Newman's seminal work had its roots in Dublin

 

TALKBACK:Newman's famous work remains the most enduring argument for higher education, writes PÁDRAIC CONWAY

IN THE century and a half since its publication, John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a Univ ersityhas exerted extraordinary influence over the discussion and conceptualisation of higher education. At a time when the eminence of his newly attained status risks distracting from his distinctive thought, it is worth reconsidering this seminal work and its Dublin roots.

The Idea of a Universityis a text of two parts. The first part is made up of nine discourses, five of which were delivered in what is now the Rotunda Hospital, on successive Monday evenings between May and June, 1852. They were published, with a 10th discourse, which didn’t make the final cut for the Idea, as Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education in November, 1852.

The second part of the text consists of 10 offerings prepared by Newman between 1854 and 1858; these were first published in 1858 as Lectures and Essays on University Subjects. It was on February 2nd, 1873, that the text we now know as The Idea of a Universitywas published. New- man continued to re-edit to the ninth edition, published in 1889, the year before his death.

The Idea begins by defining the university as a place for teaching universal knowledge. Newman argues that the mooted Catholic University should provide a liberal as opposed to a profess- ional education. This sentiment is captured most powerfully in the title of his fifth discourse: Knowledge is its Own End. For him, the purpose of a university education is expansion of the mind and the consequent enhanc- ed civic and social capacity.

Newman takes a most positive view of the knowledge that is to be thought in a university. He is a strong defender of the autonomy of individual disciplines within their own spheres and is extremely supportive of the scientific enterprise. He sees little if any reason for conflict between science and religion properly understood. Scientists and theolo- gians should tend to their own spheres and not intrude upon one another’s intellectual territory.

Newman concedes that many scientists are critical of religion because theologians have too often overstepped the mark. Such errors as might arise from allowing high levels of academic freedom to science and other secular subjects will be temporary and, in time, corrected by the exercise of the same freedom.

Newman imagined a university in pursuit of universal knowledge and truth. This was not, however, the universality of the enlighten- ment, where universal knowledge is captured encyclopaedically by a knowing, individual subject. Newman appeals to an older tradition that looked to know the universe and through it the universe’s creator who alone has universal knowledge.

The pearl of wisdom residing in this seemingly archaic formulation is that unity resides in that which is sought, not in those who seek. We, as university people, are participants in a science of learning whose ultimate, unified objects and outcomes always exceed us. This tradition, of which Newman is an exemplar, is a rebuff to human pride but, very importantly, not in any way a denial of human reason. It is rather an affirmation of the university as the institution that refuses to foreclose on the question of universal knowledge while operating on a daily basis as a community of dissenting traditions of enquiry.

Written for and about an Irish university , The Idea of a University, remains the most elegant and enduring argument for the intrinsic value of higher education. It confronts and provokes us in our assumptions – especially any assumption that we have achieved closure on the definition of a university. This resistance to definitive interpretation is reason enough for us to continue to be grateful for our patron of the open mind.


Pádraic Conway is Director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies and a Vice-President of UCD.