(Reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal, written by Gertrude Himmelfarb.)

Yale University Press is currently reprinting some of the classics of Western civilization in a series titled “Rethinking the Western Tradition.” The “rethinking” refers to essays from contributors representing different points of view. So far, two volumes have appeared—the first, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, edited by the late Samuel Lipman, and now The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, edited by Frank M. Turner. Both are impeccably edited, with enough scholarly apparatus to satisfy an academic audience without intimidating the lay reader. Both are even more pertinent today than when they were published.

The Idea of a University consists primarily of a series of lectures delivered by Newman in 1852 that were meant to establish the principles of the new Catholic University in Dublin, of which he was the first rector. It was a curious situation: Newman, a recent convert to Catholicism, trying to persuade Irish Catholics to support a university modeled on Oxford (which did not admit Catholics) and a “liberal education” that included theology as part of the curriculum. Theology was what Newman insisted upon—not religious piety, as many Catholics understood it, still less religious sentiment or feeling, as some Protestants thought of it, but theology as an “intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge.” Theology in this sense was as much a part of “universal knowledge” as science or philosophy. There was no conflict between science and theology because all came from “the same divine author, whose works cannot contradict each other.”

If many Catholics were unpersuaded by the idea of a liberal education, they were hardly reassured by Newman’s observation that such an education was designed to produce “not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.” And not “the manners and habits” of the gentleman, but the particular characteristics that came from a liberal education, “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.”

It was almost as if Newman was determined to offend all his natural allies. If the idea of a liberal, gentlemanly education sounded suspiciously secular, even Protestant, to most Catholics, liberals were put off by the idea of theology as part of the curriculum. And the academic establishment in general was disturbed by the principle enunciated in the opening sentences of the very first lecture: that the university should be “a place of teaching universal knowledge.” The italics were in the original, emphasizing Newman’s insistence upon teaching rather than research—the “diffusion and extension” of knowledge rather than its “advancement” by way of new discoveries. If research and discovery were the purpose of a university, he asked, why have students at all? Moreover, the knowledge cultivated at the university was knowledge “as its own end,” for its own sake. “Useful” and “professional” knowledge (medicine or the law) had its place, but not in a university.

In one respect, Newman was in accord with the prevalent opinion of his day. A liberal education was an education in “civilization”—the civilization that began, he specified, in Palestine and Greece and became Christian civilization as we now know it. It is this view of civilization that has given the Greek classics a preeminent part in the university, for they have been “the instruments of education which the civilized orbis terrarum has adopted.”

Newman also anticipates some of the most important disputes engaging today’s academics. Thus the editor finds Newman’s idea of a liberal education a valuable corrective to the “provincialisms” of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation that dominate the university today, while another contributor is troubled by Newman’s hostility to “new knowledge and new ways of thinking,” his commitment to a civilization that logically leads to “imperialism, segregation, and apartheid,” and his idea of a universal knowledge that obscures the realities of “cultural politics.” Our debates about multiculturalism and Eurocentrism, religion and morality, professionalism and specialization, teaching and research, the canon and the curriculum—all of these leap out of the text to the reader today.

Even computers and cybernetics become an issue, as we read Newman rejecting in advance, as it were, the suggestion of one contributor that the next stage in the information revolution is an “electronic university” with “virtual texts” existing only in “cyberspace.” We recall Newman asking which was the better university: one that dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence and gave its degrees on the basis of examinations alone, or one that had no professors or exams but brought young men together for three years, as Oxford in its worst days did? He had no hesitation, he said, in favoring the latter, for the school itself was a “genius loci,” a requirement of our “social being,” providing for the development of character, the “discipline of the intellect,” and the “enlargement of mind.”

Even more pertinent today—and, in some circles, more controversial—are Newman’s remarks on the university as the “umpire between truth and truth,” respecting the “boundaries of each province” of knowledge, taking into account “the nature and importance of each,” and assigning to all “their due order of precedence.” Truth—this was what Newman’s university was all about. In our own universities, this idea has become almost as bizarre as the idea of the student or professor as a “gentleman” (or “gentlewoman”).


All Branches of Knowledge
It is the fashion just now, as you very well know, to erect so- called Universities, without making any provision in them at all for Theological chairs. Such a procedure, though defended by writers of the generation just passed with much plausible argument and not a little wit, seems to me an intellectual absurdity; and my reason for saying so runs, with whatever abruptness, into the form of a syllogism: A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge: Theology is surely a branch of knowledge: how then is it possible for it to profess all branches of knowledge, and yet to exclude from the subjects of its teaching one which, to say the least, is as important and as large as any of them? I do not see that either premise of this argument is open to exception.

—from The Idea of a University

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