Newman’s The Idea of a University and the universities of today

Nicholas Rodger

John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University is a book which divides opinion.  It is regarded by many as a seminal work which has done more than any other to define what the modern university is or ought to be, but many people (and in some cases the same people) also dismiss it as a noble but impractical work of abstract theory.  It is described as evoking an idealised vision of the Oxford of the 1830s, an Oxford which was passing away even as Newman wrote in the 1850s, and which bears little resemblance to any modern university.   It is accused of offering a model which would be impossible to imitate nowadays, and one in some respects objectionable even if it were possible.  In this connection a passage is often quoted in which Newman claims, or appears to claim, that the university is purely a teaching institution which ought not to undertake research;  its object ‘the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement.’[1]  First of all, therefore, it is necessary to be clear what sort of book this is, what it says and what it set out to do.

Newman is one of the great figures of 19th-century English literature;  The Idea of a University is easy to read, but not so easy to understand.  There is a strong element of rhetoric, even of hyperbole, in his elegant prose.  He was a subtle thinker, and the circumstances in which he was writing forced him to make many of his arguments indirectly.  In spite of its title, this is not a theoretical treatise in the German or French style, but a very pragmatic English work, which addresses general principles, but in the context of a practical situation.  Moreover this was not in origin a book at all, but a series of lectures delivered to particular audiences in Dublin in the years 1852 to 1854, using arguments, some of them oblique or ad hominem, which speak to their particular conerns.  Newman can only be understood in his historical context.

In 1829 the public practice of the Catholic faith was made legal in the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, after almost three centuries of persecution in England, two centuries in Scotland and more than one century in Ireland.  At this date, however, there was scarcely any possibility for a young Catholic to go to university without going abroad.  The ancient English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the new foundations of Durham and King’s College London, the sole Irish university of Trinity College Dublin, and the four Scottish universities of St.Andrew’s, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow were all Protestant, and imposed religious tests which would force a Catholic to abjure his faith.  The only university which was not Protestant was the ‘University of London’ (the modern University College London), which was a declared enemy of all religion and strongly atheist in tone.  Then in 1845 the British government announced a plan to establish three ‘Queen’s Colleges’ in Ireland (at Belfast, Cork and Galway) on a Christian but non-sectarian basis with no religious tests.  Many Catholics, and many Catholic bishops, were attracted by the scheme – but not all.  One bishop in particular was strongly opposed:  Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh, soon afterwards to become Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin.  Unlike almost all his episcopal colleagues, Cullen had passed his career in Rome where he had established links with the centres of power which allowed him to dominate the Catholic Church in Ireland for almost thirty years.  Cullen insisted, and procured a rescript from Rome to order, that no Catholic should attend any non-Catholic university.  Instead he took the lead in founding, in 1850, what was entitled the ‘Irish National University’.  Five years after his conversion John Henry Newman was easily the most distinguished Catholic university scholar in the United Kingdom, and he was invited to become the founding Rector of the new institution.

Besides the obvious difficulties of establishing a university with little money and few scholarly resources, Newman faced two serious obstacles.  Although about 90% of the Catholics of the United Kingdom were Irish, the majority of them were poor and uneducated, in many cases altogether illiterate.  The 10% of English and Scottish Catholics included most of those whose upbringing, education and wealth qualified them to enter a university, but the nationalist political stance implied by the title of ‘Irish National University’ was not calculated to appeal to them, or indeed to Newman himself.  The few Irish Catholics likely to be able to send their sons to university, essentially drawn from the urban middle classes, wanted to obtain a professional training as cheaply and efficiently as possible.  They were not interested in a liberal education, but in opening the door to medicine or the law, the two professions which were more or less open to Catholics.  For their ears Newman had to argue that his university would indeed teach medicine and the law, but had to do so in the context of a broad educational culture rather than a narrow professional training.  He had to encourage them to understand that education was much more than training, ‘it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character;  it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connexion with religion and virtue.’[2]

On the other side there was a more serious threat to the new institution.  Cardinal Cullen was a great reformer who revitalised the Church in Ireland, but he was an uncompromising ultramontane who regarded freedom of thought as the enemy of faith.  From the beginning Newman feared, with good reason, that Cullen’s idea was a sort of super-seminary under tight ecclesiastical discipline, in which the young men would not be encouraged to think for themselves, and would be taught only what Rome regarded as useful.  Without of course referring to the Cardinal explicitly, Newman had to insist that the essence of a university was a place of free enquiry in which all branches of learning were followed on a basis of equality.  Theology had to be present, as one of the indispensible basic intellectual disciplines, but not as the ‘queen of sciences’ – which would imply that the theologians were the kings of the university.  Newman fully accepted that the new institution would be a truly Catholic university with a moral and religious atmosphere in which the practice of the faith would be supported;  he argued that the presence of the Church was essential to maintain the moral integrity of the university in its pursuit of truth;  but at the same time he had to stress that the purpose of a university was essentially secular;  it was to educate young men for the world, not to save souls.

