J.H. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities (Part I)

In 2001, Gracewing and Notre Dame jointly published Rise and Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, being vol. III in the Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition of the Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The twelfth in the series, the brilliant Essay on Development has just appeared. These are good, nicely presented hardcovers. This one, edited with an introduction and notes by Mary Katherine Tillman, makes accessible once more some of Newman’s most beautiful writing, as well as some of the most profound. Yet, so much of Newman is so deep that wherever one reads him, one finds gold and silver lying scattered on the ground. The old valuable three-volume set of Essays and Sketches from Greenwood included most but not all of this material. Tillman provides a fairly good introduction, and some fairly patchy notes. On the whole, I have the impression that, although she is a capable scholar, she rushed this job.

And now for the contents of this particular volume. The Rise and Progress was first published between 1854 and 1856 in the Catholic University Gazette. The Benedictine Essays appeared in 1858 and 1859 in Atlantis: A Register of Literature and Science. Sadly, neither of these sterling undertakings of Newman’s, made in conjunction with his ill-fated endeavours for a Catholic university in Dublin, lasted very long. For some reason, the logic of which escapes me, the numbering of this volume follows that of the initial publication of these writings in book form. Since the volume in which they appeared had some other material on pages 252-364, and that content is not reproduced here, the pagination in this volume jumps those numbers.

However, the contents make up for such oddities. The first section of the book, the Rise and Progress, follows higher education in the West from its beginnings into the medieval period, and finishes with some concise comments on the modern period. I think that this is excusable as Newman was not dealing with the history of universities for their own sake, but as they exemplified principles of formation and education; and those principles emerged quite fully from what he did cover. The Benedictine Essays deal with the somewhat overlooked Benedictine contribution to learning and higher education. They include some of the most beautiful passages I have ever seen on the religious life.

Whatever my issues with this edition, Tillman does at least two and bring out the relation of this volume to the more celebrated Idea of a University (xi-xiv).

Rise and Progress of Universities 

Turning first to the Rise and Progress, one is struck by the fairness and fulness of Newman’s concise coverage of a very wide topic. If I were to take one idea as providing coherence to the book, it is that of “unity”. The university brings together in one place, people from near and far to study the parts of the field of knowledge, and to help each other to see how their area of expertise relates to the whole. The more united their studies are with the pursuit of holiness, the more they fulfil their function, for on what other basis can people share their understanding and altruistically aid one another?

Not all which Newman writes here is directly relevant to us today. In his times, a good university had 110 to 120 pupils (xiii-xiv). That, for us, would not be sufficient to warrant opening the doors. But the principles, once grasped, can be applied to today’s situation.

His introduction (chapter I) reminds us that, when he was writing, there were very few universities, and it was a large undertaking to establish one (p.1). He states that one of his adversaries in establishing the Catholic University was “public opinion”. “Too often”, Newman says: “it is nothing else than what the whole world opines, and no one in particular. … every one is appealing to every one else; and the constituent members of a community one by one think it their duty to defer and succumb to the voice of that same community as a whole” (3). In a brilliant insight, he states that “public opinion” works on the imagination, and “does not convince, but it impresses; it has the force of authority, rather than of reason …”, and that being so, the answer to it is representation and discussion, i.e. working on the imagination from another direction (4). That is, people just felt that it could not or should not be done, and that sentiment could be best met by invoking another sentiment. A person obsessed by a myth (e.g. “conspiracy theories”) cannot really be argued out of it, but they might be captured by another more benign myth.

Chapter II asks: “What is a university?” Newman’s first answer is that it is a “school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. … a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country” (6). I think that all of these elements are important: that in one place, people from far and wide and different backgrounds be brought together, to personally share ideas at a high level. “Mutual education”, says Newman, “is one of the great and incessant occupations of human society, carried on partly with set purpose, and partly not” (6).

A particularly powerful point, and one which many people today should heed, is that: “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” (9). Excellence needs a centre, says Newman, and in the sphere of the intellect, this can be the university: “It is a place where enquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified, and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge” (16). The ideal Newman places before us is extraordinarily well out. Today, the very size of universities threatens its achievement. This chapter closes with this true and poignant reflection: “It (the university) is a place which wins the affection of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affection of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations” (16). Sadly, the beauty is often overlooked, or even cast out, by contemporary university administrators.

“The Site of a University” is the theme of chapter III. After singing the praises of Athens’ ancient beauty, Newman states that it is self-evident that the university should be erected in a “liberal and noble” setting (24). He also considers the universities of Paris and Oxford, and the importance of their being accessible to students from far and wide. The placement of Dublin, on a bay and “near a romantic region” (32) augur well for the new university.

Newman continues with the ancient world: chapters IV and V are about Athens and the Stoics, respectively. Chapter VI, “Discipline and Influence” brings us to some rather poignant reminiscences of his own time, leading to this: “Influence and Law. I should begin by saying that these are the two moving powers which carry on the world, and that in the supernatural order they are absolutely united in the Source of all perfection. I should observe that the Supreme Being is both,—a living, individual Agent, as sovereign as if an Eternal Law were not; and a Rule of right and wrong, and an Order fixed and irreversible, as if He had no will, or supremacy, or characteristics of personality. Then I should say that here below the two principles are separated, that each has its own function, that each is necessary for the other, and that they ought to act together; yet that it too often happens that they become rivals of one another, that this or that acts of itself, and will encroach upon the province, or usurp the rights of the other; and that then every thing goes wrong (72)”

Again, here we see how Newman continually unites matters which are often separated, here influence (meaning personal influence) and law (meaning the constitution of the university).  I shall close this portion of my review with this deep passage, showing how Newman connects all his ideas:  “Things are not content to be in fact just what we contemplate them in the abstract, and nothing more; they require something more than themselves, sometimes as necessary conditions of their being, sometimes for their well-being. Breath is not part of man; it comes to him from without; it is merely the surrounding air, inhaled, and then exhaled; yet no one can live without breathing. … When then I say, that a Great School or University consists in the communication of knowledge, in lecturers and hearers, that is, in the Professorial system, you must not run away with the notion that I consider personal influence enough for its well-being. It is indeed its essence, but something more is necessary than barely to get on from day to day; 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; and to endowments, by which it is protected and perpetuated (73-74)”

What he is saying, with his characteristic genius, is that when we speak in the abstract about people and their undertakings, when we theorise, we leave out many matters which practically speaking must be taken into account in the life of people and in the course of their undertakings. We can return and mention them, lengthy as the process is, but it is both unfair to criticise a theory for its brevity, and myopic if the theory never descends to practical detail. And you see, very clearly, how he links the running of a university to its laws and to order, and links them both to religion as their fundamental principle and also to colleges as their practical supports. In those days, colleges were necessary, for very few indeed could commute to university. Even today, I would say, well-regulated colleges are preferable. They may not, however, be practical for everyone, and how many are as decently regulated as Newman wanted?

TBC, Joseph Azize, 29 May 2018

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