What is University Education?

University entrance examination

students in streetDid you think your grades were enough to put university and the world at your feet?

Did you think that your future happiness was guaranteed?

Think again.

See how you fare on the Entrance exam below.

Note: candidates should attempt all ten questions.

Time allowed: until you rock up to university

  1. What will my university do for me? And what will it not do?
  2. Where should I look for wisdom at university, where should I seek for those guiding principles that instruct on the art of living virtuously and happily?
  3. What is uppermost in my mind: the usefulness of the qualification I gain for my career path, or the sort of person I aspire to become by the end of my course? If the latter, what steps should I take to enable this transformation to take place?
  4. Will I grow up at university, if by ‘growing up’ is meant, not just being able to look after no. 1, but being able to look after others? Or is my guiding aim for uni’ simply ‘having a good time’?
  5. Do I feel uncomfortable with my life-principles and my faith, in living them out without the immediate support of my family or school, and in having to explain ‘the hope that lies within me’?
  6. Am I prepared to stand out from the crowd? Does ‘daring to be different’ fill me with dread, or does the challenge inspire me with a sense of adventure?
  7. Am I over-concerned about my health and diet? Am I engrossed with the well-being of my body, but not my mind, heart and soul? With polluting my body, and not with polluting my mind and my heart?
  8. Does my altruism only extend to the recycling of plastic bags and the occasional donation to a good cause, or am I prepared to give abundantly of my time?
  9. St John Paul II’s law of the gift states that ‘man does not find himself without a sincere gift of self’. On that score, am I preparing for a lifetime of self-discovery and self-donation?
  10. Where do I want to be in ten years’ time? In twenty? In forty? With a family and children? In an interesting and well-remunerated job? Having close friends who are loyal and supportive? What steps do I need to take now so as to develop my talents and establish a habit of virtuous behaviour that will enable me to achieve these goals?

In asking such questions, a student must surely realise that he or she is not the first to ponder these matters and that there is a long tradition of those who have thought deeply about them. Even to ask these questions entails assumptions about human nature – that we are responsible for the development of our own character – and a realisation that it is by means of cultivating human virtues that ideals and ambitions are achieved.

By contrast, those who simply look forward to throwing off the ‘shackles’ of home and school and to three or four years of pleasure-seeking are squandering their opportunities for personal enrichment in that crucial period of preparation for adulthood and its accompanying responsibilities.

In the transitional state of student existence, with its intoxicating mixture of newly-gained independence and relative absence of responsibility, the ordinary undergraduate will at some point reflect on and acquire guiding principles for life, a process which might entail consciously accepting or rejecting the guiding principles of his or her earlier formative years – or even coming to a judgement on the fact that they did not receive any guiding principles.

Those leaving home with a religious faith may well feel the difficulty of living it out in an environment that is hostile to religion without the immediate support of family or school, and perplexed at having to explain to others ‘the hope that lies within them’ (Peter 3:15). The challenge of standing out from the crowd was mitigated, if not postponed, at the confessional university of the mid-nineteenth century, but Newman was well aware of the need to prepare for life in the world: ‘Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel’. (Idea of a university)

The purpose of education

From a natural point of view, the purpose of education is to train the mind, to learn to think, to develop those strengths of character we call virtues, to acquire a social formation, to prepare for life. ‘If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.’ (Idea of a university)

From a supernatural point of view, the purpose is Christian holiness, to think like the saints: ‘All education should be conducted on this principle – that it is a means towards an end, and that end is Christian holiness. (‘On some popular mistakes as to the object of education’, sermon preached on 8 January 1826)

The two approaches are not incompatible because, as Newman says, education is to fit us for this world, while preparing us for the next.

[T]he object of education is to write the divine law upon the heart […] to prepare the heart for the gospel of Christ – it is to lead us to correct views of our own state and knowledge of our own hearts – it is to train us and win us over to habits of practical godliness, to accustom us to deny ourselves, to govern our passions, to fix our affections on God, and to trust Him with a humble and implicit faith. (‘On some popular mistakes as to the object of education’, sermon preached on 27 August 1826)

It is ‘an error to suppose that the end of education is merely to fit persons for their respective stations in life’, since in that way ‘education is robbed of its religious character, and made the mere instrument of worldly ambition’. True, education concerns ‘the temporal callings of men, but it does not rest there’. The purpose of education is that people might so fulfil their respective occupations 11. (‘On some popular mistakes as to the object of education’, sermon preached on 27 August 1826)

What is a university?

