Why listen to Newman?

Because of ‘the extraordinary quality of Newman’s mind, character, and intelligence. This was someone of high intellectual powers, of notable integrity, someone well aware of the claims of the Enlightenment, a reader of Hume and Gibbon, someone who understood what was at issue in contemporary philosophical debate, someone with a distinctively modern sensibility and literary style, who, at a time when Catholicism seemed to be intellectually impoverished and unable to come to terms with the claims made in the name of secular reason, had identified himself with the Catholic faith.’ Alasdair MacIntyre in God, philosophy, universities (2009)

Because of the ‘modernity of his existence’, ‘his great culture’, and ‘his constant quest for the truth’, three elements which give Newman ‘an exceptional greatness for our time’ and make him ‘a figure of Doctor of the Church for us’. Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain in September 2010

Arnold Toynbee remarked that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minority – and Newman belonged to this minority: his ideas are capable of changing the way we live and think, with important ramifications in particular for the world of the university.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre remarks that in reading Newman we are confronted with arguments, engaged with insights, and challenged. But a further element to the encounter is Newman himself, who is concerned for his readers and anxious that his words might make them better able to see things as they are. He speaks to us with moral and spiritual urgency, determined that neither habit, familiarity, nor prejudice will prevent us from being open to the truth, including the truth about ourselves. Reading Newman complacently, in order to find only what confirms our existing way of thinking and feeling, is to miss the profoundly interpersonal challenge which he intends. This challenge may influence, surprise, or even upset us. Because he inhabits the same modernity as ourselves, he speaks to our own time in ways which are designed to inform and transform us. This influence unites intellectual, moral and spiritual considerations in ways which are inseparable from the call to conversion. (‘Newman: education, conscience, and faith today’, 2010)

The reason Newman is invoked so frequently in debates about the modern university is that he has much to say, about both its general failings and its pastoral shortcomings. Just as the nineteenth-century journalist R. H. Hutton saw Newman’s writings as a bracing antidote to the influential fallacies of the age’s approved sages, so contemporary observers regard them as a stimulating antidote to the nostrums of today’s academics and administrators and those responsible for the direction and well-being of higher education. A university administrator, lecturer, researcher, rector and educator of public opinion, Newman can address all involved as equals.

Newman has something to say not only to the modern-day research university, but to the liberal arts college, the institute of technology, the medical school, and all the other permutations of higher education. He also gives hope to those pursuing the prospects of a liberal arts college – or indeed a Catholic university – in Britain today. Much can be learnt, therefore, not just from the Idea but from Newman’s practical engagement in education: by seeing how he approached the task, adapted to circumstances, and reacted to crises; what he aspired to in the long run and what he settled for in the short term; even how he dealt with student misdemeanours or their quirky dietary requirements.

‘I mean to be Chancellor, Rector, Provost, Professor, Tutor all at once, and no one else any thing’ may have been a quip, but it illustrates the extent to which Newman had to take on many roles in founding the Catholic University in Dublin.

The story of Newman’s pastoral activity in Oxford and Dublin, as it unfolds in both his actions and his writings, speaks to us about many neglected facets of university life. In times like the present, when the undeniable advances in the organisation of higher education appear to be offset by a misunderstanding of the purpose and role of the university, we need someone like Newman to give us direction and to identify for us the threats to and benefits of true university education.

Drawing on a long-established educational tradition and contributing his own insights, Newman challenges us by pointing out where we have gone wrong and what areas we have neglected; and he also unifies our thinking so as to provide a coherent picture of what the university is about and what it can accomplish, not only in intellectual but also in moral and indeed spiritual terms. In the urgently practical issues that Newman addressed we can see in his response to them the resourcefulness and the wisdom of one of the great Christian humanists.

Newman’s vision for the education and training of the university student – the making of the modern man and woman – is highly engaging. By revisiting his responses to the problems of his age, we can learn from his actions, if not his practical solutions, and apply them to our own age, because his high ideals are also suggestive, adaptable, and inspirational.

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