Visions of Education Conference: October 2019
a lecture by Paul Shrimpton.

The fame of John Henry Newman – St John Henry Newman – in education is almost entirely due to the discourses and lectures (composed in the 1850s) that comprise The idea of a university (1873). The Idea is widely regarded as the greatest book every written on the nature and purpose of university education,[1] and is endlessly cited, especially by those who take a ‘high’ view of a university education and see Newman as the most inspiring advocate of a liberal education.

Newman supplies a much-needed vision of the university today, for many see in the Idea an attractive alternative to the shapeless, relativistic and uninspiring outlook of so many contemporary universities. Modern universities increasingly function as performance-orientated, heavily bureaucratic organisations committed to a narrowly economic conception of ‘human excellence’. In attempting to recover a sense of purpose and direction, a number of the recent critiques of the contemporary university use the Idea as a key point of reference,[2] and some use Newman as the pivotal figure in their analysis.[3] Popes, too, have quoted from the Idea,[4] as have members of the Royal family![5]

The discourses that comprise the first half of the Idea contain, inter alia, an extended argument against four dangerous tendencies: utilitarianism, fragmentation of knowledge, secularism, and rationalism.[6] A sentence about each of these. Against utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham, Newman argued that the primary end of education was not the acquisition of ‘useful’ information or skills needed for particular occupations in life, but cultivation of the mind, that is, teaching people how to think. Troubled by the increasing compartmentalisation or fragmentation of education, a result of the multiplication of academic disciplines in the mid-nineteenth century, Newman argues for an integration of specialist knowledge and its associated methods within the whole circle of knowledge. Newman blames the evangelical tendency to reduce religious truth to a matter of sentiment or feeling for the secularist drive to exclude theology from university, and contends that both natural theology and the study of Revelation have a place within the circle of knowledge. In dealing with the greatest threat of all, rationalism, the tendency to treat the human mind as the measure of all things, Newman foresees that the university would make its own standards and goals absolute, and in aspiring to complete autonomy would become a rival of the Church even in the Church’s own sphere of competence. Balancing the claims of faith and reason is one of Newman’s greatest contributions to Christian thinking, a contribution which has profound applications for education. Suffice it to say, that Newman argues that fallen man is weak and wounded, and needs the help of the Church in discerning truth, especially moral truth, as well as its steadying hand in forming human nature in those privileged institutions called universities.

But for all its dazzling brilliance and sublime prose, it would be a grave mistake to regard the Idea as Newman’s only contribution to the theory and practice of education, if only because – as he states in the Preface – the book is about the essence of a university, not its integrity; about the intellectual formation of the student, with little about pastoral oversight and residential student life; about the bare bones of education, not its fully-flourishing life, its harmonious functioning and its pastoral well-being. For that we need to look at his twenty ‘university sketches’ which Newman wrote for the Catholic University Gazette in 1854, and – more importantly – Newman’s practice in Dublin, which is recorded in countless letters, diaries, memoranda, university reports and other documents. We also need to examine the other educational projects Newman was involved in. No sooner than he left Dublin that he was drawn into the foundation of the Oratory School, in Edgbaston, next to the Birmingham Oratory. It was the first Catholic public school in England, and (with the possible exception of Stonyhurst) really the first to cater for lay boys, as the other schools at the time catered for boys destined to the religious or priestly life, even though they also took in boys who appeared to have no special vocation. Before becoming a Catholic in 1845, Newman reorganised the parish school at Littlemore as an Anglican priest, and while a Fellow of Oriel College, took a leading part in the nineteenth-century revival of Oxford University. No wonder that he could comment in 1863 that “from first to last, education, in this large sense of the word, has been my line.”[7]

