Mutual education

It is because the Dublin lectures are about the essence of a university, not about its fully functioning existence, that they contain a great deal about the intellectual formation of the individual at university, but relatively little about character formation itself and the benefits of residential student life. The main exception occurs in the seventh lecture, where Newman extols the advantages of a residential university by dwelling on the mutual education that takes place there.

‘When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.’ (Idea of a university)

This goes some way to explaining his preference for a residential university without formal teaching (other than tutorials) over a non-residential university with lectures and exams: the former provided the setting for a deeper formation. Part of this unofficial educative experience comes about from the very mix of students, for life at university ‘is seeing the world on a small field with little trouble; for the pupils or students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalise, much to adjust, much to eliminate’ (Idea of a university).

Newman put great store on the place of learning (especially – and ideally – if the university was residential), and on that invisible teacher he called the genius loci, since he felt that the right kind of personal character could only be shaped under the right conditions.

Newman saw clearly what so many fail to see: that the student body in a university shapes intellectual and moral character for better or worse; that the formative interaction between students is often more telling than the mere absorption of information from lecturers; that half the education that really matters in a university is imparted by the students to each other. Studying at university while living at home does not rise to what Newman calls ‘the ancient idea of the university’ – to say nothing of the various ways of remote learning which largely eliminate the need for person contact.

‘Mutual education, in a large sense of the word,’ says Newman, ‘is one of the great and incessant occupations of human society, carried on partly with set purpose, and partly not. One generation forms another; and the existing generation is ever acting and reacting upon itself in the persons of its individual members’. (Rise and progress of universities) This can only take place in a rich, though unsystematic, way in the privileged setting of a university.

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