Rethinking Newman’s The Idea of a University

There is something terribly British about the English Catholic saints and a little of that quaint practicality we see in Thomas More who ironically authored the Utopia. They’re not the kinds of saints who you would expect to intercede with God on your behalf. Nothing of the poetic passion of an Italian Saint Francis who epitomizes Mediterranean madness or the Spanish Saint Teresa of Avila with a golden spear on fire directed towards her breast by the angel as immortalized in Bernini’s Ecstasy. An English saint is frankly incapable of such excesses and would neither go begging and singing naked on streets nor would angels be allowed to throw them into unwarranted states of ecstasies.

The English saints are a bit too English for such high drama. The idealism however is alive both in More and in the eminent Cardinal Newman (1801 – 1890) who is on the way to canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. Just as More’s Utopia is a harsh critique of a classist social order, Newman’s The Idea of a University is an idealistic view of what universities ought to be like and thus could be read as an attack on the existing state of the universities. Its idealism is contained by a sense of practicality. That could just be the Victorian style of writing descriptive prose to a society that depends on writers to offer intense imagery for its visual satisfaction.

There is however something deeply sincere in how Newman talks about “liberal” education which these days like “liberal” everything else has suffered the onslaught of abuse of every kind from poststructuralists, post-colonialists, postmodernists, post-feminists, post-Marxists and liberals themselves too afraid for their own good to be seen as liberals. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newman’s understanding of the University is a product of a colonial mindset. That’s not the case. His vision is oriented towards the future and I’m sure he’s more than aware that no university comes remotely close to the one he is imagining.

In the Discourse 5 titled “Knowledge its own end” this is how Newman speaks of the University: “An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.” With reference to the student he says: “He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” Whatever the criticism might be of “liberal” education it’s impossible to deny that this is the idea that dominates universities across the world – a universal model of what a university should be like where mental habits are formed whose attributes are “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”

The Universities I’ve studied and worked at and do so at this point in time have only been a relentless parody of Newman’s idea of a university. Rivals, yes! There is plenty of meaningless rivalry on campuses both among the teachers and the students. The “learned men” are a mockery of learning and they’re interested in everything else except learning. The students are less keen on reading a book than in plotting against each other if not the teacher and acquiring grades and scholarships that they’ve neither earned nor do they deserve. I’ve never seen such hypocrisy and self-centeredness disguised as lofty causes like I do at the university I work at. Political correctness has destroyed the soul of the modern university with the virulence of a bubonic plague. The critics of classism, racism, sexism, casteism or nationalism are themselves guilty of every crime they would like to place at another’s doorstep. Elites and elitism is the order of the day. The oppressors have their elites and the oppressed have theirs as well. Both consume from the same plate of exploitation and both like to talk about social and political change in a language that exonerates them from the accusation of being cynical bystanders to the sufferings of the poor.

I’m aware that opportunism is a global gospel and individuals with social goals whether teachers or students tend to suffer genuine isolation. That’s not the point though. Universities are supposed to be an alternative to the harsh world of real life where one has the leisure to arrive at solutions intellectually that will give everyone a chance to a decent life. I cannot imagine working in a corporate environment for instance though I’ve done it when I had no choice. If I’m in a university I know it is a position of comfort paid for by the working classes of my country. They’re paying that I may arrive at something that will serve as an alternative to a violent dog-eat-dog order. They’re not paying me to articulate views I don’t subscribe to.

Newman’s essay is profound in its beauty. There is something saintly about the aspirations in the essay that we see in Newman the person as well. There is no doubt that liberal education is a product of a political economy where the majority of people are not in a state of want and neglect. However there is something good to be said in favor of those strive towards objectivity and wish to see things without a jaundiced eye. These days in the universities to be unbiased and truthful about how much you know and what you really think are terrible crimes. It’s like you belong to no lobby – so, something seriously must be wrong with you. If you belong to one gender or sexual orientation you must defend it against every other with all the hate you can muster in the minimum amount of time; if you belong to one caste, creed, race or ethnic group you must devour the other fellow who is slightly different from you without any pity; if you’re a rightist you must cook the leftists for dinner every night and if you’re a leftist your goal in life is to burn those cities to ashes where there is one rightist hiding somewhere in a subterranean cave.

Basic decency, consideration towards those who’re less privileged, the recognition of another person’s humanity no matter what – these are qualities of spirit and have nothing to do whether you’re politically inclined or not and what kinds of worldviews you uphold. This is about the kind of person you are and maybe this has nothing to do with being or not being in a university.

The fact that one who is a part of a university should make self-righteousness a way of life is unforgivable. In all sweetness, Newman’s The Idea of a University rooted as it is in a Victorian English society – and even if you did not take seriously its religious parts – gives us plenty to think about as to what kind of a university we would like to inhabit. The title itself inspires a lot of questions and “liberal education” where you cultivate a broad awareness of the world around you and one that aims at intellectual honesty may not be such a terrible evil as it is made out to be on the current-day university campuses.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. It’s really true that such idealistic universities do only exist in books.Today universities are ,places for all sort of activities.But still you are not devoid of option,you can decide whether to be a part of it or to just walk away.It all depends upon the choice you make.

  2. It is true that idealistic concept of universities will exist in mere books.In real what you told, is true universities are place of all sort of activities.But still you are not devoid of option.You can indulge in all these issues or just walk away,it all depends upon option you take.

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