John Henry Newman, whom the Catholic Church officially declared a saint this week, is a model of sanctity and of the ways in which the life of the mind and the life of faith can be beautifully and happily integrated.
But his most important lessons for us today have little to do with theology. Newman's Idea of a University, first published in the 1850s and still widely cited today, stands as a challenge to the persistent politicization of academic life and the college experience. It instead depicts the primary end of the university as the pursuit of truth in its complexity and unity. In an era that has seen increasing divides between strident secularism and expressions of zealous fundamentalism, Newman's view of the natural bent of the human intellect toward truth, and not perpetual political argument, is both refreshing and salutary.
First an Anglican priest and then, after a conversion that shook English ecclesiastical circles, a Catholic priest and cardinal, Newman was a theologian and poet and about as gifted a writer as could be found in mid-19th century England — a time when there was some serious competition for that honor.
After his conversion, he became the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (University College Dublin). In Idea of a University, which he composed while preparing to become rector, he argues that liberal education is internally good and should not be measured merely by its extra-curricular payoff, to quote the contemporary academic, Stanley Fish.
Newman is concerned not just with the threat of reducing liberal education to pre-professional training. In fact, he finds himself at odds with the two dominant contemporary models of education, the secular and the religious.
While deeply committed to moral and religious formation, Newman resisted the anti-intellectual view that intellectual inquiry should be a form of catechism or directly serve pious practice — a view he attributed to the Irish prelates of his day. He insisted, "University is a preparation for this world. ... It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary."
Newman even goes so far as to reject the notion that the academy is the arena for moral formation. Here he targets a secular, enlightenment view that equates moral character with the holding of certain opinions — a view that anticipates the current practice on university campuses of virtue signaling through the embrace of certain political or social ideas.
Newman identified two errors here.
The first is the false sense that morality is achieved through information or taking a position rather than through the cultivation of virtuous habits.
The second is the shocking naivete concerning the nature of evil. Progressive rationalism wasn't equipped to face the vast evils that scarred the 20th century, something Newman could have anticipated.
In his view, traditional religious conceptions of evil were superior in understanding its true nature, but such conclusions must be reached through consideration of evidence and argument and not through the dictates of religious authority. "Quarry the granite rock with razors; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man," he wrote.
He also anticipated and defended what we might think of as modern college life, with the dormitory experience and all of the socializing. In fact, Newman thought the residential area of academic life helped prepare students for careers and civic life, and fostered (through the right kinds of friendship) character formation and religious devotion. Yet he worried, as many of us do now, that to subordinate education to any of these aims does damage both to the nature of the university and to the student's pursuit of truth.
Our educational institutions, which long ago devolved into what former University of California at Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr called multiversities, would benefit from a reset. Certainly our public discourse, increasingly characterized by absolutist fundamentalism, could benefit from enhanced curricular attention to practices of civil disagreement and the careful weighing of arguments. Enhanced public discourse would be a byproduct of education, not its primary aim.
Perhaps Newman's most brilliant insight is that he recognized the paradoxical truth about education, namely, that to gain what we might want from it, we must focus on its highest purpose, the pursuit of truth for its own sake.