According to conventional wisdom a successful educator is someone who excels either at teaching or at inspiring or organising others to teach; someone who possesses a special talent for dealing with children, adolescents, students or adults in a particular setting, whether institutional or otherwise. What is unusual about Newman as an educator is that over seventy five years he dealt with every age group, instructing them both individually (in person and by letter) and collectively (in tutorials, in lecture halls, in the school room and from the pulpit). When setting up the Catholic University in Dublin, Newman wrote that the object was “to provide for Catholic Education (in a large sense of the word ‘education’)”.[8] The expression, “in a large sense of the word ‘education’”, reflects the fact that Newman had a very broad conception of what he meant by “education” and that he resisted the tendency to reduce its meaning and narrow its scope. It emphasises that Newman was interested in giving at one and the same time a deep human and Christian formation. Then, as now, there was a common mistake of viewing education as the imparting of knowledge rather than the training of the mind, the acquisition of habits, and character formation. Nor did Newman consider education as something confined to its more formal moments or institutional settings: for him, education takes place not just in the formal settings of classrooms, laboratories and libraries, but in semi-formal activities such as sport, music making, journalism, drama and debating, and even in the informal moments of relaxation and amusement, such as meals and parties.

Though the Idea is usually quoted for its purple passages on the cultivation of the intellect, Newman was at the same time a champion of education outside the classroom or lecture hall. He recognised that wherever students gathered, “they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.” And this would take place even if they were just talking about this weekend’s rugby world cup semi-final matches.

Newman considered it of great importance to create among the students a healthy intellectual atmosphere, which once begun would be carried on by tradition. “It is scarcely too much to say that one half of the education which young people receive is derived from the tradition of the place of education. The genius loci, if I may so speak, is the instructor most readily admitted and most affectionately remembered.” The authorities were unable to create it directly, but they were in a position to foster and influence it. One important means of doing so was by the establishment of the prefect system at school (or the scholarship system at university). Newman maintained (perhaps somewhat optimistically) that often, “the most studious are the best principled and most religiously minded of the young men; at least a certain share of self command, good sense, and correctness in deportment they must have; and, by bringing them forward in the way I am proposing, the respect due to successful talent comes in aid of order and virtue, and they become the centre of influence, who are likely to use influence well.”[9]

He held that they should exercise certain functions, and be accorded small privileges; “and thus, without having a shadow of jurisdiction over the rest, they would constitute a middle party between the superiors and the students, break the force of their collisions, and act as an indirect and spontaneous channel of communicating to the students many an important lesson and truth, which they would not receive, if administered to them from the mouth of a superior.”[10]

It is useful to dwell for a moment on the genius loci, as Newman felt that everything in a long-established institution was influenced by this intangible but all-important power. It constituted “a sort of self-education”, and was clearly visible in the educational institutions of Protestant England.

“A characteristic tone of thought, a recognized standard of judgement is found in them, which, as developed in the individual who is submitted to it, becomes a twofold source of strength to him, both from the distinct stamp it impresses on his mind, and from the bond of union which it creates between him and others.”[11]

Leaving aside the question of whether the standards and principles of any one particular ethical atmosphere were true or false, there was no disputing that here was a real teaching – and hence its importance for both the Catholic University and, later, the Oratory School. Since they were starting without the aid of this tradition, Newman deliberated about how to substitute for this ‘invisible teacher’, as well as how to grow it from seed.

After the staff mutiny at the Oratory School in December 1861, which involved the whole teaching staff and one of the two dames, Newman became much more involved in the running of the school, above all its pastoral side, dealing with both staff and parents. The detail and incisiveness of his termly letters to parents – a novelty at the time, for in this, as in other matters, he was a pioneer – was symptomatic of his concern for the individual and of the way his mind instinctively recoiled from systems requiring identical treatment of people. To Newman’s thinking a school was like a university, “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill”.[12] To compile his school reports Newman pulled together observations and opinions from the whole staff to provide a balanced overview. The insights they contain show that he had a rare gift for judging individuals and a keen understanding of what boys were like.

A theme Newman repeatedly emphasised to parents was the need for patience with their sons. He calmed their eagerness for quick gains, insisting that the phases of growing up be respected and that irritating but passing habits be overlooked: boys could not be forced like plants; each would bear flower and fruit in his own season. Newman showed considerable understanding and patience for the fitful process of adolescent maturation, as can be seen from his comments on the young Duke of Norfolk:

“He has fits of negligence when everything goes wrong, and then we are perplexed with the number of impositions which fall upon him from every quarter – and we have to release him from the weight of them, as best we may.

