Dame’s formal profession of its intention to become a great research institution. Nor has the recent administration of the university been behindhand in providing the incentives to the faculty to bring about this goal; sharply augmented remuneration over the past several years, together with considerable reduction in classroom obligations and enhanced opportunities for leave time and for research facilities, has led an increasingly talented body of professors to establish a commendable record of published scholarship.

But the results of this policy have, so far, been mixed. Undergraduate students at Notre Dame, them-selves a highly talented group, do not read the learned journals in which appear their professors’ articles. And more and more students are complaining about what they consider an undue emphasis upon graduate training and the consequent paucity of undergraduate courses, and about crowded classes, and about indifferent or ill-prepared teachers, and, most telling of all, about teachers never available. The dilemma — for that is surely what it is — is often expressed in terms of the “new” Notre Dame versus the “old” Notre Dame, the up-to-date research institution on the cutting edge of discovery, in contrast to the traditional, perhaps anachronistic, center of a unique “experience” in a powerfully effective undergraduate program, carried on within the confines of the “Notre Dame family.”

It would be wrong of course to exaggerate this dichotomy, to label a crisis what is really a puzzle, a riddle. And maybe a challenge to all those who think of Notre Dame as a special place. One must take pains, to be sure, not to let nostalgia rule on the one hand, or academic trendiness on the other. Certainly no natural or divine law has decreed that the astute researcher cannot be also the inspiring and memorable teacher. For purposes of the present discussion, it may be significant that if the “old” Notre Dame had its “dons”— one thinks immediately of Joseph Evans, Paul Fenelon, Frank O’Malley — it also had its scholars. And among those faculty most identified with the ethos of the “new” Notre Dame are many brilliant classroom instructors.

There is at any rate no doubt upon which side of the debate Newman would have come down. A university, he wrote in the first sentences of the Idea, “is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object 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.” He may have had in mind All Souls College, Oxford, a research center which supported a group of fellows but which in fact had no students and has none to this day. However that may be, Newman seems to have ruled himself out of court as a judge of higher education in the twentieth century by denying the university its fundamental obligation of “scientific and philosophical discovery.” We can learn nothing from such a one.

Yet this might be too hasty a conclusion. For basic to Newman’s definition lies a principle hard to challenge in any context and in any century: education is at heart a matter of personal influence. One might propose, as Newman implicitly did, the model of medieval Oxford where the university was simply a group of people — some learned, some eager to learn — bound together by their mutual interest in things of the mind. But whatever imagery one invokes to make the point, the person-to-person relationship between faculty and students remains a condition for genuine education, and, to the degree that this was a distinguishing feature of the “old” Notre Dame, it is far too valuable to lose. There need be no sentimentality in such a relationship, no pandering to the immature, no interference in the private lives of others. It need not involve the sacrifice of original scholarship. Nor can it be secured by administrative tinkering or press releases. What it needs to flourish is mutual respect and a rigorous dedication to bringing into reality the goal of a university education, the goal Newman described better than anyone else.

The intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.

Rev. Marvin R. O'Connell


Rev. Marvin R. O'Connell is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in Catholic Church History. Father O’Connell has lectured widely in this country and abroad and is the author of several books and hundreds of articles. He is best known among Notre Dame students and friends as the biographer of the university’s founder, Fr. Sorin. Among his other books are: Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis, The Counter Reformation: 1559-1610, The Oxford Conspirators: A History of the Oxford Movement 1833-1845, and the novel McElroy.

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