Despite the risk of attempting to bullet-point arguments that Newman articulated in his highly ornate and nuanced fashion, here are a few reasons why we should give his vision our attention:
To fill the educational vacuum that currently exists today in discussions about the purpose of a university
Because it is all too apparent that economic considerations have become the dominant driving force and that much has been sacrificed in the relentless drive for ‘efficiency’
Because the current obsession with targets has aggravated this trend, as the inevitable consequence of institutions focussing on the measurable is the neglect of what is not measurable – which is often closely related to the original raison d’être of the institution concerned
Because of the shameful neglect of the pastoral dimension of the university – that is, of everything that goes on outside lecture hall, laboratory and library
Because Newman’s educational vision, with the pastoral idea at its root, is an ideal foil to the schemes of modern-day planners, since the bureaucratic is the enemy of caritas, the engine of true education
But, why have universities washed their hands of the residential side of university life – and in some cases outsourced residential provision to a private company?
Because the main purpose of university has been overlooked and a narrow conception of education has been adopted by institutions of higher education
Because these matters are no longer regarded as the concern of academics, not least because of the pressure they are under to meet their targets
Because university administrators often have very different priorities, such as boosting an ‘output’ figure for a university ranking-table or fending off anticipated litigation.
In many ways the Oriel common room of Newman’s time is a reflection of our own contemporary establishment, which is populated by establishment men who personify an impoverished view of education and are blind to its deficiencies. The Provost of Oriel was acting for an entire academic ethos in 1830 when he forbade the new approach of Newman and his tutorial colleagues Hurrell Froude and Robert Wilberforce. Newman the educator was looking for something that was absent from the Oxford college system of his day and this is why his pastoral understanding of the tutorial charge meant so much to him.
A fundamental defect of the modern research university prevents it from engaging in radical self-criticism and evaluation of its ends, argues Alasdair MacIntyre. It is because the successful university has lost the ability to think about its purpose and goal that it no longer recognises Newman’s arguments. (‘The very idea of a university: Aristotle, Newman and us’, 2009)
The Idea will surely continue to challenge contemporary thinking on education and to cause discomfort and qualms of conscience to educational administrators.
Newman’s writings are a sure guide to restoring the modern university to its old function as an essential part of social life in a civilised community in the European tradition.