There are boys who do him harm by encouraging him to make game of these magisterial corrections – and he sometimes comes up for the imposition, as if it were good fun. (Pray, do not hint this to him.) He will become more manly in a little time. […] As to ourselves, the only fear is that, from extreme anxiety about him, we should meddle with him too much, and make too much of little things.”[13]

Lack of patience arose from anxiety and not having “confidence enough in God’s mercy”, he told the duchess: “We ought in the first place to put him into the hands of Divine Love – and then do our part carefully and calmly.”[14]

One concrete expression of Newman’s pastoral oversight was the introduction of ‘characters’ after the end of term exams. At these individual interviews the headmaster would read out an account of the boy’s progress and behaviour; then Newman would give a few words of encouragement or approval – or, if necessary, a telling-off. (A similar procedure took place at the Catholic University, where once a year students were summoned one by one to appear before the rector and listen to a report of behaviour and progress read by the student’s dean and lecturers.) Newman attached great importance to hearing the termly ‘characters’, refusing to depute the task to others. Nor was he satisfied with a mere acquaintance with the boys; he aimed to know them well and even to make their personal friendship – and this in spite of the age gap, for he was fifty eight when the school began. A clue to his ability to relate to boys comes from Oscar Browning, educational reformer at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. Browning stayed overnight at the Oratory in 1866 and was struck by “Newman’s marvellous copiousness of language and abundant fluency, also with his use of harmless worldly slang, that he might not appear priggish or monkish”.[15]

Newman’s approach reflected (and, I should add, inspired) a gradual change at the time towards a better master-pupil relationship and less reliance on corporal punishment.[16] In one of his university sketches, he had ridiculed with devastating effect “the reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality”, and had remarked: “An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter”.

“I have experienced a state of things, in which teachers were cut off from the taught as by an insurmountable barrier; when neither party entered into the thoughts of the other; when each lived by and in itself; when the tutor was supposed to fulfil his duty, if he trotted on like a squirrel in his cage, if at a certain hour he was in a certain room, or in hall, or in chapel, as it might be; and the pupil did his duty too, if he was careful to meet his tutor in that same room, or hall, or chapel, at the same certain hour; and when neither the one nor the other dreamed of seeing each other out of lecture, out of chapel, out of academical gown. I have known places where a stiff manner, a pompous voice, coldness and condescension, were the teacher’s attributes, and where he neither knew, nor wished to know, and avowed he did not wish to know, the private irregularities of the youths committed to his charge.”

By contrast, Newman described how at Oxford those like himself who united rule and influence “gained the hearts and became the guides of the youthful generation”.[17]

Several decades later his venerable age and status meant that this approach was less feasible, although it was still his aim. Reflecting on his schooldays in the 1880s, Arthur Pollen recalled that nothing pleased Newman more than making friends with the boys, and the many opportunities they had of personal contact with him made their friendship a real one. On the other hand, another old boy, Lord Edmund Howard, considered that Newman was not on particularly familiar terms with the boys – a fact which merely indicates how the chemistry of friendship only worked in some cases.

By all accounts it was Richard Pope who best fulfilled Newman’s idea of the teacher at the Oratory School who is kind and sympathetic to boys. “Pa Dick”, as he was known, had the rare knack of gaining their confidence and affection, while remaining a strict disciplinarian. He regularly took boys in twos and threes for walks – different ones each time – and used the opportunity to give words of advice by steering the conversations onto serious topics, yet without appearing to preach. Remembered as a fatherly figure, he managed to combine his enormous contribution to school life with raising eight children, a task made especially difficult by his being widowed twice.

Despite his emphasis on providing a liberal education, Newman did not neglect preparation for the working world. (He might well have approved of a touch-typing course as a useful skill for life!) In preparing young people to lead a life of useful service in the world, he was keenly aware that lack of success at school was no indicator against future success.

