Academic Flourishing

The practical Newman: adapting theory

Newman saw the need of delineating the great principles of education, but he was also quite prepared to admit that education involves ‘questions not merely of immutable truth, but of practice and expedience’.

Rather than feel constrained by the principles he had so eloquently described in his Dublin lectures, he was ruthless in the way he went about applying them in practice – as indeed he indicates in the first lecture: ‘It is no principle with sensible men, of whatever cast of opinion, to do always what is abstractedly the best. Where no direct duty forbids, we may be obliged to do, as being best under the circumstances, what we murmur and rise against, while we do it. We see that to attempt more is to effect less; that we must accept so much, or gain nothing; and so perforce we reconcile ourselves to what we would have far otherwise, if we could.’ (Idea of a university)

This rule of thumb goes some way towards explaining why Newman did not feel constrained to follow existing educational models – or his own high principles – and instead devised new arrangements which borrowed from various traditions, so long as they could be fused into a coherent whole.

Study techniques

In tackling the lack of educational training among the students at the university he founded in Dublin, Newman penned a series of articles on what nowadays would be called study techniques and revision skills, and in this way attempted to provide guidance to students and those who advised and taught them. Some of the articles touched on strategies for mastering particular subjects, such as ‘On Latin composition’ and ‘The study of geometry’, while others were of a more general nature: two about techniques for improving one’s memory, two on how to profit from reading, one on time-management, and another on the purpose of lectures. There was even one on the wishful thinking and self-indulgence – such as the tendency to dabble – that students are prone to, and the need for them to follow a prescribed routine and avoid caprice.

Follow the links below to read these articles:

Castle building

Some of these articles were later included in second half of the Idea: the following four went to form section IV on ‘Elementary Studies’

‘The examination at entrance’, 1 June 1854

‘The entrance exam, a trial of accuracy’, 22 June 1854

‘Specimens of youthful inaccuracy of mind’, 6 July 1854

‘On Latin composition’, 18 January 1855

and another with omissions went to form section IX on ‘Discipline of Mind’

‘Public lectures of the University’, 5 April 1855

Other articles were not polished up or republished:

‘On artificial memory’, 1 January 1855, which deals with Ciciero, Quinctilian, and Feirgyle

‘On the distribution of a Student’s time’, 8 February 1854, which asserts that ‘it is part of the very discipline of a University to allow their minds to be moulded by the infusion of an element of freedom into’ the restrained system of schoolboy; and insists on a balance between ‘excessive toil and aimless indolence’

‘On keeping diaries’, 15 February 1855, a most useful method of self-improvement; contrasted with the common-place book; most student diaries could be turned into something like Pascal’s Pensées

‘Latin conversation’, 1 March 1855

‘On getting up books’, 1 March 1855, half the difficulty of higher education, of the object of university training, is removed when a student is able to grasp what is meant by getting up books; the boyish state of mind is superficial, careless, never goes below surface, very impatient of intellectual labours, i.e. does not bring into play memory, reason and imagination; ‘mere’ reading is about as useful as smoking a cigarstudent studying

‘On getting up books II’, 8 March 1855, ‘Nothing is our own but what you have thought through, and thought out’; two methods for reading a book

‘Study of Geometry’, 3 May 1855, good comes not from the resulting knowledge but from the mental exercise involved; the study of geometry tends to invigorate the mind, remove mistiness, vagueness of thought, indistinctness of expression, want of attention to subject, and to what hearer knows

Academic distractions

students reading in sunOf mischievous habits which students are liable to contract, there are few against which they require a more earnest caution than that of indulging in what are popularly called “castles in the air”. This intellectual luxury assumes very various forms, according to the character or predominant passion of the individual. We need not here discuss the most detestable species of it, which consists in brooding over sinful imaginations. That of course belongs so to the threshold of Hell, that it ought to be needless to point out the ruin of the whole character, moral, intellectual, and physical, which is its unfailing consequence. But it may be well just to hint, that even where a habit of reverie does not deal with anything absolutely sinful, it is still highly dangerous in many ways to all improvement, and its disastrous effects on the mental constitution can only be compared to those of dram-drinking on that of the body. It weakens the will, enfeebles the power of application and industry, saddens the spirits, and in a word, takes away all the health and vigour of the mind. Both philosophers and saints, both men of the world and ascetical writers, all tell you the same, and speak in the very strongest terms about it. The following passage from Johnson’s Rambler is in point.