Newman says that a university is ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its principal object is in the first place intellectual, not moral, and in the second that it entails the diffusion of knowledge rather than its advancement (i.e. research). It is neither a seminary or centre of religious training, as this would hardly make it a ‘seat of literature and science’; nor is it a research institute, because otherwise it need not have students.

In pondering over what is required for the university to flourish, Newman made his own original contribution to the question by employing the Aristotelian distinction between the essence of something and its integrity. The essence of an object refers to what is necessary for its nature, whereas its integrity (eudemonia) refers to what is required for its harmonious functioning or well-being; it is a gift added to its nature. Without it that nature is indeed complete, and can act and fulfill its end, though not with ease.3572220362_c4a95dd021_z (1)

For Newman, the essence of a university consists in the communication of knowledge, in lecturers and students, in the professorial system; but the influence of professors alone is insufficient for its well-being, for a rich and full life and all that the term eudemonia connotes. ‘For its sure and comfortable existence we must look to law, rule, order; to religion, from which law proceeds; to the collegiate system, in which it is embodied’. (Rise and progress of universities)

‘The Professorial system fulfils the strict idea of a University, and is sufficient for its being, but it is not sufficient for its well-being. Colleges constitute the integrity of a University.’ (Rise and progress of universities)

While claiming that ‘Such is a University in its essence, and independently of its relation to the Church’, Newman immediately points out that in practice the university ‘cannot fulfil its object duly […] without the Church’s assistance’. This implies that ‘the Church is necessary for its integrity, by which he means an ease of harmonious functioning and completeness. (Idea of a university)

A further qualification follows, as Newman explains that this ecclesial assistance or incorporation does not imply that the university’s main characteristics are changed; the university retains the office of intellectual education, but now aided in the performance of that office by the steadying hand of the Church.

In ‘What is a university?’ Newman argues at length that a university is still a place for personal teaching even in the age of books and periodicals – an argument that would still hold up in the age of the internet. Mass education has given rise to various forms of ‘distance learning’, which to varying degrees eliminates much of what lies at the heart of education and can only be achieved in a residential academic community. Despite being an avid reader and a prolific writer, Newman was acutely aware of the dangers of isolated study, even from a strictly academic perspective:

‘The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. […] we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, we must repair to the fountain, and drink there. Portions of it may go from thence to the ends of the earth by means of books; but the fulness is in one place alone. It is in such assemblages and congregations of intellect that books themselves, the masterpieces of human genius, are written, or at least originated.’ (Rise and progress of universities)

These words will help to guide those with responsibility for higher education as the balance between education online and on-campus is tested.

The ‘virtual’ university

In every great country, the metropolis itself becomes a sort of necessary University, whether we will or no. As the chief city is the seat of the court, of high society, of politics, and of law, so as a matter of course is it the seat of letters also […] The newspapers, magazines, reviews, journals, and periodicals of all kinds, the publishing trade, the libraries, museums, and academies there found, the learned and scientific societies, necessarily invest it with the functions of a University; and that atmosphere of intellect, which in a former age hung over Oxford or Bologna or Salamanca, has, with the change of times, moved away to the centre of civil government. Thither come up youths from all parts of the country, the students of law, medicine, and the fine arts, and the employés and attachés of literature. There they live, as chance determines; and they are satisfied with their temporary home, for they find in it all that was promised to them there. They have not come in vain, as far as their own object in coming is concerned. They have not learned any particular religion, but they have learned their own particular profession well. They have, moreover, become acquainted with the habits, manners, and opinions of their place of sojourn, and done their part in maintaining the tradition of them. We cannot then be without virtual Universities; a metropolis is such: the simple question is, whether the education sought and given should be based on principle, formed upon rule, directed to the highest ends, or left to the random succession of masters and schools, one after another, with a melancholy waste of thought and an extreme hazard of truth. (Rise and progress of universities)

Newman even suggested that ‘the Houses of Parliament and the atmosphere around them are a sort of University of politics’.

