Thursday, February 15, 2018


Critical note on John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University”

The Idea of a University is a selection from a famous series of lectures given on the occasion of the founding of the Catholic University of Dublin. They were given by John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) in 1852 and 1854. His Preface begins:

“The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following: that it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement."
Newman answers the question "What is a University?" in this way:

"It is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation."

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974; New York: Bantam, 1981), Robert M. Pirsig has his philosopher-hero Phaedrus explain:

"The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, 'reason,' there's a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

 But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist."

A comparison of the views about a university of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proves the enduring value of Newman's thought. We can safely say that history has vindicated Newman's position to a great extent and he is still relevant to us.

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