It has often been observed that the most studious are not always the most learned. There is, indeed, no great difficulty in discovering that this difference of proficiency may arise from the difference of intellectual powers, of the choice of books, or the convenience of information. But I believe it likewise frequently happens that the most recluse are not the most vigorous prosecutors of study. Many impose upon the world, and many upon themselves, by an appearance of severe and exemplary diligence, when they in reality give themselves up to the luxury of fancy, please their minds with regulating the past, or planning out the future ; place themselves at will in varied situations of happiness, and slumber away their days in voluntary visions. There is nothing more fatal to a man whose business is to think, than to have learned the art of regaling his mind with those airy gratifications. Other vices or follies are restrained by fear, reformed by admonition, or rejected by the conviction which the comparison of our conduct with that of others may in time produce. But this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being, is secure from detection and fearless of reproach. The dreamer retires to his apartment, shuts out the cares and interruptions of mankind, and abandons himself to his own fancy; new worlds rise up before him, one image is followed by another, and a long succession of delights dances around him. He is at last called back to life by nature or by custom, and enters peevish into society, because he cannot model it to his own will. He returns from his idle excursions with the asperity, though not with the knowledge, of a student, and hastens again to the same felicity with the eagerness of a man bent upon the advancement of some favourite science. The infatuation strengthens by degrees, and, like the poison of opiates, weakens his powers without any external symptom of malignity. This captivity it is necessary for any man to break, who has any desire to be wise or useful, to pass his life with the esteem of others, or to look back with satisfaction from his old age upon his earlier years. (Johnson’s Rambler, No. 89)

So much for the merely philosophical and moral view of the habit of castle-building. It seems tolerably strong, but listen to what Dr. Faber has to say on the same subject. In his new work, just come out, Growth in Holiness, after giving some instances of castle-building, even of the seemingly harmless kind, for instance, a religious man’s spending an hour in fancies, such as giving magnificent mental alms, or imagining himself bearing crosses heroically, or founding hospitals, or entering austere orders, or arranging edifying death-beds, and the like, he says:

Do not be startled at the strong words, but this castle-building literally desolates and debauches the will. It passes over it like a ruinous eruption, leaving nothing fresh, green, or fruit-bearing behind it, but a general languor, peevishness, and weariness with God. (Growth in Holiness, by Very Rev. Dr. Faber, p. 235)

These are words that ought to sink deep into the heart of every student, because the evil against which they warn in tones so awful, is one upon which many a very promising youthful mind has made shipwreck of itself.

Advice on writing essays

While he was one of the four tutors at Oriel College Oxford (from 1826 to 1831), Newman felt obliged to offer extended advice on the art of composing to a set theme, since essay writing was a relatively recent innovation. He tells one student that when he writes an essay, he should ‘endeavour to be in earnest, that he is not expected to keep to truisms, that he need not be ‘dull or grave – release yourself from the notion. In writing, you should aim at saying on your subject, just what you would say, supposing you were obliged in society to talk upon it.’ Not that the subject in question was likely to arise in discussion with friends, ‘but you can fancy yourself thrown among older people, and forced to give your opinion. You would be obliged to say something, & though you might feel awkward, would clearly comprehend what was required of you’ – and, equally, what was not. To accomplish this would require an effort at first, but the student was told that he would gradually improve and acquire the facility.

Another student had been given a subject which ended with the phrase ‘make the best of events, when they come, whatever they are’. Newman advised him, ‘Never take a thesis as an abstract proposition but try to examine how far it is true in life – and try to recollect what instances you have known of it – i.e. though it be true, do not at once assume it to be so – then consider the effects of it – whether good or not.’ (Memorandum Book about College Pupils, 1826–31)

Written work

Newman spoke about the importance of written work in a lecture entitled ‘Literature’, arguing that writing simultaneously develops and disciplines the personality, of which it is a reflection.

‘The throng and succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, aspirations, which pass within him, the abstractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so original in him, his views of external things, his judgments upon life, manners, and history, the exercises of his wit, of his humour, of his depth, of his sagacity, all these innumerable and incessant creations, the very pulsation and throbbing of his intellect, does he image forth, to all does he give utterance, in a corresponding language, which is as multiform as this inward mental action itself and analogous to it, the faithful expression of his intense personality, attending on his own inward world of thought as its very shadow: so that we might as well say that one man’s shadow is another’s as that the style of a really gifted mind can belong to any but himself. It follows him about as a shadow. His thought and feeling are personal, and so his language is personal.’ (Idea of a university)

Books and teachers

‘The great moral I would press upon you is this, that in learning to write Latin, as in all learning, you must not trust to books, but only make use of them; not hang like a dead weight upon your teacher, but catch some of his life; handle what is given to you, not as a formula, but as a pattern to copy and as a capital to improve; throw your heart and mind into what you are about, and thus unite the separate advantages of being tutored and of being self-taught, – self-taught, yet without oddities, and tutorized, yet without conventionalities.’ (Idea of a university)

In this remark Newman contrasts the idiosyncratic learning styles of those who learn almost exclusively from books with the mechanical or rote learning of those who learn predominantly from teachers; and he recommends steering a middle path between them.


