What is a University? Part Two

Here are some of my thoughts on the “What is a University,” the introductory chapter to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. For the context of this post please read my previous post (Part One) on this text.

Throughout “What is a University” Newman juxtaposes “popular education” with a university liberal arts education. A popular education can be obtained in a variety of ways, but especially through reading books, periodicals and other forms of “light literature.” (The Internet immediately comes to mind as well). This kind of popular education falls short because it is too individualistic in nature.

The other kind of popular education Newman mentions is experience. Experiencing life in a “metropolis,” for example, can serve as a “virtual University,” but it falls short because such experiences are too random and unfocused. (In one extended stroke of the pen Newman dismisses both on-line education and cross-cultural study).

For Newman, a true liberal arts education happens in a community of like-minded students in a face-to-face setting. He champions “the ancient method, of oral instruction, of present communication between man and man, of teachers instead of learning, of the personal influence of the master, and the humble imitation of a disciple.” Newman believes that “no books can get us through the number of minute questions which it is possible to ask on any extended subject, or can hit upon the very difficulties which are severally felt by each reader in succession.”

The University where we learn from one another. Such learning can only happen in the “fulness” of a place. Liberal education has a propensity for binding people together in a common learning experience.

Newman compares the dailiness of a liberal arts community to an academic conference. Such conferences offer scholars a mountaintop experience. They are dazzled by great lectures and stimulating conversations. They return home on an intellectual “high.”

But the conference is a poor model for liberal arts colleges. Liberal learning is habitual. It is ingrained in the everyday life of the community. It happens through human interaction between professors and students. In this sense, it is not unlike a form of catechism.

I wonder what today’s students will think about Newman. Is his vision for academic community possible in an Internet culture? We won’t teach this text until March, but I am looking forward to challenging my first-year students with some of Newman’s ideas about liberal education.