University days, dangerous times

Newman once referred to his three and a half years at Trinity College Oxford as, ‘the dangerous season of my Undergraduate residence’.

At Oxford, Newman witnessed at first hand the consequences of that intoxicating mix of freedom and virtually no responsibility, and realised that formative living depended on the previous acquisition of good habits and on wise oversight by the authorities.

Today, the wisdom of generations and the experience of life seem to have been set aside. For centuries that part of the life-cycle between childhood and adulthood (from approximately fifteen to twenty-five) has traditionally been designated as the third of the seven ages of man, and the one which parents and educators regarded as the most dangerous.

It has been called:

‘the most dangerous tyme of all a man’s life, and most slipperie to stay well in’, Roger Ascham, Tudor schoolmaster

the ‘awkward interval’, Sir William Blackstone, Georgian legal codifier

Why this alarmist talk?

Today’s world is blasé to the point of being irresponsible about the ‘third age’, and yet in some respects the predicament of today’s students is more precarious than it ever was: most live away from home and inhabit an artificial world of opportunities and attractions, with few demands on them other than the academic, and belong to a society where there are rights aplenty, but few duties.

For an age which supposedly worships authenticity, there is a surprising amount of (unconscious) compliance with the dictates of the prevailing culture; and since the prevailing moral norms are minimal, there are few limits to self-indulgence other than the regard of one’s friends and the size of one’s bank overdraft.

Did you know that … a minor social revolution occurred in Britain in 1969, accelerating a process which had been going on for decades? In Newman’s time it was taken for granted that universities acted in loco parentis, but once the age of majority was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen, this ceased to be the case.

From home to university

Newman was all for a smoother transition into what he called the ‘dangerous season’ of undergraduate life as he realised that ‘nothing is more perilous to the soul than the sudden transition from restraint to liberty’. (Scheme of Rules and Regulations’, 1856)

Above all, he was concerned with how best the student should live and how the university should be structured so as to make such living possible; he aimed at optimising the conditions for the flourishing of the individual by allowing for the development of intellectual and moral qualities in a community that functioned like a second home.

On one occasion Newman underscored his wish for harmony between collegiate house and home by pointing out to the secretary of the Catholic University, ‘Father and Mother have a voice in such [residential] arrangements as my letter implied’. (Newman to Scratton, 21 October 1857)

Ten letters introductory to college residence

In 1848 an Oxford don published his Ten letters introductory to college residence. They were intended to smooth the transition from home to school and to alert young men to the fact that they would soon be exposed to the dangers and excesses of student life where many of the constraints of responsibility were absent and the prevailing atmosphere beyond the influence not just of parents, but of the college authorities. These letters express ideas that are remarkably similar to Newman’s – which is no surprise, since the two were Fellows of Oriel College and close friends – and they address the concerns of anxious parents as well as school-leavers.

In his two introductory letters, Charles Daman points out to the prospective student that he stood ‘at the very threshold of this definite and critical period’ of life when he was beginning ‘comparative Manhood’, with its measure of independence and freedom and its proportionately increased responsibility. The virtues and habits developed in boyhood now had to be built upon, for, Daman told his reader, you are only ‘conventionally by courtesy a Man, that is a youth, adolescens, an inchoate and promissory man’. In his letters the tutor hoped to assist the aspiring undergraduate ‘to carry to the utmost your notion, to guide you to the lasting and solid realisation of your wish to be a man.

Daman was a committed Christian and in daily contact with Newman. His Ten letters were spiritual in tone, encouraging the reader to lead a life of piety and to consider everything sub specie aeternitatis, and, much as Newman did, he managed to combine high principle with sound, practical advice.

Daman encouraged his reader to consider what it means to be a man, first by dealing with the thinking person, then with the social person, and finally with the ruling or governing person. To become a master of others, the student needed to develop his own higher faculties and become master of himself, which he would do by ordering his time, amusements, reading and companions, to the extent that they were not determined by his college.

