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.

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.

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