‘Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.  It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; – these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge;  they are the objects of a University;  I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them;  but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or for even conscientiousness…’[3]


In order to provide this liberal education the university had to preserve its intellectual autonomy.  Newman therefore had to argue, clearly but indirectly, that the new Catholic university must be independent of the bishops in its teaching and learning – though he well knew that most of the Irish bishops, and Cullen in particular, had no intention of creating an educated laity trained to think for themselves.

The essence of Newman’s university is therefore an institution in which young men are taught to think (thinking young women were still beyond the intellectual horizon in the 1850s).  The practical business of the university was instruction, but knowledge was only a means to its real end, which was ‘Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge, or what may be called Philosophy.’[4]  ‘Liberal Education, viewed in itself,’ he declared, ‘is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.’[5]  To achieve this it was necessary that all the ‘sciences’ (by which he meant all the branches of knowledge) should be studied on a basis of equality, because

‘they complete, correct, balance each other… Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.’[6]


The Oxford of Newman’s day had been heavily attacked by Utilitarian thinkers because it taught subjects of no obvious economic benefit.  Newman vigorously insisted that training in the practical skills of a business or profession (he explicitly included the clergy as one of them), though good and useful in itself, was not the business of a university.   The university served society only by cultivating the minds of its future leaders: ‘The training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to society… If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society.’[7]  The good member of society was the ‘gentleman’ as Newman defined him.  He has sometimes been misunderstood as wanting to limit his university to the sons of good families, but in fact he intended his university to make ‘gentlemen’ of sufficiently-educated students from any background.  For him the essential qualities of the gentleman were intellectual and moral:   ‘a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.’[8]   In a famous phrase he declared that ‘it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.’[9]

The idea of the university dedicated to intellectual culture rather than practical training is still honoured, and to an extent observed, in Oxford to-day, and in other British universities, but in almost all other respects we are remote from Newman’s university.  Although in practice he expected and encouraged research at Dublin, he was a long way from the modern research-led university.  He himself drew his inspiration only from his Oxford experience and from the Catholic University of Louvain, whose structure he imitated in some respects.  His university, it has been well said, is ‘as much an account of an Oxford lost as of a Dublin envisioned.’[10]  He seems to have been scarcely aware of other models.  He makes no reference to American universities which were already developing new structures and approaches.  He seems to know nothing of the Scottish universities, which offered (and still offer) an alternative organisation descended from the medieval university.  Above all he evidently had little idea of what was going on in Germany.  He had almost certainly never heard of the Ph.D. degree, introduced into the United States from Göttingen in 1860, but unknown in Oxford until well into the 20th century.  Yet modern universities almost everywhere trace their intellectual descent from Berlin, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810 after the model of the older Halle and Göttingen.  This was a research-led university dominated by professors.  It was also a secular university dominated by the spirit of the Enlightenment.  Though Schleiermacher persuaded Fichte, the first Rector, to admit theology to the curriculum, it was an emasculated theology, forbidden to think or teach about the transcendental or the mysterious.

For the modern university, Newman’s clarity of purpose is itself baffling.  As an Aristotelian he could comfortably define a university by its purpose, but modern universities have no teleology.  A modern university rector, asked to define his institution’s objects, will list its functions, or take refuge in platitudes about service to society.  In practice the modern university strives to satisfy the tastes of its customers and the whims of its paymasters.  It offers a wide variety of courses but no unified education, because it has no common culture.  Newman’s university of culture and reason has been replaced by the university of excellence, which aims to do whatever it does excellently, but does not pursue any excellent thing, because that would be dangerously near to a truth.  The university is defined by process, not by purpose:  no need to ask where it is going, so long as it is moving.

Theology is the canary in the mine of the modern university.  That study whose subject is the ultimate truth illuminates the relationship of the university as a whole to truth.  In practice theology is allowed today, at least in British universities, because its claims (even if made out loud) are no longer frightening.  In the university of excellence, anything is permissable which is done excellently.  All truths, and all lies, may be spoken where truth has no value.  In the age of relativism, the university lives by the ‘hotel model’.  In the hotel many people inhabit the same building and pass one another in the corridors, but they live separate lives and share nothing important.  Newman’s university was built on the ‘family model’, whose members share a common life and a common culture, meeting for discussion and argument around a common table.

