Universities could learn a lesson from Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote the Dream of Gerontius

Anyone acquainted with the portrait of Blessed John Henry Newman in his cardinal’s robes, painted by Millais, might be tempted to form an opinion of him based on this image alone: a man whose features reflect an otherworld austere beauty and refined sensitivity. But this is only one aspect of Newman’s many-sided genius. In a book that has recently absorbed me, The ‘Making of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin, by Paul Shrimpton, I have been confronted by an entirely different Newman: a man of action, an indefatigable administrator, someone of infinite pains and great energy – indeed, a person who, in another (lesser) sphere, might have reached the top of a government department.

Central to the book is Newman’s emphasis on the pastoral dimension of university life: how to assist the development of character, ie. the virtues, in young men (women were not then admitted to higher education) at a critical time in their lives. Shrimpton demonstrates how this conviction was present in Newman’s thinking while a tutor at Oriel and later when struggling, single-handed, to found the Catholic University in Dublin. Indeed, as a curate in St Clement’s, Oxford, he had preached in a sermon before the age of 25 that “all education should be conducted on the principle that it is a means to an end, and that end is Christian holiness.”

This principle did not prevent Newman from considering every aspect of university life in the formation of an educated laity: their intellectual studies, embracing the nascent sciences as well as medicine, the humanities, languages and the classics; also, crucially, the kind of residential setting best suited to the volatility of youth. To read the book is to be in awe of the responsibilities he willingly undertook, especially in Dublin. People today talk of the work involved in starting a primary free school. Try starting a university from scratch, with all the obstacles that Newman encountered, both among the Irish middle classes and the Irish hierarchy.

The book’s author, who has spent nine years researching and writing the book – alongside his full-time work as a history teacher at Magdalen College School, Oxford, for the last 28 years – tells me that “Newman in action – dealing with problems, deciding priorities, comparing systems of organisation, anticipating future trends and developments” shows that his ideas “are not just attractive (and beautifully expressed) but eminently practicable.”

Newman’s attempts to start a Catholic university in Dublin between 1854 and 1858 are usually considered a failure. Paul Shrimpton is at pains to explain that although many circumstances conspired to prevent him fulfilling this project, Newman was not impractical in the way he set up and ran the university. His book shows, admirably and with a wealth of research, how Newman “practiced, as opposed to preached about, education.”

Shrimpton emphasises that Newman’s celebrated book on higher education, The Idea of a University, “does not convey his full vision” as it “only hints at the importance of the pastoral dimension of education” – a crucial part of Newman’s teaching and tutoring experience at Oriel College. In Dublin, his abiding aim “was to create the best possible conditions for human flourishing”. His thinking is reflected in his remark that “residence without examinations comes nearer to the idea of a University Education than examinations without residence.”

All this is a far cry from modern universities, designed by those who run them and those who study at them, as merely a means to a career.
This is the antithesis of Newman’s outlook as a great modern Christian humanist and educator, wanting to teach young people, as the author states, “not how to make a living but how to live.” Shrimpton hopes his book will show Newman “nurturing a university into existence, guiding both teachers and taught and promoting human flourishing within lecture hall, library and laboratory as well as by means of student journalism, debating and sport.”

Shrimpton comments that modern universities “wash their hands of the non-teaching side of student life” and that “virtually no-one has challenged the process and asked why.” He believes Newman would have objected strongly: “He witnessed the beginning of that unrestrained quest for professional training and mere technical knowledge urged by the liberals and the utilitarians of his day and saw an antidote in both a genuinely liberal education and a collegiate education.”

For Newman, the author reminds me, the moral education of the whole person “was an essential part of a liberal education, an education supposed to form and shape character and inculcate a sense of responsibility to society.” As a teacher himself of long experience, engaged in preparing students for university, Shrimpton is convinced that “pastoral oversight and a healthy living environment are needed today more than ever, for students are exposed as never before to the self-destructive temptations of popular culture and only lip service is paid to the idea of ‘pastoral wellbeing’ – surely a consequence of a postmodern society where there is no consensus of what it means to be a well-formed person.”

Shrimpton thinks that being a schoolmaster himself has helped him to be more on Newman’s wavelength. He adds, “Yet while my profession attuned and sensitised me to many of Newman’s ideas, at the same time his ideas have in turn influenced how I approach my work in countless ways. His rich understanding of the human condition is so wonderfully inspirational – and challenging – that it is difficult to resist the influence of his lofty vision.”

His book has certainly inspired me – and changed the way I view Newman. Last week, my grandson, who has just started at Newman’s old college, Trinity, showed me round the college. Outside Garden Quad I saw the famous bust of the Cardinal. Unlike the Millais portrait his features look resolute and authoritative – indeed, those of a gifted administrator and man of action.