“[…] boys at school look like each other, and pursue the same studies, some of them with greater success than others; but it will sometimes happen, that those who acquitted themselves but poorly in class, when they come into the action of life, and engage in some particular work, which they have already been learning in its theory and with little promise of proficiency, are suddenly found to have what is called an eye for that work – an eye for trade matters, or for engineering, or a special taste for literature – which no one expected from them at school, while they were engaged on notions.”[18]

As the purpose of education was “to prepare for the world”,[19] it was vital to cater for the individual as far as possible. The school was for the boys, not vice versa: studies were tailored to suit individual needs; rules were waived for good reasons; expectations varied according to the individual.

Newman was well aware of what lay beyond school and the dangers ahead: “We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them. […] Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel”.[20] What is clear from the tone he set at the Oratory School is that he strove for a new balance in that precarious transition from boyhood to manhood, placing a premium on trust. Experience had taught him that “nothing is more perilous to the soul than the sudden transition from restraint to liberty. […] boys who are kept jealously at home or under severe schoolmasters till the very moment when they are called to take part in the business of the world, are the very persons about whom we have most cause to entertain misgivings”.[21] Overall he saw the need for a gradation of liberties as the young person approached adulthood – what might be termed a progressive “education in freedom”.

Throughout his life Newman was preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of human freedom, and in particular how it played out in a person’s formative years. In all his educational ventures he grappled with how best to negotiate that delicate and gradual process of launching the young person into the world, how to pitch demands and expectations with just that right mixture of freedom and restraint. He was acutely aware of the need to avoid excessive regulation and oversight on the one hand, and neglect on the other. In Newman’s age as in our own, well meaning but counterproductive over protectiveness at the various stages of education was as common as gross neglect; and then, as now, this was particularly evident at that crucial moment of transition from school to university.

Newman’s sensitivity to the ways of boys – foibles and all – enabled him to pitch his demands with precision, and so with success. He placed great emphasis both on attention to the individual and on liaison with parents; these striking features were established only by dint of enormous personal effort, writing all the reports and seeing all the boys, individually, after exams. Unlike the great nineteenth-century headmasters, Newman’s influence derived from dealing with boys separately or in small groups rather than addressing them en masse. One pupil described “Jack”, or “old Jack” (as Newman was irreverently, if affectionately, known), as a gentle, understanding and approachable figure for whom nothing was too trivial to attend to. When the editorial of The Weekly Wasp, a magazine run entirely by boys, criticised the school administration for providing inadequate facilities, such as the lack of equipment in the gymnasium or the solitary washbasin in the lavatories, Newman saw to it that their grievances were met. Given the importance he attributed to the religious dimension of the school, it comes as no surprise that he turned a deaf ear to their complaints that chapel services were too long and should be made voluntary.

The evidence shows that Newman sought to achieve the right balance between work and play. The school, he felt, ought to make good scholars out of good boys: he declared to one parent, “it is not simply our aim, but our passion to do so”.[22] From the advice he gave, it is clear he considered there was no substitute for hard graft. Yet he was equally insistent – particularly with parents – that boys needed their playtime; his usual reaction to parents who asked for extra tuition for their sons was to remind them of the boys’ reluctance to forfeit free time outside lessons. Organised games coexisted with a large variety of other outdoor pursuits; and extra curricular activities such as music, journalism, debating and acting thrived. Newman himself oversaw the production of the annual Latin play, and he sometimes joined boys in their music recitals, playing second violin.

