“A university…educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”
John Henry Cardinal Newman, Idea of a University, p. 149
The exhortations of Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University are not only difficult for the modern reader because of their high rhetorical style, but because they come forth with such clarity and unabashed frankness regarding a subject – university education – that has lately been anything but clear or frank. Indeed, if Newman’s work might be re-titled today in homage to Chesterton, it might be called “What’s Wrong With The University.” In a postmodern era where authority is mocked and the means and ends of education are lost in the sturm und drang of received opinions, perhaps Newman’s work can provide us with a roadmap to rediscover the proper place of university education, and know it again, for the first time.
The “place” that Newman wants to take the university student is the seat of truth. For Newman, truth is not a negotiable, relative thing. It is measurable and real. Newman makes no bones about the relationship of unchanging truth to an unchanging God: “…belief in God is no more than an acknowledgement of existing, sensible powers and phenomena, which none but an idiot can deny” (Newman 76). Surely today Newman would be labeled as a “right-wing religious zealot” simply for professing what he sees to be self-evident – that there is a God who is all Truth – and that we must acknowledge the truth of His existence should we hope to study the existence of truth.
How does the university student arrive at the truth that Newman sees as obvious but which he still wishes us to labor to attain? By seeking knowledge – but not just knowledge as we in the postmodern era know it, often masquerading as a surfeit of information – but knowledge that is not obtained in a few clicks of a mouse, and that is its own good and its own reward. Newman sees knowledge as a refinement of ourselves, as a development of the better angels of our nature: “…Knowledge…has a natural tendency to refine the mind, and to give it an indisposition…towards excesses and enormities of evil…It generates within the mind a fastidiousness…(which) will create an absolute loathing of certain offenses” (199). So, in the first place Newman sees knowledge as its own good, and something that will enlarge the spirit and character of the university student. At first glance, one might argue that university enrollments are at their highest point in the history of man – thus never has man in so many numbers sought knowledge for its own end – but Newman might answer this seeming triumph of postmodern man by attacking the Scylla and Charybdis of our modern university system: specialization and vocational training.
Newman, living in an age before endless numbers of graduate students, wasn’t measuring his words for sentiment when he penned: “I only say that knowledge, in proportion as it tends more and more to be particular, ceases to be knowledge” (138) and further, quoting a Dr. Copleston: “There can be no doubt that every art is improved by confining the professor of it to that single study. But, although the art itself is advanced by this concentration of mind in its service, the individual who is confined to it goes back” (184). Newman would seem to belittle the rampant specialization of all disciplines (there is not a discipline in academia that is free of it) while praising the noble sacrifice of the specialist who furthers the field at the expense of himself. And yet, can we not take solace in Newman’s words, even as they wound our delicate postmodern sensibilities? Because Newman is exhorting a holistic view of education, he necessarily sees specialized education as an enemy of true learning. While we may have lost many things, the idea of a noble sacrifice is still one that beats somewhere in some academic hearts, and in the memories of so many students who have observed a professor who would “gladly learn, and gladly teach.” Some must specialize so that others may generalize.
But the reality is that graduate students – those receivers of specialized knowledge – are but the minority at the modern university. The majority of students are major-obsessed – or rather major-ly confused. When we can observe in the modern university a norm of a 60% graduation rate within a 4-year span, we watch the chaos of vocational-driven education. If the focus is on a major – on a specialization – on how one might make a career – where is education in all of that? Newman’s pen, again in quoting Copleston, in discussion of those who pursue purely economic ends in education, stings: “But, while he (the student) thus contributes more effectually to the accumulation of national wealth, he becomes himself more and more degraded as a rational being” (183). If our universities are only graduating 60% of freshmen who start 4 years earlier, what can be said about the prevailing “wisdom” of allowing majors to dominate academic advising? Yes, there has been a resurgence of “core” programs that require a broader range of academic studies – but in so many of these instances a student may graduate with a college degree while never having taken a single class in philosophy…or theology, for that matter. And that alone would have driven Newman mad.
For Newman, not just as a Catholic, but as a co-founder of the Oxford Movement, education without theology is simply incoherent. For Newman, theology is both a keystone and a cement in the edifice of knowledge: “You will soon break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge if you begin the mutilation with divine” (67). As mentioned earlier, Newman sees the grasping of truth as the entire end of a university education. That truth finds its end in God, and therefore, without that end, which links its beginning, there is no road to tread upon: “When Newton can dispense with the metaphysician, then may you dispense with us (religion)” (89).
Newman saw no point to an unexamined life, but this last quote referencing Newton gives us pause, for it sets up what Newman sees as the end of all of our pursuits, intellectual or economic: God. If, again, God is truth, then the road to Him is paved with knowledge, and the tolls paid on that road cannot be paid in the only currency postmodern man knows – ever mercurial, be it denominated in euros or dollars – money – but rather it must be paid in the unchanging currency of a liberally educated mind. A mind that sees that the end of education is not to “…load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge” (162) but rather to view “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” (158).
In the final analysis, as ancient and outdated as Cardinal Newman’s words might seem upon a first read, it is in dwelling upon our postmodern crisis in education – a crisis fraught with purely economic considerations of majors, of specializations in fields where no jobs await the end of the journey, of systems that see truth as relative and core requirements as constraining – that we see that Newman’s words are truly revolutionary. It is only because we have so far drifted to the left that we see the right as almost another shore of a distant country. We must swim towards it – knowing that there is an end. And that end, in seeing education in all its richness, vivified by the knowledge of truth, will guide our journey.
Newman, John Cardinal Henry. The Idea of a University. New York: Image Books, 1959.