In the age of relativism, the university defines itself by its toleration.  Relativism is in itself a principle so intellectually incoherent and self-contradictory that hardly anyone tries to live their own life by it.  Most scholars pursue their work in practice as though they believed there were a truth to seek – and Post-Modernists are notoriously the most dogmatic of all.  Relativism is applied in foro externo, as a ‘tolerant’ attitude towards other people’s activities.  We may not pass judgement on other subjects and other scholars, no matter how foolish or wicked, so long as they do whatever they do excellently.  Our contemporaries ‘have elevated relativism, especially relativism about first principles, to the status of a first principle (about which it is not permitted to be a relativist).’[11]  This present us as Christians with a problem.  We too believe in toleration, because we are motivated by love and compassion, especially for sinners.  Our difficulty is to make the distinction clear to outsiders between loving the sinner and hating the sin, when toleration for evil is built into the ethos of the modern university.

Nevertheless it is our duty as Christians to be witnesses to the truth.  It is also our opportunity, for there is widespread dissatisfaction with the post-Modernist university.  The attraction of the ‘value-free’, relativist model is essentially the attraction of sin:  it promises the painless fulfilment of our desires, and like sin, it fails to deliver what it promises.  The consequences of relativism are not at all painless.  Beyond the Western world it is widely associated with moral depravity.  At home it has generated a crisis both of morale and morality.  Beyond the obvious difficulties of finance and structure which beset Western universities there lies a profound moral malaise which shows itself in, for example, the rising incidence of plagiarism and fraud.  Especially in medicine and the natural sciences, where there is most money and power at stake, there is a growing problem of falsified, suppressed or misattributed research, while the machinery of ‘peer review’ serves to suppress critical thought.  It is increasingly obvious that the ‘value-free’ secular university ignores or suppresses many important questions and silently imposes many ideological convictions.  But post-modernism has at least taught everyone that there is no such thing as a ‘value-free’ approach.  Secularism’s pretence of neutrality and objectivity is no longer credible.  We can be honest and open about the tradition on which we base our convictions, and this gives us a growing intellectual as well as moral advantage.  The Christian in the university (or the Christian university) stands for freedom of discussion, but is honest about the starting point of the debate.  The Christian university will encourage all subjects to analyse the bases of their beliefs.  It will therefore promote the philosophy and history of each discipline – particularly difficult in countries like Britain where Positivism has had such a devastating effect on the intellectual credibility of philosophy over the past century, and metaphysics is only beginning to recover.  It is essential that we follow Newman on the difference between knowledge and reason, which is the university’s business, and faith, which is not.  But theology, as the science which asks the ultimate reasoned questions, is the measure and test of the university’s freedom to pursue universal knowledge.

As servants and seekers of the Truth, we have more and more opportunities to witness to truth as people become more and more discontented with the non-answers of relativism.  In the intellectual sphere, this is a good time to be a Catholic in a secular university.  We should be clear, however, that the real struggle is not intellectual but cultural.  The cultural values of tolerance for lies and intolerance of truth will be deeply entrenched in the universities, as they are in society, long after the intellectual credibility of relativism has been demolished.  It will not be enough to win the arguments:  we shall have to be ready to be witnesses, and very likely martyrs for the truth.

During his life as a Catholic Newman struggled to persuade his Protestant fellow-countrymen that it was possible to accept the teaching authority of the Church without sacrificing freedom of conscience or intellectual integrity.  At the same time he was deeply suspect in the eyes of many in the Church, especially in Rome, precisely because his claims of freedom of conscience were equated with ‘Liberalism’, ‘Modernism’ and crypto-Protestantism.  Only at the very end of his life did a new pope, Leo XIII, make him a cardinal specifically to endorse his argument that free intellectual enquiry, undertaken honestly and enlightened by faith, was a support and not a challenge to the Church.  Now, more than a century after his death, Newman is celebrated, and will no doubt soon be canonised, as the ‘prophet of Vatican II’.  We need not expect to have an easier time in life than he did, but we do not need to be discouraged.  Christ has won the victory, and his truth makes us free in a world of prisoners.  We can adopt the motto of the Dominicans, ‘contemplata aliis tradere’:  to pass on to others what we have studied and prayed.  Though Newman’s university did not succeed, and the details of his proposal are not applicable to our situations, his fundamental message about the proper relationship between faith, learning and truth remains a sure guide through the moral maze of the modern university.  In the confusion of our universities lies our opportunity to witness to the truth.




[1] John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated ed. I.T. Ker (Oxford, 1976) p.5.

[2] Newman, Idea of a University, p.105.

[3] Newman, Idea of a University, p.110.

[4] Newman, Idea of a University, pp.124-125.

[5] Newman, Idea of a University, p.111.

[6] Newman, Idea of a University, pp.94-95.

[7] Newman, Idea of a University, p.154.

[8] Newman, Idea of a University, p.96.

[9] Newman, Idea of a University, p.179.

[10] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of a University: A Reexamination (New Haven, 1992), p.180.

[11] Pelikan, The Idea of a University, p.29.

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