In his celebrated portrait of a gentleman in the Idea, Newman paints an attractive picture of the educated man who has acquired human virtues with an evident fullness; but for all Newman’s admiration of the civility and culture of the refined natural man, he realises that education and formation also operate at a higher level in moulding the Christian. Nevertheless, while educating in a Christian setting, Newman was careful to respect education’s inner autonomy; he understood the relationship between education and religion by recognising that “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another”.[23] This is why he could claim that “the University is, we may again repeat, a secular institution, yet partaking of a religious character”.[24] He recognised the harmonious fusion of the secular and religious in the education which was introduced in the twelfth century: “the germ of the new civilisation of Europe, which was to join together what man had divided, to adjust the claims of Reason and Revelation, and to fit men for this world while it trained them for another”.[25] (This last expression sums up Newman’s approach to education.) In the same way he distinguishes in equally stark fashion between a secular university and a fully Christian one:

“A great University is a great power, and can do great things; but, unless it be something more than human, it is but foolishness and vanity […] It is really dead, though it seems to live, unless it be grafted upon the True Vine […] Idle is our labour, worthless is our toil, ashes is our fruit, corruption is our reward, unless we begin the foundation of this great undertaking in faith and prayer, and sanctify it by purity of life.”[26]

Newman was convinced that the disjunction of academic and moral education was one of the great evils of the age. He saw through the argument that by becoming more knowledgeable, a man would become better morally; such an idea, he held, was based on a false understanding of human nature, for it did away with any conception of moral development and neglected the education of conscience. In 1865, six years after founding the Oratory School, he felt able to ‘boast’ to one of his co-founders that the school really had solved “the problem of combining a good intellectual education with Catholic morality” [27], which had been the aim from the outset.

But is Newman’s example applicable today? Surely the world we inhabit is so different from that of Newman. Among more recent technological advances, the internet has led to a multiplication of learning experiences and easy access to a new universe of information, which means that the need for unity of knowledge has dramatically increased so as to avoid fragmentation, not just of knowledge, but the whole of human life. Educational institutions which are deeply fragmented themselves cannot help here; but those which hold on to a unified understanding of the world might be able to provide public service by ensuring society is culturally leavened by them. It is worth noting that Newman wrote about the importance of gaining an overview or “a connected view”[28] of things precisely at a time when there was an explosion of information through the dissemination of cheap literature and that he did so in order to caution about the use to which it would be put. Though not on the same scale as the internet revolution, the first half of the nineteenth century did witness a profusion of information that was unprecedented, and this lends Newman’s words extra weight and applicability.

In finishing, what can I say about Newman’s legacy as regards school education? It should be remembered that Newman’s mark on Oxford education was made, not only by reforming systems, but by personal influence, according to his principle that “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us”.[29] Likewise Newman’s contribution to school education, though less telling than his contribution to higher education, can be measured not so much in terms of new arrangements as by a variety of indirect means. Three insights into the human condition underpinned his foundation at Edgbaston: his conviction that the school’s mission was best viewed as a joint undertaking with parents; his insistence that preparation for the world required an appropriate training; and his stress on the importance of trust between teachers and boys.

