Book review: The Idea of a University

The Idea of a University in Nine Discourses
by John Henry Newman (1858)
available online

At a time when the proper mission of a university has been obscured by commercial and ideological interests, we can with profit consult the classic lectures on this topic delivered by Cardinal Newman to commemorate the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin.

It is unfortunate, as Newman points out, that English lacks a convenient word for what he means as the distinctive excellence of the intellect, the equivalent of what “health” is for the body, because this is what a university education is meant to cultivate.  Intellectual cultivation might aid professional success and moral refinement, but it is a separate good worthy of pursuit in itself.  Newman refers most often to two particular facets of the properly formed mind.  First there is what one might call a philosophical enlargement, an appreciation for the validity and proper limits of each discipline.  Second, there is what he sometimes calls discipline of the mind, the habit of precision and systemization.

He is particularly keen in advocating the first.  In the early lectures, this is done in the context of arguing the rightful place of theology in a university, as demanded by a university’s defining mission to be a place for universal knowledge.  Newman delights in granting what his opponents imagine to be their most damaging claim and then showing it to work in his favor.  Thus, to the claim that churchmen like Newman are driven by fear that science allowed to proceed unchecked will end up contradicting theology, he responds that of course science acting alone will contradict the truths of religion, because every discipline acting without outside feedback will naturally overstep its domain of validity, stretching its truths beyond their context so that they become falsehoods, to the detriment of that discipline itself.  His opponents often enough acknowledge this, because it is what they accuse theologians of doing!

Newman sees each discipline as taking all of creation as its subject, but considered only under one aspect.  Only by recognizing multiple aspects can one see creatures in their supraintelligible reality, rather than as the abstractions that isolated disciplines reveal, only then can one avoid the “bigot’s” temptation of totalizing one aspect.  Philosophy he regards as the meta-discipline of establishing the relations between disciplines and the range of validity of each.  The university itself he regards as the institutional embodiment of this peaceful philosophic ordering of the branches of truth, as admirable in its way as the Roman empire reconciling (without erasing) many peoples within its borders.

Newman speaks eloquently of this in the lecture “Christianity and Scientific Investigation”.

My reason for speaking of a University in the terms on which I have ventured is, not that it occupies the whole territory of knowledge merely, but that it is the very realm; that it professes much more than to take in and to lodge as in a caravanserai all art and science, all history and philosophy. In truth, it professes to assign to each study, which it receives, its own proper place and its just boundaries; to define the rights, to establish the mutual relations, and to effect the intercommunion of one and all; to keep in check the ambitious and encroaching, and to succour and maintain those which from time to time are succumbing under the more popular or the more fortunately circumstanced; to keep the peace between them all, and to convert their mutual differences and contrarieties into the common good. This, Gentlemen, is why I say that to erect a University is at once so arduous and beneficial an undertaking, viz., because it is pledged to admit, without fear, without prejudice, without compromise, all comers, if they come in the name of Truth; to adjust views, and experiences, and habits of mind the most independent and dissimilar; and to give full play to thought and erudition in their most original forms, and their most intense expressions, and in their most ample circuit. Thus to draw many things into one, is its special function; and it learns to do it, not by rules reducible to writing, but by sagacity, wisdom, and forbearance, acting upon a profound insight into the subject-matter of knowledge, and by a vigilant repression of aggression or bigotry in any quarter.

We count it a great thing, and justly so, to plan and carry out a wide political organization. To bring under one yoke, after the manner of old Rome, a hundred discordant peoples; to maintain each of them in its own privileges within its legitimate range of action; to allow them severally the indulgence of national feelings, and the stimulus of rival interests; and yet withal to blend them into one great social establishment, and to pledge them to the perpetuity of the one imperial power;—this is an achievement which carries with it the unequivocal token of genius in the race which effects it.

