Personal influence in education

‘With influence there is life, without it there is none; if influence is deprived of its due position, it will not by those means be got rid of, it will only break out irregularly, dangerously’.

‘An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.’ Newman called this state of affairs ‘the reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality’.

Many Oxford undergraduates of Newman’s generation had been content with this state of things because it gave them the illusion of freedom, but there were others who had aimed at higher things, both intellectual and moral. Searching for those who would exert that influence upon them, they gravitated to where they ‘saw a little more profession of strictness and distinctness of creed, a little more intellect, principle, and devotion, than was ordinary’. (Rise and progress of universities)

When absent from Dublin and having to deal with disciplinary matters in the absence of a vice-rector, Newman wrote, ‘I have ever acted, not by formal authority and rule, but by influence, and this power cannot be well exerted when absent’. (Newman to Ornsby, 31 December 1857)

Personal influence is what gives any system its dynamism: the action of mind on mind, personality on personality, heart on heart – and this is lacking from systems based chiefly on ‘distance learning’. If acquaintance becomes friendship, all the better since friendship is the privileged way of doing good to someone; ‘it requires one to be intimate with a person, to have a chance of doing him good’, Newman once told his sister Jemima (8 February 1829).

All this makes sense on realising that Newman was intent on giving a deep formation to students, a formation which operated at various levels: the intellectual, the moral, the spiritual.

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