The ten public lectures that Newman composed in 1852 (which form the first part of the Idea) are rightly considered educational masterpieces, for they have inspired debate on the nature and purpose of a university education like no other work in the English language. Nevertheless, readers need to be made aware of the background context if they are to make full sense of his arguments and enter into his vision of higher education.
The lectures themselves were not composed as an exhaustive exposition or systematic study of their subject matter but as an exploration of a theme; and they were written to deal with particular problems which Newman faced in the 1850s in his attempt to win over and bring together various factions within Irish society. Thus they were not meant to be an exhaustive account of Newman’s educational ideas.
The historical context is vital: the purpose of the lectures was not to inspire or guide future generations, but the much more immediate task of winning over his audience in Dublin to the type of university he was about to set up.
The Idea is really two books in one, the lectures of 1852 and the occasional papers of 1854–58, published separately in the 1850s and together only in 1873. The third volume of Newman’s educational writings, The rise and progress of universities, does not form part of the Idea, but it is needed to fill out Newman’s idea of the university because it brings out the pastoral dimension.
The Idea is about the essence of a university, not its fullness and well-being, and to discern what Newman meant by its integrity we need to look at the idea illustrated in history – at the Rise and progress of universities – and in practice – at the Catholic University in Dublin.
Readers need to be aware of Newman’s prose style, as vital distinctions are so embedded in the text that the reader can become absorbed by the magnificent prose and distracted from the underlying theme. For those prepared to give his arguments the sort of critical attentiveness they call for, the lectures prove how deeply Newman thought about such matters as the relation of college to university, teaching to personal development, and the importance of new knowledge and its limitations in the formation of the human mind.