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.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

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.