Teaching John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”

IRELAND-DUBLIN-Custom-Building

University College, Dublin

Yesterday in Created and Called for Community we read an excerpt from John Henry Newman‘s “What is a University,” a chapter in his 1852 book The Idea of a University.  Newman wrote this book while serving as rector of Catholic University of Ireland. (today it is known as University College Dublin), a school that he helped found.

We started our conversation, as we always do, by sourcing the document. Who was Newman? Several students found it interesting that Newman was not welcomed to teach at Oxford University, an Anglican institution of higher learning, after he converted to Catholicism.  This was a great opportunity to think about previous course readings.  As we learned from Randy Basinger’s recorded lecture last week, Christian colleges and universities often place boundaries on faculty and students. These boundaries are usually defined by belief and behavior rooted in the particular school’s mission and understanding of Christian faith. In 19th-century England, Oxford was a Protestant institution. I pointed out that Oxford was not as inclusive as present-day Messiah College, a Christian college that hires Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers.  As we noted last week, other Christian colleges such as Wheaton College, Gordon College, or Calvin University do not hire Catholic professors.  If Newman were teaching at one of these colleges at the time he converted to Catholicism, he would need to leave.

We also thought together about Newman’s “What is a University?” in its 19th-century context. Students quickly noted that Newman was writing in a world where only men attended university.  His understanding of “diversity” was limited when compared to our modern understanding of “diversity.” For Newman, diversity meant different kinds of white men.

At this point I paused and explained how I might teach this document differently in a history course.  I imagined teaching Newman’s ideas in a course on 19th-century British history.  In such a course my primary goal would be to get students to think about what Newman’s essay teaches us about his world.  But in CCC, my primary goal is less about getting my students to understand the “foreign country” of 19th-century Great Britain and more about trying to get them to think about whether Newman has anything to offer our understanding of Christian higher education today.

This discussion allowed me to reinforce an important lesson about studying at a college (like Messiah College) with a robust general education program informed by the liberal arts.  Each discipline in the curriculum offers students a different way of thinking about the world.  I used global poverty to illustrate my point. In a political science class, for example, students might address global poverty by thinking about ways of alleviating it through public policy.  In a history class, students might reflect on the roots of global poverty or the kind of choices humans have made in the past that have resulted in global poverty. In a psychology class, students might reflect on the relationship between global poverty and mental health.  In a literature class, students might read stories of global poverty–fiction and non-fiction–that trigger their moral imaginations.  In an environmental studies class students might think about the links between climate change and global poverty.  And so on….  This is the kind of “connectedness” that Ernest L. Boyer described in his essay on Messiah College.

It was now time to dive into the text.  I started the conversation by asking the question in Newman’s title: “What is a University?” Some students were drawn to Newman’s claim that a university is “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse….” I asked them to suggest some ways in which “thought” is communicated and circulated at a university.  Students, of course, mentioned their professors imparting knowledge in formal class settings.  But I wanted them to think beyond the classroom.  We talked about the word “circulate.”  How do ideas circulate on a college campus? Like bees released from the hive, ideas should be buzzing constantly around the campus.  They should fly out of the classroom door and fill the sidewalks, cafeteria, and dorms–constantly circulating through conversation and discussion.

We also discussed Newman’s idea that the university is a place–a real, flesh and blood, place.  Newman writes: “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life, which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”  In an age of online learning, virtual reality, and the internet I wondered if my students thought Newman’s call for face-to-face learning was still relevant?  I was surprised that so many students, struggling to keep their phones out of sight as they consulted an essay published on paper, seemed to agree with him here.

Several students wanted to talk about Newman’s idea of the university as a place focused on character building. We had a good discussion here about gender.  Newman often thinks of character in masculine terms.  He wants his university to produce good 19th-century “gentlemen” with proper “carriage,” “gait,” and “gestures.” But my students also agreed that some of the character traits Newman hoped students would learn in college were still relevant today.  My students wanted an education that helped them be more courteous and conversant.  They wanted a university to help them develop “the talent of not offending,” “delicacy of thought,” “happiness of expression,” “taste and propriety,” “generosity,” “forbearance,” and “candour.” These character traits, they argued, transcend time (the 19th-century) and gender.  The students universally agreed with my claim that the modern pluralistic university is no longer very concerned about character building.

We closed class by discussing liberal arts education as a form of “catechising.” Newman writes:

Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason: it is poured into this mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressive and then recurring to first principles, by all those ways which are implied in the word “catechising .” In the first ages, it was a work of a long time; months, sometimes years, were devoted to the arduous task of disabusing the mind of the incipient Christian of its pagan errors, and of moulding it upon the Christian faith.