Newman distinguished between occasional lectures which ‘excite or keep up an interest and student lecturereverence’ for the University and those of an academic bent which affected their purpose by ‘the slow, silent, penetrating, overpowering effects of patience, steadiness, routine and perseverance’.

‘The ordinary object of lectures is to teach’, not ‘to amuse, to astonish, and to attract, and thus to have an effect upon public opinion. […]Lectures are, properly speaking, not exhibitions or exercises of art, but matters of business; they profess to impart something definite to those who attend them, and those who attend them profess on their part to receive what the lecturer has to offer. It is a case of contract:—“I will speak, if you will listen”—“I will come here to learn, if you have any thing worth teaching me.” In an oratorical display, all the effort is on one side; in a lecture, it is shared between two parties, who co-operate towards a common end.’ (Idea of a university)

Newman took the view that learning from lectures was an art and that students had to be shown how to profit from them and not merely attend passively. This was one of the main tasks of the academic tutor.

See also The professorial system

Newman and the internet

Among more recent technological advances, the internet has led to a multiplication of learning experiences and easy access to a new universe of information, which means that the need for unity of knowledge has dramatically increased so as to avoid fragmentation not just of knowledge, but the whole of human life. Universities which are deeply fragmented themselves cannot help here; but those which hold onto a unified understanding of the world might be able to provide public service by ensuring society is culturally leavened by the university.

Newman wrote about the importance of the personal dimension of education and of gaining an overview or ‘a connected view’ of things precisely at a time when there was an explosion of information through the dissemination of cheap literature and that he did so in order to caution about the use to which it would be put. Though not on the same scale as the internet revolution, the first half of the nineteenth century did witness a profusion of information that was unprecedented, and this lends Newman’s words extra weight and applicability.

Newman and science

As well as taking considerable interest in science while at Oxford, Newman was alive to its growing importance in society and therefore to its importance for the Catholic University. Newman’s understanding of the dynamics of science and its need for autonomy and ‘elbow room’ are illustrated in four of the ten lectures which make up the second half of the Idea of a university. These are:

‘A form of infidelity of the day’,

‘Christianity and physical science’,

‘Christianity and scientific investigation’,

and ‘Christianity and medical science’.

Twenty years before Maxwell opened the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, Newman had set about opening a faculty of science in Dublin: he oversaw the establishment of laboratories for chemistry and physics, ensured that the library was well-stocked with scientific papers and journals, offered valuable scholarships and prizes for those studying science, urged the scientists at the University to undertake research, and helped them do this by starting up the academic journal Atlantis.

When the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Dublin in 1857, Newman sent delegates to their meetings and welcomed visitors from the conference to the University.

Medicine in Dublin

Newman hoped the Catholic University would eventually have ‘a school of medical practitioners, who do not merely avail themselves of our classes, but are identified with Alma Mater as her children and her servants, and who will go out into the wide world as specimens and patterns of a discipline which is at once Catholic and professional’. (Report for the Year 1855–56)

‘Medicine and Surgery, considered as Arts, are confronted, at the great eras of human life, at birth and at death, with a higher teaching, and are forced, whether they will or no, into co-operation or collision with Theology; so again the Practitioner himself is the constant companion, for good or for evil, of the daily ministrations of religion, the most valuable support, or the most painful embarrassment, of the parish priest.’ (Report for the Year 1855–56)

Any study, when pursued exclusively, tends from the very constitution of the human mind to close itself against truths which lay beyond its range; and, unless the claims of revealed religion were recognised in the arts faculty (which at the time included science), they would be regarded as disproved, merely because they were beyond the reach of its investigations. In like manner, ‘the presence, though not the interference, of Theology is necessary in the lecture-halls and theatres of Medical, as of other Science, by way of rescuing scientific teaching, whatever be its subject-matter, from a narrowness of mind, of which indifference to religion is only one specimen. The Catholic University, then, will have done a great service to Medical Students, if it secures them against the risk of forgetting the existence of theological truth, and its independence of the teaching of Philosophy and Science.’ (Report for the Year 1855–56)

Share This: