A famous paradox

John Henry Newman famously declared that if he ‘had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years’, as Oxford used to do at the end of the eighteenth century, then he would have no hesitation in opting for ‘that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun’. (Idea of a university)

What did he mean? Newman was speaking about which ‘was the better discipline of the intellect’, that is, which was ‘the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity’. (Idea of a university)

But he was not saying which was morally the better, because it was obvious that ‘compulsory study must be a good and idleness an intolerable mischief’. (Idea of a university)

A simpler version of the paradox runs, ‘residence without Examinations comes nearer to the idea of a University Education than examinations without residence’. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)

So what exactly is a university education, then? Newman says, ‘University Education has, properly speaking, no equivalent; what is most like an equivalent in its effect, is for a youth to be well read, well travelled, and well introduced’. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)

We shall know what University Education is by considering what School is for a boy. Parents send their sons to school because they are in the way, because home instruction is expensive, in order that there may be method in their instruction, — that they may be submitted to discipline — that they may have the stimulus of emulation — and that they may be introduced into the society of their equals, both as a moral preparation for the world, and a formation of character, and also as a means of making acquaintances and friendships which may last through life. It is these latter benefits, so needful for young men, which are provided for by a University. It is a place of residence where youths are brought together from various quarters, and brought into familiar intercourse and perpetual collision of intellect with a sufficient number of able Professors and Tutors, and of numerous fellow students, candidates together with them for examinations and degrees. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)


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