For most of my students, “catechism” is a foreign word.  They attend evangelical churches that do not offer formal programs of catechism designed to shape the mind, heart, and soul of young women and men in the congregation.  Catechism is an invitation to spiritual formation.  Spiritual growth seldom comes through the mountain-top experience at a weekend youth retreat.  It comes instead through the daily grind of practicing the spiritual disciplines–scripture reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, and other practices that take our focus off self and put it on God and others.

This is how Newman understands the catechizing nature of a liberal arts education.  Intellectual formation comes through repetition, discipline, questioning, requestioning, correcting, explaining, and the regular appeal to “first principles.” Yes, students may get temporary intellectual “highs” as they encounter an inspiring professor or attend an undergraduate conference, but the”arduous task” of “disabusing the mind” of errors and “moudling” it in truth takes time.  It takes a lifetime.

On Monday we start the “Creation” unit.  We will begin in a very familiar place.

Gina Barreca on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

Boyer Hall

What’s an education for?

University of Connecticut English professor Gina Barreca answers in her recent op-ed:

An education is about learning things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten before, we need to approach unfamiliar subjects. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.

Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing the notion of familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s T.V. Dinner.

Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: it is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.

This is one reason that students should be required to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. While they may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down through their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.

Read the entire piece here.

I appreciate Barreca’s point about students taking courses outside of their area of specialization.  At Messiah College, students are required to take a 100-level history course (a United States history survey course or a Western Civilization survey course) to fulfill their general education requirement in History.  But there are also other opportunities in the curriculum to take a history course.  A student can take World History to fulfill their Non-Western Cultures requirement.  Or they can take Native American History, African American History, the Historical Study of Peace, Immigrant America, Urban History, Women’s History, or Pennsylvania History  to fulfill their Pluralism requirement.  They can also take a history course to fulfill their Social Science requirement.  So, if I got this right, it is possible for a Messiah College business or nursing major to take four history courses to fulfill general education coursework.

But every now and then we have students who take history courses purely out of intellectual curiosity.  This semester in my colonial America course I have two students–an accounting major and a sustainability studies major–who are not required to take the course, but just find the subject interesting.  I applaud them and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them, but students like these are becoming increasingly rare in this age of specialization.

Rethinking the History Survey Course

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Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

Dispatches from the History Major: "Coming to College For a Cheeseburger"

James Mueller

Today we start a new series here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home  called “Dispatches From the History Major.”  These weekly posts will be written by sophomore Messiah College history major James Mueller.  Some of you who read this blog regularly may remember James’s December 6, 2014 piece on why he decided to major in history.  This post got so many hits that I decided to invite James to write for us on a more regular basis.  I hope you enjoy his posts.  Here is his first offering: “Coming to College For a Cheeseburger.” –JF


Often we fail to ask the simple questions. Routine makes the mind dull, and sometimes we can get so caught up in it that we forget the very reason we began a task. Studying history helps me to keep this nasty phenomenon in check. It forces me to ask the deceptively simple question why

Recently, one of the whys floating around in my head has been ‘why do we go to college?’

After reflecting on this question for some time, I’ve come to my conclusion: we come to college for a cheeseburger.

Fast, cheap, convenient, satisfying an immediate demand: that’s a cheeseburger folks; and that also happens to be our modern conception of what education should be like.

For the clever and hardworking capitalist, this cheeseburger education is little more than a period in which he transitions into the workforce.  His focus is on a career, not on attaining an education. He will CLEP his courses and take AP credits in order to graduate early. He complains about all of the general education requirements that he has to “get out of the way” so that he can move on to his major specific classes. Cheeseburger College has become a means to an end.

Talk to college students. Ask them what their goals are. You’ll quickly realize that I’m not just blowing smoke. 

Or simply listen to a conversation between a college student and another person. One of the first questions the other person will ask is “what are you going to do with your degree?” Just once I would like to hear someone ask “why are you majoring in this or that subject?” Function and utility are what we Americans care about.

And that’s okay. I don’t think it is bad to go to college in order to get a good job or specialize in a profession that you are passionate about.  But pumping out capitalist robots doesn’t have to be the only purpose of educational institutions. College could be a place where people learn how to think and communicate more effectively. It could be a place where people develop empathy for other people and other perspectives by learning about things that may not have anything to do with their future career. College could be more than what it currently is – it could be a home-cooked meal instead of a burger off the dollar menu!

Not everyone is privileged enough to afford college or to make the best of their college experience. Some people can only afford a burger off the dollar menu. But there are some who can afford more. Many of my peers at Messiah College fail to make the most of their (often times quite pricey) college experience.  They shrug off the courses which don’t interest them and focus on the courses which directly relate to their careers.  It’s easier that way.  In the process they miss out on a good meal for the sake of a quick and easy road to a career. It seems like a bad investment to me. But, you know what they say about Americans and their cheeseburgers….