In his letters, Daman urged that his reader’s life should not be merely one of study, but should have the character of devotion too; he gave advice on self-government through keeping to a timetable which would ‘form the character’; he counselled him about the companions he should keep; he cautioned him not to single himself out, but to try to accommodate his high principles with his circumstances; and he encouraged him to prepare for university academically by striving for quality rather than quantity of work and by using his vacations well.

Tom Wolfe’s warning

The North American novelist Tom Wolfe has ridiculed the superficiality of East Coast society in the United States and its obsession with getting its offspring into Ivy League universities without for a moment reflecting on what those universities might do to their sons and daughters.

A similar obsession about ‘getting in’ exists in Britain, where the equivalent ‘promised land’ is Oxbridge (or, to a lesser extent, the Russell Group universities).

‘I have never met a single parent – not one – who has ever shown the slightest curiosity about what happens to them once they get here or what they may have become by the time they graduate’, he recalls telling a group of seniors at Harvard, shortly after the publication of The bonfire of vanities in 1987.

Nearly two decades later he could still say he had ‘never heard a single parent speculate about what value might be added by those four undergraduate years, other than the bachelor’s degree itself, which is an essential punch on the ticket for starting off in any upscale [i.e. well-paid] career’. (Declining by degrees; higher education at risk, 2005)

Wolfe had illustrated the effects of the malaise at universities in his novel I am Charlotte Simmonds (2004) which paints a depressing picture of a student’s depraved and aimless life at an (imaginary) elite North American university.

The prevailing aspiration at most universities is to have a ‘good time’ and do just enough work to see themselves into a well-remunerated career. Without the countercultural support provided by family and friends, the typical university student satirised by Wolfe is likely to graduate emotionally scarred and ill-prepared to form a strong marriage, bring up children or offer selfless service to country and society.

Beware league tables

University and degree subject league tables are compiled by processing data about the measurable, but the very act of doing so neglects what is not measurable – and which very often lies at the heart of education.

Surveys about ‘student satisfaction’ are a crude and unsuccessful attempt to plug this gap.

Higher education at risk?

What do academics think about the state of the modern university? Just read these book titles and they tell their own story:

The soul of the American university: from Protestant establishment to established non-belief (1994)

The university in ruins (1996)

The dying of the light. The disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churches (1998)

Declining by degrees; higher education at risk (2005)

Excellence without a soul: does liberal education have a future? (2007)

The last professor: the corporate university and the fate of the humanities (2008)

Save the world on your own time (2008)

Education’s end: why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life (2008)

And look at the titles of these academic papers:

‘Does the university corrupt youth?’ (1981)

‘How Christian universities contribute to the corruption of youth’ (1988)

The meaning of life

In Education’s end: why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life (2008), Anthony Kronman, a professor and former dean of Yale Law School, contends that questions about the meaning of life which were once studied through the Western tradition have been losing their status as a subject of organised academic study and are now pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities. Questions that the humanities once addressed in a public and organised fashion have now been privatised and the authority to address them, he contends, is monopolised by the churches. Like many others, Kronman places the blame on the modern research ideal and on political correctness. Often resorting to apocalyptic language to make their case, academics like Kronman, though they have no sympathy for the role theology once played, have argued that the university has lost its soul.

Undergraduate education an end in itself

What we need to learn from Newman, says Alasdair MacIntyre, is ‘that undergraduate education has its own distinctive ends, that it should never be regarded as a prologue to or a preparation for graduate or professional education, and that its ends must not be subordinated to the ends of the necessarily specialised activities of the researcher’. (‘The very idea of a university: Aristotle, Newman and us’, 2009)

In other words, an undergraduate education should be regarded as an end in itself; it is about the ‘making of men’.

Educating in virtue

Newman has drawn out some of the practical consequences of overlooking ‘the real end of educating’, such as the tendency ‘to store their minds with many precepts and much information’, attempting to do a great deal in a short time, and trying to educate ‘by mechanism’, instead of taking children separately and addressing them ‘almost one by one’. (‘On some popular mistakes as to the object of education’, sermon given in 1826)

Newman explained that, living among a highly civilised people, the Christians at Corinth fell into the error of ‘preferring knowledge to that warm and spiritual charity or love’, gifts to graces, the powers of the intellect to moral excellence. Newman pointed out that he and his congregation were living in parallel times, and warned that the error of exalting human knowledge over Christian love or piety would lead to the mistake ‘of supposing, that in proportion as men know more, they will be better men in a moral point of view’, and that a good education is a remedy for the world’s evil. (‘On some popular mistakes as to the object of education’, sermon given in 1826)

