Like Jeremy Bentham and Henry Brougham, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel held that religion should be excluded from education, as it was simply a source of controversy and division.
Newman countered by arguing that without the aid of religion, knowledge alone was utterly incapable of achieving what Peel claimed for it. History showed that the ‘apprehension of the unseen is the only known principle capable of subduing moral evil, educating the multitude, and organizing society; and that, whereas man is born for action, action flows not from inferences, but from impressions, – not from reasonings, but from Faith’.
Therefore, Newman argued, ‘Christianity, and nothing short of it, must be made the element and principle of all education. Where it has been laid as the first stone, and acknowledged as the governing spirit, it will take up into itself, assimilate, and give a character to literature and science.’ Otherwise, ‘if in education we begin with nature before grace, with evidences before faith, with science before conscience, with poetry before practice, we shall be doing much the same as if we were to indulge the appetites and passions, and turn a deaf ear to the reason’. (‘The Tamworth reading room’, letters to The Times)
A decade later, in the Idea, Newman developed his case for denominational education by arguing that theology was necessary in order to acquire a philosophical view: ‘Religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of university teaching.’ (Idea of a university)