Beyond University

A preparation for this world

University helps prepare young people to play their part in society. Why do we bother to educate and cultivate the intellect, if not to prepare for the world, says Newman.

‘If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.’ (Idea of a university)

Applying this new attitude of facing the world to the study of literature meant that there should in principle be no ban on secular literature, since cutting out ‘all broad manifestations of the natural man’ would only leave those manifestations waiting for the students at the doors of the lecture room, where they would meet him ‘in all the charm of novelty’.

Newman confronted his clerical audience with the consequences of a heavy-handed censorship: ‘Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel’. By refusing the student the masters of human thought because of their incidental errors, he would be left without any rule for discriminating the precious from the base, truth from falsehood. And where would that leave him?

‘[Y]ou have made him free of its newspapers, its reviews, its magazines, its novels, its controversial pamphlets, of its Parliamentary debates, its law proceedings, its platform speeches, its songs, its drama, its theatre, of its enveloping, stifling atmosphere of death. You have succeeded but in this,—in making the world his University.’ (Idea of a university)

Newman’s attitude to the great anti-Catholic English writers is conveyed in a later passage: ‘We may feel great repugnance to Milton or Gibbon as men; we may most seriously protest against the spirit which ever lives, and the tendency which ever operates, in every page of their writings; but there they are, an integral portion of English Literature; we cannot extinguish them; we cannot deny their power […] They are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts’. (Idea of a university)

It should be borne in mind that Newman wrote this at a time when there was a distinct tendency in Church circles to operate a heavy-handed censorship in institutions affiliated to it. If alive today, Newman would surely have warned against an opposite tendency: the recklessness that permits falsehood, the ugly and the bad to be on offered along with the true, the beautiful and the good. The following paragraph counterbalances the previous ones and shows that Newman sought to balance the avoidance of censorship and the creation of a healthy intellectual atmosphere where the truth is sought and valued.

Newman was well aware of the need to reconcile his words with ‘the obedience which a University owes to the Rules of the Index of Prohibited Books, (in which Rules Catholic Universities are recognized as in some sense officials of the Sacred Congregation)’.(Newman to Butler, [19] January 1858). He asked the ecclesiastical authorities as to how the University could proceed, and received its ‘sanction for quietly availing ourselves and our lecture rooms of books which though prohibited, are not like Gibbon, decidedly dangerous, and are necessary for the intended professions of our students’ (Newman to O’Reilly, 18 January 1858).

Planning for a career

As rector of the university he had founded in Dublin, Newman used the pages of the Catholic University Gazette to provide up-to-date information on the employment opportunities that were opening up as a result of changes taking place in British society in the 1850s. The rise of a meritocracy was reflected in new legislation which opened up positions to all educated subjects of the Crown, as exemplified by the India Act (1853) which opened up to competition appointments to the India civil service. The Gazette reproduced details of the new exam regulations, and when it was announced that the East India Company’s administrative training college at Haileybury was to have its monopoly on employment in India broken up, the implications for Newman’s University were spelt out. The practical effect of the selection procedures, Newman predicted, would be that places would fall mainly into the hands of university graduates, since the commissioners would favour those who had received a liberal education.

Just as Macaulay’s Report (1854) laid down rules for the India civil service exams, which were adopted in full, the recommendations of the Northcote–Trevelyan Report (1854) were taken up by the Civil Service Commission which was set up in 1855 to oversee open recruitment and end patronage for the home civil service. Both changes gave a new significance to the academic work of the university. Newman spoke about his intention to prepare students for the military academies and the home and India civil service as one of four ‘immediate objects’ for his university.

On one occasion Newman commented, ‘The love of learning does not seem a sufficient inducement in this day, if it is not coupled with the prospect of a livelihood.’ He asked the University Secretary to find out the professional aspirations of students entering the University so that he could dovetail academic provision with career aspirations.

Obsession about a career

Undoubtedly career aspirations are at the forefront of the thinking of many students today and of those who aspire to higher education.

Over the thirty-year pericareer dayod 1975–2005, the number of freshmen in the United States expecting their university years to bring better job prospects quadrupled from 20% to 80%, while during the same period the number who anticipated that it would help them develop a philosophy of life dropped from 80% to 20%. (D. L. Kirp, ‘This little student went to market’, 2005)

If alive today Newman would have countered this unhealthy tendency with a reminder of the true effect of a university education.

The obsession of students with their career is seen by one university commentator as paramount to a modern article of faith: ‘That a life is a career is for them an article of faith’ (A. T. Kronman, Education’s end: why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life, 2007).

An antidote to the media

Newman had ambitions for the university to regain its position as a centre of influence in society, rather than allow the press to monopolise this function. He recognized that both had a role to play, even if the press was often vulgar, irresponsible and usurpatory.

Dissatisfied that the ‘authority, which in former times was lodged in Universities, now resides in very great measure in that literary world’ of periodicals, whose writers ‘can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment, and their happy conformity in ethical character to the age which admires them’, Newman suggests that a proper university training would provide an antidote to the insatiable ‘demand for a reckless originality of thought, and a sparkling plausibility of argument’ that periodical literature supplies – and he speaks as someone who wrote for periodicals nearly all his life. Any university training worth its name should stimulate the student’s powers into action and prevent a merely passive reception of images and ideas, which so much of the electronic gadgetry now on offer to students promotes.

‘Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.’ (Idea of a university)

Share This: