Criticisms of the Idea

Inevitably the Idea of a university has been criticised, and it is useful to bear in mind these criticisms – and the responses to them.

  1. By advocating an acquaintance with all disciplines and a deep study of a few or one, Newman has been accused of wanting the best of both worlds but of proposing a scheme that would foster neither.
  2. In attempting to import Oxford into Ireland and by offering a liberal education instead of a professional training, Newman has also been accused of serving Ireland badly.
  3. Some have argued that Newman was obsessed about the humanities and had no real interest in science or more vocational subjects.
  4. Everyone who reads the Idea of a university delights in Newman’s elegant prose, but many react by claiming that his ideas are largely impractical.
  5. And some have deduced from the institutional failure of the Catholic University in Dublin that Newman’s Idea must have been fundamentally flawed.

In response:

  1. Most commentators would argue that in fact Newman managed to solve the problem of how to combine the interests of all parties at the Catholic University: a balance between protecting the initial years for a liberal education and some degree of specialisation in line with future professional studies; preparing those soon to be engaged in the business of life, yet without sacrificing the definiteness and completeness of the academic system or its demands for those to whom knowledge itself is a profession.
  2. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that Newman did not give the Irish bishops the university they wanted but one he thought they needed.
  3. Newman set up a medical school which opened in time for the university’s second academic year, and it proved to be the most successful faculty. He tried but failed to set up a school of agriculture; he managed to establish an engineering school; and he laid the foundations of a science faculty. Furthermore, Newman’s understanding of the dynamics of science and its need for autonomy and ‘elbow room’ are illustrated in four of the ten lectures which make up the second half of the Idea.
  4. Newman grappled with the nuts and bolts of education while he was a Fellow and tutor in Oxford and, even more, when he was the founding rector of a new university in very difficult circumstances. He found ways to apply his ideas and was ready to make concessions and to adapt to circumstances in order to do so. He was thus a man of action and business as well as being a gifted writer and coiner of fine phrases.
  5. There is no evidence that the Catholic University was institutionally flawed, rather its early history shows that Newman had to battle against odds which no-one could have overcome.


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Failure of the Catholic University

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