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Give college a try, says St. John Henry Newman

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN

Photo by L. de Guise; courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Tom Hoopes - published on 03/04/24

Newman’s "Idea of a University" is the idea that refuses to die.

St. John Henry Newman is having a big year. But he is always having a big year — especially on college campuses.

In November, the U.S. bishops voted to recommend that St. John Henry Newman be made a Doctor of the Church. In January, he was being proposed as a model for the Year of Prayer.

Newman has taught me a lot since the days when I spent nearly all the money I had for one of his books — but now that I work at a college campus I’m especially struck by what he teaches about authentically Catholic higher education.

Newman’s Idea of a University is the idea that refuses to die.

Last year I wrote that while it’s true that college is not for everybody, it is also true that many, many people can benefit from an authentically Catholic college, no matter what they choose to study.

I got that idea from Newman.

In the 1980s, the great philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said that Newman’s book The Idea of a University was now irrelevant. “To criticize contemporary universities from Newman’s standpoint would be … like blaming a jet engine for not having the excellences of a windmill,” he quipped. 

But nearly 40 years after MacIntyre’s essay, Newman’s text is still considered a basic statement of what the university should be, inside and outside the Church, from Dubai to Dallas.

Recently, when Arizona’s board of regents celebrated President Michael W. Crow’s first 20 years as president of Arizona State University, they did it  by giving him a first edition copy of The Idea of a University.

When The Bangladesh Daily Star called for an education system that rejects the excesses of political correctness of the Western World, they argued, “The university, as Newman ideally conceives it, should exist as a system of engagement with differences, thus ensuring a vibrant intellectual and philosophical culture.”

What accounts for its staying power?

Newman’s vision has stayed fresh because it is the opposite of elitist.

Newman doesn’t see the halls of higher education as an untouchable ivory tower for exceptional minds, but as a gymnasium for ordinary souls. 

He wrote that “A university is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons … though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts,” he said. 

Instead, “University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind,” he wrote, and “at purifying the national taste.”

Authentically Catholic universities do this by helping students “to see things as they are, to go right to the point.” To “disentangle … detect … and discard:” To disentangle arguments, detect sophistry, and discard irrelevancies.

Newman knew that this kind of thinking made university graduates eminently employable.

One thing people miss about Newman’s vision is that he is for, not against, helping students’ careers.

A recent Dallas Morning Newseditorial claimed, “Cardinal John Henry Newman argued in his book The Idea of a University that the goal of a university education should be the pursuit of knowledge in search of truth. That’s an ennobling purpose, but one disconnected from what many universities have become: jobs training in specific fields with a smattering of politically charged instruction in a handful of required courses.”

They’re right in one way. Newman argues against secular schools that “insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured …  ‘useful,’ and ‘Utility’ becomes their watchword.”

But Newman also said ideal education would prepare a graduate “to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.” 

High-tech companies are learning that today. The Harvard Business Review and others report that “Liberal Arts Majors Are the Future of the Tech Industry” because authentic education shows a student not just how material forces work but how human beings work. Newman said the same thing this way:

“I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”

That vision of the human person is what makes Newman relevant.

Newman is forever relevant because the focus of his work was not his own time, but how Jesus Christ — who is the same yesterday, today, and forever — relates to all times.

That’s why he has been called a saint for both homemakers and the freedom of conscience, the father of both Nazi resistance and Vatican II, and a patron saint for both scientists and, well, everyone.

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