In 1856, on the Feast of Saint Monica, John Henry Newman delivered a sermon on the topic “Intellect, Instrument of Religious Training.” Newman, rector of the new Catholic University of Ireland, poses the question of the goal or intention of the Church in establishing universities. Comparing the Church’s relationship to young students with Monica’s relationship to her son, Augustine, he proposes that the aim of the Church is “to reunite things that were in the beginning joined together by God but which have been put asunder by man.” The sermon contains a brilliant philosophy of adolescent development and of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation of youth.
It is also a vision that seems strikingly at odds with the conception of higher education that Newman articulates in his famous book, The Idea of a University. That book, composed as he was preparing to take over as rector of the Catholic University in Ireland, defends the thesis that the goal of the university is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—the discovery of truth in its complexity and its unity.
As is well known, Newman eschews the notion that a university education is about the direct formation of moral character. That thesis has led some to believe that Newman was indifferent to the connection between education and moral formation. Yet Idea provides only a partial picture of Newman’s full conception of education. Elsewhere, and perhaps most notably in the sermon on the feast of St. Monica, he addresses moral formation in some detail.
It is important to be aware of the historical context in which Newman was writing. When he argues that knowledge—at least the sort of knowledge afforded by academic study—does not produce moral virtue, he was working against the grain of Enlightenment views of education, which assume that the right kind of information will make human beings moral and good citizens. In his fine study of Newman, The “Making of Men”: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin, Paul Shrimpton writes, “The whole foundation of Bentham’s utilitarian University College in London was premised on the idea that knowledge does make men better morally; as early as the 1830s Newman was a consistent critic of this fallacy of the march of the mind.”
These theorists, according to Newman, are caught in the grips of a theory about the power of theory. They suppose that “our true excellence comes not from within, but from without; not wrought out through personal struggle and suffering; but following upon a passive exposure to influences over which we have no control.” Newman repudiates the determinism at the root of this position, which has the further defects of ignoring moral struggle, the need for the development of conscience, and the slow inculcation of moral virtue through habitual action. He is appalled at the astonishing naïveté about the nature of evil. In a famous passage he writes: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.” Newman was acutely aware of the blindness to which human nature is prone. In his suspicion of a primarily academic approach to moral formation, he echoes Aristotle’s reservations about those who would “take refuge in theory.”
Whenever he writes about education, two themes are prominent: integration and development. For Newman, the healthy operation of the human intellect is not merely about the accumulation of a series of isolated true propositions. Instead, he stresses the interrelatedness of all knowledge and the mind’s synthetic desire to put together or at least place in relationship the parts of its knowledge. Analytical skills are necessary but insufficient. What Newman addresses here is more than an “academic” matter of mastering disciplines and their connections. Instead, it involves making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own. It is a digestion of what we receive into the substance of our previous state of thought. It is a living organic knowledge—a knowledge that develops over time as it encompasses and integrates what was hitherto unknown. Such an approach to knowledge enables the individual to form a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near. Without such knowledge, Newman insists, there is “no whole and no center.”
The key fact of Newman’s own life, his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, embodies this very account of the natural development of the human mind. As he read the sources of the Christian tradition, he came to have doubts about the Anglican assertions of apostolic antiquity and came gradually to think that Catholicism had a better claim to an authentic development of doctrine out of the early church. Whatever one makes of Newman’s arguments and decision, the narrative of his life is an example of what he ends up teaching. This developmental model surfaces throughout Newman’s writings.
There is a remarkable parallel between Newman’s understanding of the way in which large-scale traditions mature or fail to develop, and his conception of the evolution of an individual human soul. The accent on development is palpable in the sermon mentioned above. Newman notes that in youth the various powers of the soul operate without much conflict. With the adolescent development of both desire and reason, the powers seek out different spheres of exercise. He has in mind “passion or appetite,” “brute strength and material resources,” “the reign of virtue,” and the “reign of intellect.” The exercise of these capacities often takes place in quite different arenas, under the influence of adults who are especially adept at some but not at others. “[I]t is commonly thought, because some men follow duty, others pleasure, others glory, and others intellect, therefore that one of these things excludes the other; that duty cannot be pleasant, that virtue cannot be intellectual, that goodness cannot be great, that conscientiousness cannot be heroic.” And Newman concedes that, in many human lives, “there is a separation” and often eventually an opposition between the spheres.
A Catholic university, Newman insists, must be about the business of subduing the rise of small dominions or independent kingdoms in young souls. It ought especially to be about undermining the assumption that intellectual and religious development are incompatible: the assumption, perhaps more common even in our time than in Newman’s, that “to be religious, you must be ignorant, and to be intellectual, you must be unbelieving.” Newman shares with his religious contemporaries a desire that Catholic education should be about the formation of faithful adults. What distinguishes his account is the way in which he thinks this can be effectively done. He thinks that residential, collegiate living is the place where character formation chiefly occurs. But even here the formation is not what is characteristic of a seminary: it is a preparation for the world. Indeed, as Shrimpton notes, Newman’s focus on knowledge for its own sake in Idea is in part designed as a corrective to the anti-intellectualism so prominent in Catholic life, particularly in Ireland, at the time.
Newman was quite sensitive to the fact that with regard to the education of intelligent and ambitious youth, heavy-handed legalism was more apt to lead to rebellious unbelief than to obedience. He understands that a forced or premature unity of diverse capacities or ways of seeing the world can be as damaging as settling for disunity. He is also not calling for a compromise between faith and reason, as if each must be watered down to accommodate the other. Instead, he wishes “the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom.” Here we find the clue to understanding how he can hold both that knowledge is an end in itself and that it can be an instrument of religious training. The educational institution needs to be led by faculty and staff who embody both sorts of excellence. The religious and the intellectual should “be found in one and the same place, exemplified in the same persons.”
Newman’s account of the development of a young soul in its journey toward adulthood is pertinent to secular as well as sacred learning. The splintering of what was once unified is a common experience in the movement from childhood into adolescence. Newman says that after an initial period of disorientation and frustration, young persons begin “to lose the delight” they “once had in going home.” It is important to see that the road home, once the naïve unity of childhood has been shattered, does not for Newman involve a Romantic return to the innocence of childhood. It involves a searching intellect that aims to incorporate new thought and experience with what one already possesses, thus giving rise to new ways of seeing past and present. Characteristic of this approach is a forward motion that incorporates the past rather than either a) erasing it, as progressivism advocates, or b) calling for some sort of nostalgic return, as Romanticism in reaction to progressive rationalism proposes.
In our time, when universities have become small cities with a huge number of purposes, Newman’s insistence on the pursuit of truth, in its complexity and unity, offers a bracing clarity about the purpose of the university. The uniting of differing spheres of excellence is a hallmark of Newman’s fully fleshed-out idea of a university. In its collegiate, residential dimension, where formative friendships occur around conversation and shared worship, moral and spiritual formation is prominent. Of course, the natural bent of the human mind, in its pursuit of an integrated truth about the whole, inclines toward God as source and summit of all truth. What young men and women most need is adults in their midst who joyfully embody integration: integration of the parts of knowledge and integration of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions of human existence.