I observe, then, and ask you, Gentlemen, to bear in mind, that the philosophy of an imperial intellect, for such I am considering a University to be, is based, not so much on simplification as on discrimination. Its true representative defines, rather than analyses. He aims at no complete catalogue, or interpretation of the subjects of knowledge, but a following out, as far as man can, what in its fulness is mysterious and unfathomable. Taking into his charge all sciences, methods, collections of facts, principles, doctrines, truths, which are the reflexions of the universe upon the human intellect, he admits them all, he disregards none, and, as disregarding none, he allows none to exceed or encroach. His watchword is, Live and let live. He takes things as they are; he submits to them all, as far as they go; he recognizes the insuperable lines of demarcation which run between subject and subject; 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 be known in each province of thought; when we must be contented not to know; in what direction inquiry is hopeless, or on the other hand full of promise; where it gathers into coils insoluble by reason, where it is absorbed in mysteries, or runs into the abyss. 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. If he has one cardinal maxim in his philosophy, it is, that truth cannot be contrary to truth; if he has a second, it is, that truth often seems contrary to truth; and, if a third, it is the practical conclusion, that we must be patient with such appearances, and not be hasty to pronounce them to be really of a more formidable character.

Newman proceeds to apply these three wise maxims to the question of apparent conflicts between the findings of science and Christianity.  His advice to Christian scientists is not to worry about these.  Such disagreements can only be apparent and are likely to be resolved most quickly when scientists dutifully follow their investigations wherever they lead.

Newman is keen to distinguish the education he has in mind from mere accumulation of knowledge.  Mere accumulation is passive, but an educated mind must act on its knowledge, asking how one piece relates to another, drawing all into a system.

say then, if we would improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level; we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them. It matters not whether our field of operation be wide or limited; in every case, to command it, is to mount above it…In like manner, you must be above your knowledge, not under it, or it will oppress you; and the more you have of it, the greater will be the load. The learning of a Salmasius or a Burman, unless you are its master, will be your tyrant.

The educated mind is disciplined.  It insists on clearly defined terms and careful reasoning.  Newman notices what all of us have also seen, that the alternative to discipline is the spirit of partisanship, mental work that goes no further than the crude slogans of one’s party, carelessly embracing positions on every sort of question when one has no sense of the sort of mental work that would be needed for a proper investigation.

To discipline one’s mind, a smattering of knowledge on many subjects, the aim of popular expositions, is no use.  One must conform oneself to the logos of a particular discipline.  As Newman says in “Discipline of the Mind”

Such, then, being true cultivation of mind, and such the literary institutions which do not tend to it, I might proceed to show you, Gentlemen, did time admit, how, on the other hand, that kind of instruction of which our Evening Classes are a specimen, is especially suited to effect what they propose. Consider, for instance, what a discipline in accuracy of thought it is to have to construe a foreign language into your own; what a still severer and more improving exercise it is to translate from your own into a foreign language. Consider, again, what a lesson in memory and discrimination it is to get up, as it is called, any one chapter of history. Consider what a trial of acuteness, caution, and exactness, it is to master, and still more to prove, a number of definitions. Again, what an exercise in logic is classification, what an exercise in logical precision it is to understand and enunciate the proof of any of the more difficult propositions of Euclid, or to master any one of the great arguments for Christianity so thoroughly as to bear examination upon it; or, again, to analyze sufficiently, yet in as few words as possible, a speech, or to draw up a critique upon a poem. And so of any other science,— chemistry, or comparative anatomy, or natural history; it does not matter what it is, if it be really studied and mastered, as far as it is taken up. The result is a formation of mind,—that is, a habit of order and system, a habit of referring every accession of knowledge to what we already know, and of adjusting the one with the other; and, moreover, as such a habit implies, the actual acceptance and use of certain principles as centres of thought, around which our knowledge grows and is located. Where this critical faculty exists, history is no longer a mere story-book, or biography a romance; orators and publications of the day are no longer infallible authorities; eloquent diction is no longer a substitute for matter, nor bold statements, or lively descriptions, a substitute for proof. This is that faculty of perception in intellectual matters, which, as I have said so often, is analogous to the capacity we all have of mastering the multitude of lines and colours which pour in upon our eyes, and of deciding what every one of them is worth.

