How Would Cardinal Newman Fare Today?

As the pope moves him toward sainthood and Britain honors him, some see a contradiction in the way the country is moving in higher education.

September 17, 2010

A champion of the academy is to take one of the final steps towards sainthood during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain this week.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Victorian scholar renowned for his ideas about the role of the university, will be beatified by the Pope in a ceremony on 19 September.

Only last week, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, sought to add ballast to his speech at the Universities UK conference at Cranfield University by invoking the influential thinker, who died in 1890. But some argue that the cardinal's message, which emphasized ideas that modern government and business would find hard to stomach, is very different from the one understood by Willetts.

The Idea of a University collects lectures delivered in the 1850s as Newman helped establish University College Dublin, the institution that provided Irish Roman Catholics with their first taste of higher education and of which he was the first rector.

Drawing on his experience as a tutor at the University of Oxford, Newman described the university as a place for the teaching of "universal knowledge" rather than vocational training or research, where students pursued a broad-based liberal education.

Peter Lutzeier, principal of Newman University College, a Catholic institution named in honor of the cardinal and based in Birmingham, where he lived for nearly 40 years, said Newman believed that a university's reason for being "is its students," and that research should be carried out in specialist institutes. He also highlighted Newman's notions of the university's role in "formation of character," shaping "habits of mind" that persist throughout life.

Of his relevance today, Lutzeier said: "I would say Newman puts the education back into higher education. He would have very different views from the CBI [a business group], which says: 'We need graduates delivering these kind of skills.'

"That is important to keep society going, but in order to have a reflective stance on the major issues, we need what Newman would call the 'habit of mind' to reflect."

Newman's opposition to pure vocational training in universities was also emphasized by Robert Anderson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and author of British Universities Past and Present (2006).

What would Newman have made of a world where universities are controlled by the department for business, innovation and skills, and business groups lobby government to increase provision in certain subject areas? "I don't think he would have had much use for that," Professor Anderson said. "There is a lot in his book about professional training -- he is not against it, but he thinks it needs to be accompanied by education of the whole person."

In Newman's time, vocational training meant the law and medicine, he pointed out.

When asked about the cardinal's impact on higher education, the professor said that Newman's ideas were little discussed until the 20th century - and then more so in the U.S. than in Britain. "He is seen as a spokesman for the idea of liberal education, and in some ways that is more of a live issue in America than in Britain, with liberal arts colleges."

Many of Newman's ideas do not fit with the "sort of rhetoric vice chancellors use" when they pepper speeches with references to The Idea of a University, the professor added, and go against the modern concept of "league tables, the research university -- the international model."

"If you think of universities as being about educating individuals -- which is what they have been about for most of their history -- then Newman could still be an inspiration," he said.

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