The Idea of a University

By Roger Scruton 

The pope is about to visit England, and is expected during the visit to announce the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the scholar, priest, and poet, who left the Anglican for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, and who was to become the most important Catholic intellectual of his time. From 1854, for a period of five years, Newman was rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin), and during that time he delivered lectures that were later published as The Idea of a University — surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life.

For Newman a university does not exist simply to convey information or expertise. The university is a society in which the student absorbs the graces and accomplishments of a higher form of life. In the university, according to Newman, the pursuit of truth and the active discussion of its meaning are integrated into a wider culture, in which the ideal of the gentleman is acknowledged as the standard. The gentleman does not merely know things; he is receptive to the tone, the meaning, the lived reality of what he knows. Thus, for Newman, "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." The university of Newman’s day was a place in which men (and it was then an institution for men only) lived for scholarship, and arranged their lives around the sacrifice that scholarship requires. It was not simply a repository of knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality.

A reader of Cardinal Newman’s book today is likely to agree that the university, as he describes it, would be an institution of irreplaceable value. Newman’s university was to be an integral part of the social order. It was to set an example and to help young men to live up to it. It was not the antagonist but the completion of ordinary life, and the great rewards that it offered were to be purchased by social discipline. Newman’s university was to be eminently respectable: critical of society only because critical of itself.

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