Newman treats a number of side topics, some more interesting than others.  I will mention three.  The first is his treatment of the relationship between intellectual cultivation and virtue.  We have seen that he insists that they are distinct things, but he does see that intellectualism fosters a particular type of moral sensibility, in some obvious ways congruent with Christian morality, but in subtler ways conflicting with it.  Here Newman puts his rhetorical trick of granting a concession only to turn it against his opponent to particularly good use.  He suggests that the educated mind might motivate itself to morality without needing to appeal to rewards and punishments in the next life, but goes on to argue that this is a bad thing, because it makes morality a strictly internal affair, of conformity to one’s own sensibilities, leading to an aesthetic virtue that easily rationalizes elegant vices.  In another clever reversal, he allows that secular morality probably achieves better compliance with the moral law than Christian morality, because it does not touch the deepest interior.  Rather than confronting pride, it utilizes it, under the guise of “self-respect”, to promote outward good behavior.  For true humility it substitutes modesty, which is only good manners.

A particularly interesting lecture is “English Catholic Literature”.  This topic might seem out of place, but the question addressed is what English Catholics should hope to accomplish in the literary arts.  Newman embraces a sort of Spenglerian theory of the natural unfolding of a language and its literary tradition.  For each language, after its crude beginnings, a collection of geniuses arises to bring out its expressive potential.  Their works form the classics of the language, and once the capabilities of the language are drawn out, the classical age is over.  In fact, after this point, the classics inhibit further development.  England had a longer classical period than many national languages, but it is now past, so it will always be true that the classical literature of England is Protestant.  For a Catholic, this is not ideal, but Newman points out that things could be much worse.  At least the English classics are not infidel.  English Catholics, then, are encouraged to develop their literary gifts, but they should not expect to produce anything of permanent relevance.

In the final lecture, Newman addresses the medical college.  After praising the obvious usefulness of the medical profession and the credit it does to the English Church to include those in the healing profession among its numbers, he comes to his main focus:  the particular spiritual danger to which doctors may be prone.  It is a species of the one-sidedness that Newman has warned against throughout the book.  He warns that medical doctors must not forget that there are spiritual goods that are more important than bodily health.  By all means, let them warn their patients of the bodily consequences of their actions, but let them not resent it if health must sometimes be sacrificed to higher duties.  This is still a useful reminder today for medical professionals and others.

Far more than in Newman’s time, today there are many teachers and students who think the point of a university education is to imbibe their simplistic slogans and spirit of belligerent self-righteousness.  Some of us have other aspirations in teaching, and Newman does an incomparably good job of putting those aspirations into words.

 

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Idea of a University

  1. Wow. A fitting response from a beast in a far more beastly age than the Cardinal’s, but still — wow. What a light! And what a shame, when we consider the university today. Of course, schools will fall short of the ideal integration extolled in the above passages, but “institutions of high learning” don’t even aim for such integration today. It’s myopia everywhere. Interdisciplinary programs were supposed to be bridges, but they appear to be yet more enablers of the credentialization of higher education — C.V. diversification strokes in check boxes to get young Johnny ahead of the competition in the race to be hired. And this is the contemporary university in its best light — focusing on the pinpoint focused scholarly workers working on their little problems with their pointy expertise . . . and ignoring the far more grotesque aspects of “university education” these days.

  2. Pingback: Book review: The Idea of a University | Reaction Times

  3. In the original Latin, the word university meant something like union or corporation of masters and scholars. We might say that the university has become “corporate” in the bad sense of that word, but that the word university originally indicated an organization that practiced an intellectual division of labor. The university was opposed to the genius, sage or mastermind, and instead proposed to advance knowledge through functional differentiation of scholarship. The disciplines were analogous to organs in a body. Some of those organs have been fantastically productive, but the same cannot be said for the organism. The university does not produce a unified knowledge in the way that a genius produced a more or less unified system. In fact it produces a fragmentary knowledge of incommensurable parts.

    This is evident if you look at the complete dog’s breakfast we call an undergraduate education. It scrapes some leftover humanism, nihilism and scientism into the bowl of an undergraduate and assures him that it is a balanced meal. The student staggers from a class grounded in anti-foundational postmodernism to a class grounded in dogmatic positivism and then wonders why he feels confused.

    So the university ceases to be a corporation and becomes what Newman describes as a caravanserai, a place where merchants from many lands gather to hawk their wares.

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