What is a University? Part One

Each Spring semester Messiah College first-year students are required to enroll in a course called “Created and Called for Community.” (Around here we like to call it “The Core”). The purpose of the course is to introduce students to some of the ideals that inform academic life at Messiah. The course concentrates on three topics central to the Messiah mission: Creation, Community, and Vocation.

During the unit on Community we take some time to think together about academic community. We ask our students to consider how a college–in the case of Messiah an overwhelmingly residential liberal arts college–constitutes a “community.”

This year we are reading John Henry Newman’s “What is a University, ” the introductory chapter in his book The Idea of University (1852). As some of my readers might know, Newman was a nineteenth-century Anglican priest who started out his career as a low-church Calvinist. As his spiritual pilgrimage continued, Newman became one of the founders of the Oxford Movement–a high church (Anglo-Catholic) movement within Anglicanism that emphasized liturgy, ceremony, and Apostolic Succession. Eventually Newman converted to Roman Catholicism and wrote several important theological works from within that tradition.

The Idea of the University was published in 1852 shortly after Newman lost his faculty position at Oxford because of his conversion to Catholicism. He was shortly thereafter tapped to start the Catholic University of Ireland. The Idea of the University was his extended mission statement for the new university.

At our recent training session for Messiah College faculty who teach in the CORE I was asked to offer few words about this text as a means of introduction to faculty who had not yet read it. Here is what I had to say:

I began my talk with a few introductory remarks:

1). We need to acknowledge that the language of “The Idea of a University” does not conform to the Messiah College gender-inclusive language policy. It is not only addressed to men, but the text itself is very masculine. It focuses on the kind of gentlemanly manners required of a liberally educated nineteenth century British young man. Social class is another factor we must consider when interpreting this text. Newman, it must be remembered, was training the children of the educated elite. He believed that his students would be the next generation of world leaders.

2). The text also reflects 19th century pedagogical practice. The professor or “master” is portrayed as the fount of all wisdom and students are to sit at the feet of these masters and learn from them.

3). The text is quite idealistic about liberal education. If Newman were around today to see what higher education has become, especially in the United States, he would be stunned. I look forward to discussing with my students whether or not the kind of educational community advocated by Newman is still relevant today.

Despite these obvious problems of context, we have included this text in the CORE for two reasons. First, it teaches our students the nature of liberal learning. Many of our students have thought very little about what it means to be in college. They are clueless about the kind of intellectual work that college requires. Second, it defends a more traditional understanding of the liberal arts college as a place where ideas are exchanged in a face to face community.

Stay tuned. My next Newman post will explore the central themes of the text.