[1] The leading historian of university education Sheldon Rothblatt describes the Idea as “unquestionably the single most important treatise in the English language on the nature and meaning of higher education” (An Oxonian “idea” of a university: JH Newman and “well-being”, The history of the University of Oxford VI, ed Brock, MG & Curthoys, MC, Oxford: OUP, 1997, p 287).
[2] Examples include: Maskell, D & Robinson, I, The new idea of a university (2001); Graham, G, Universities: the recovery of an idea (2002); Collini, S, What are universities for? (2012); Higton, M, A theology of higher education (2012), as well as MacIntyre, God, philosophy, universities (2009).
[3] Newman is the pivotal figure in Pelikan, J, The idea of the university: a re-examination (1992) and in Rothblatt, S, The modern university and its discontents: the fate of Newman’s legacies in Britain and America (1997).
[4] John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990) quotes from the Idea of a university on three occasions, and each of the three references says something about the general university, not just the Catholic one: note 23 cites the Idea, pp 102–3; section 16 and note 23 cite the Idea, p 457; and section 4 cites the Idea, p xi.
[5] “[Newman’s] example has left a lasting legacy. As an educator, his work was profoundly influential in Oxford, Dublin and beyond, while his treatise, The Idea of a University, remains a defining text to this day” (Prince of Wales, HRH Charles, “John Henry Newman: the harmony of difference”, L’Osservatore Romano/The Times, 12th October 2019).
[6] See Dulles, Avery Cardinal, “Newman’s university today”, address to the Cardinal Newman Society, Washington DC, 11th November 2001.
[7]. Journal entry, 21st January 1863, Newman, JH, John Henry Newman: Autobiographical writings, ed Tristram, H (London: Sheed & Ward, 1956), p 259.
[8] Memorandum, 29th April 1854, Newman, JH, My campaign in Ireland, Part 1: Catholic University reports and other papers, ed Neville, W (Aberdeen [Ireland]: A King & Co, 1896), p 9. Newman uses this or similar expressions on a number of other occasions, eg Newman, JH, Historical sketches III (1872; London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1909), p 6; Newman, JH, The idea of a university: defined and illustrated (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1873; 1907), p 170.
[9] Report for the Year 1854–55, 13th October 1855, Newman, JH, My campaign, pp 39–40.
[10] Report for the Year 1854–55, 13 October 1855, Newman, JH, My campaign, p 40. There is more than an echo here of the prefect system introduced by Thomas Arnold at Rugby which played a key part in reforming the public school system. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century it gradually became accepted that character training was enhanced by a delegation of authority to the boys themselves and that, besides instilling virtues, self government had two practical advantages: it made the headmaster’s job easier, and it prevented rebellion by uniting some of the most influential boys with the masters. Though theologically at odds with Arnold’s latitudinarianism, Newman clearly admired his use of surrogate authority and employed it himself.
[11] Newman, JH, Idea of a university, p 147.
[12]. Newman, JH, Idea of a university, pp 144–45.
[13]. Newman to the Duchess of Norfolk, 16th April 1862, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XX (London: T Nelson, 1961–72; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973–2008), pp 187–88.
[14]. Newman to the Duchess of Norfolk, 30th December 1863, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XX, p 572.
[15]. Browning, O, Memories of sixty years at Eton, Cambridge and elsewhere (London: John Lane, 1910), p 269.
[16] Under the first headmaster, the leader of the mutiny, endless floggings coexisted with an extremely lax regime. Newman approved of neither, though he valued school as a place for toughening up boys through discipline and contact with their school fellows. He disliked “the notion of corporal punishment” and the threat of it too, and he once objected to a boy’s ears being pulled, because “their persons should be sacred” (Newman to Faber, 6th February 1849, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XIII, p 27). Under him there was no fagging, and corporal punishment was rarely administered, and then only by the headmaster or ‘Prefect of discipline’. Nevertheless, Newman maintained that “the good old punishment of flogging, is, in due moderation as to severity and frequency, the most efficacious of all punishments”, being “the most prompt and summary, and the least irritating and annoying to the subjects of it. It is done and over – there is nothing to brood over, nothing to create a grudge, at least to English boys.” (Newman to Taylor, 15th February 1869, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XXIV p 216).
[17] Newman, JH, Historical sketches III, pp 74–76.
[18].Newman, JH, An essay in aid of a Grammar of assent (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1870; 1898), pp 75–76.
[19]. Newman, JH, Idea of a university, p 232.
[20] Newman, JH, Idea of a university, p 233.
[21]. Newman, JH, My campaign, pp 36-37.
[22]. Newman to J Simeon, 22nd August 1864, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XXI, p 205.
[23] Newman, JH, Idea of a university, p 120.
[24] Newman, JH, “Architectural description of the University Church”, Catholic University Gazette 51 (3rd April 1856), p 60.
[25] Newman, JH, Historical sketches III, p 152.
[26] “The secret power of divine grace”, sermon preached at the Catholic University Church, 28th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856, Newman, JH, Sermons preached on various occasions (1870; London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1898), pp 58−9.
[27] Newman to Hope-Scott, 28th April 1865, Newman, JH, Letters and diaries XXI, p 454.
[28] Newman, JH, Idea of a university, p 134.
[29]. Newman, JH, “The Tamworth Reading Room”, Discussions and arguments on various subjects (1872; London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1891), p 293.

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