The liberal reformers of the first half of the nineteenth century wanted (in Newman’s words) to make ‘knowledge, rather than moral discipline the object of our studies, and to cultivate rather the habit of bold and irreverent inquiry’, instead of those virtues attuned to the pursuit and reverence of truth. While utilitarian thinking led to over-emphasis on the intellect and neglect of the moral dimension of the person, the Tractarians placed equal if not greater emphasis on raising moral and religious standards, understood as the ‘intertwined combination of sound belief and right conduct’. (The foundation of faith assailed in Oxford,1835)

In refuting the critics of Oxford, William Sewell wrote:

‘We […] do not consider the communication of knowledge as the chief design of our post, or the grand end of education […] We are […] entrusted with the care of the young […] and our consideration is to form and fashion and bring them to that model of human nature, which in our conscience we think is perfection.’ (Thoughts on the admission of Dissenters to the University of Oxford, and on the establishment of a state religion, 1834)

Muddled thinking

From his pastoral experience Newman knew that moral improvement was not simply a result of learning facts or grasping intellectual principles, but was instead something intimately concerned with the will and conscience. In this he discerned ‘a chief error of the day’ (which is still with us today): the idea, proposed by the proponents of ‘useful knowledge’,

‘that our true excellence comes not from within, but from without; not wrought out through personal struggles and sufferings, but following upon a passive exposure to influences over which we have no control. They will countenance the theory that diversion is the instrument of improvement, and excitement the condition of right action; and whereas diversions cease to be diversions if they are constant, and excitements by their very nature have a crisis and run through a course, they will tend to make novelty ever in request, and will set the great teachers of morals upon the incessant search after stimulants and sedatives.’ (‘The Tamworth reading room’)

This passage is almost certainly inspired by Edward Copleston, the provost of Oriel College, who had an important influence on Newman for a number of his educational ideas. Copleston had written that, things made easy appear to me to defeat the end of education’.

The Tamworth reading room

In his address on opening a reading room at Tamworth in 1841, several months before he was re-elected prime minister, Sir Robert Peel suggested that reading would not only lead people to appreciate the wonders of creation, but also make them good and virtuous citizens. Newman probed the fallacy here: Peel was implicitly replacing religion with secular knowledge when he asserted (in Newman’s words) that ‘Useful Knowledge is the great instrument of education. It is the parent of virtue, the nurse of religion; it exalts man to his highest perfection, and is the sufficient scope of his most earnest exertions.’

Newman took issue with the idea that ‘a man “in becoming wiser will become better” ’, because it was based on an inadequate account of the relationship between knowledge and virtue – based, that is, on a false understanding of human nature; in Peel’s account, there was no place for conscience or moral development. And he advised Peel: ‘If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms’. (‘The Tamworth reading room’, letters to The Times)

Newman and secularism

Newman saw the beginning of post-Enlightenment times, when rationalist ideas were already working their way into society and the university; and it is remarkable how observant he was about contemporary trends and how accurate in his diagnosis of educational policies which distorted the true nature of education.

The historian Christopher Dawson comments that ‘Newman was the first Christian thinker in the English-speaking world who fully realised the nature of modern secularism and the enormous change which was already in the process of development, although a century had still to pass before it was to produce its full harvest of destruction.’ (‘Newman and the sword of the spirit’, 1945)

In order to address its shortcomings, Newman sought to get to the root of secularism and understand it, and to discern its manifestations. He identifies the chief dangers of the professorial system which neglects the pastoral or collegiate dimension of education – the system which predominates in the West today – when he asserts, ‘These may be called the three vital principles of the Christian student, faith, chastity, love; because their contraries, viz., unbelief or heresy, impurity, and enmity, are just the three great sins against God, ourselves, and our neighbour, which are the death of the soul.’ (Rise and progress of universities) It is easy to see the results in today’s students: religious infidelity and indifferentism, sexual licence of every kind, and an unpleasantly narcissistic individualism.

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