Monday, February 25, 2013

John Henry Cardinal Newman on University Education

Last week the Cardinal Newman Society listed the university at which I teach as one of the ‘dirty dozen’ Catholic universities in the United States that host performances of the Vagina Monologues.  The Cardinal Newman Society understands itself to 'promote and defend faithful Catholic education.'  In addition to promoting colleges that fit within the society's confines of 'faithful Catholic education,' the Cardinal Newman Society also understands itself to be a watchdog of Catholic colleges that protests and fights against anything on a Catholic college campus that it understands to be opposed to Catholic truth.  The society appears to focus much of its attention specifically on issues of sexuality; at least it is on such issues that it is the loudest.  Hence its protest against the Vagina Monologues, against which the Cardinal Newman Society has vigorously campaigned since 2004.

My purpose in this brief post isn’t to speak for or against the Cardinal Newman Society, nor is it to speak for or against the society's protestations against the Vagina Monologues.  I want, rather, to write about Blessed John Henry Newman himself, after which the society is named (he was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI), and specifically about my reading of Newman on higher education.

I have more than a passing fascination with Blessed Newman.  My own vocation as a theologian and teacher, and my identity as a Roman Catholic have been profoundly shaped by him.  I’ve read many of his writings, and I recently traveled to England to stay where he lived, to study in his library, to pray where he prayed. The picture below is of me re-reading Newman's Apologia ten feet away from the desk on which he wrote the Apologia.

Re-reading the Apologia in Newman's library
In short, I’m really into the guy. 

My worry, however, is that John Henry Newman gets easily dismissed as a theologian by those who perhaps disagree, to greater or lesser extents, with the Cardinal Newman Society's understanding of Catholic identity, and who perhaps think that this understanding derives from Newman himself.  Yes, the Cardinal Newman Society is named after Blessed Newman.  Yes, if you go to the society’s website you’ll see pictures of Newman.  (You won't, interestingly enough, find much about Newman on their site, at least, not easily).  But allow me to tell you a bit about who Newman was and about what he wrote, specifically about the purpose of a Roman Catholic university education.  I am not, it should be stated at the outset, a Newman scholar.  Others with more expertise than I have written about Newman on education.  Moreover, it cannot be denied that Newman was a very complex figure indeed, as witnessed by the fact that both 'liberal' and 'conservative' Catholics can and do claim him as their own.  I don't self-identify with either camp, nor do I claim to have a full purchase on Newman's thought.  Rather, I have read and continue to re-read Newman as a seeker and as one whose own life has been shaped by his thought.  I certainly welcome friendly constructive criticism if my reading of Newman is deficient.

John Henry Cardinal Newman lived from 1801-1890 and was an influential English Roman Catholic theologian.  Educated at the University of Oxford, he earned his B.A. from Trinity College, was eventually made a fellow and tutor at Oriel College, and was shortly thereafter ordained as a priest in the Church of England (the Episcopalian church here in the USA).  He devoted much of his time at Oxford to research and study, and was a popular preacher.  During this period Newman became enamored by early Christian thought and practice, and his study began profoundly to inform his theology and his understanding of what the church should look like in thought and practice.  This study led him to something of a crisis of faith, as he came to understand his theology and spirituality to be much more akin to the Roman Catholic Church than to the Church of England, and in 1845 Newman was received into the Roman Catholic faith.

He was soon ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and founded a community of priests and lay-brothers in Birmingham, England.  Newman continued to preach and to write.  His most famous work remains his Apologia pro vita sua (published 1864), his autobiography in which he describes and defends his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, but he wrote many other works.  One of these works ended up shaping our understanding of Roman Catholic higher education – The Idea of a University.

In 1852 Newman gave a series of lectures on the meaning and purpose of Catholic higher education, and he published these lectures as a book entitled The Idea of a University.  This book remains an important treatise on the importance of a liberal arts education, and is rightly considered a classic of Christian thought.  Put simply, Newman argues that a university education should not simply be about getting a job.  Education, rather, is about the transformative cultivation of the mind.  Newman emphasizes that all knowledge forms one whole, and it is only by studying different areas of knowledge that one can come to a better comprehension of the interrelationship between these areas.  And it is also only through this kind of study that one learns how to think.  A narrowly vocational education cannot do this.  But a liberal arts education shapes the entire person.  While Newman writes that such an education is a good in itself quite apart from whether it leads to a job or not, he also suggests that a liberal arts education actually equips students intellectually and morally to delve into any task or job effectively.  Such an education develops people with the ability to think critically and thoughtfully.  In short, a liberal arts education transforms students for the better.

Newman insisted that a liberal arts education must include the study of theology for it truly to be a universal education.  Interestingly, however, far from being a watchdog who scrutinized the thoughts of others to ensure absolute theological conformity, Newman often found himself in trouble with the church’s hierarchy, and more than once various people accused him of being a heretic and took their complaints straight to the Vatican.  He had many enemies in the church, including enemies in Rome, and it was 1879 before his genius was recognized by Pope Leo XIII who made him a cardinal.

Newman was someone who often pushed boundaries, who emphasized the preeminence of conscience, and who was not shy to speak up when he disagreed with the leaders of the church, though he did so humbly and usually with charity.  He understood that a well-formed conscience was paramount, which was why I think he understood a liberal arts education to be so important.  To form the conscience requires careful study and the development of critical thought.  He did not understand education to be about being told the truth and then being told to conform to it.  He understood education, rather, to be about cultivating a love for truth and searching for it together in conversation with multiple academic disciplines.  This included for him transformational conversation with, but not slavish adherence to, the theological traditions of the church.  There is within the church room for divergent opinion and expression.  Newman would have fully embraced Pope Pius XII's statement that “The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking.”  Education, to borrow Newman's motto from his cardinal coat-of-arms, is about 'heart speaking unto heart.'

The founding president of my university was very much influenced by the educational principles articulated in The Idea of a University, and the influence of Newman continues to be found in the university's mission statement.  It was because of Newman’s influence on his own ideas that our founding president named a residence hall after Newman, and the permanent place of Newman on our campus should continue to remind us of the meaning and purpose of a university education, one structured primarily upon cultivating a love of truth.  It should also remind us of who Newman really was – not a watchdog on the hunt for heresy, but a complex and nuanced thinker and seeker of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Book Recommendations

Some books by Newman, that are particular favourites of mine:


Some books  on Newman that I have found valuable:


If you're looking for a brief and accessible book on the life and thoughts of Newman, check out the official biography written for Newman's beatification in 2010:


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