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).

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