John Henry Newman and the Cure for Modern Learning

In 1852, Cardinal John Henry Newman published The Idea of a University, a series of lectures that offers his defense of liberal education. Cardinal Newman offers a consistent and clear purpose of a liberal education: Liberal education teaches one how to think freely and actively participate in society, while representing virtue, humility, and independence.

Newman was a prominent Catholic scholar from England and a graduate of Oxford University. In 1851, Irish Catholic bishops requested his assistance in chartering a new Catholic university in Ireland. Many universities in the English-speaking world were Protestant, and Europe’s major Catholic universities had also been secularized. Ninety percent of the United Kingdom’s Catholics, however, were Irish (Rodger, 2011). Not only were they Irish, but many of them were poor and ultimately illiterate. Education in the technical arts were as far as most Irish Catholics would go. Newman, on the other hand, attempted to convince his audiences that education meant more than training. While education would indeed teach honorable professions, such as medicine and law, the spirit of Newman’s university was creating an institution that taught young men to think. 

Newman’s university would host a moral and religious Catholic atmosphere, due to the Irish Catholic audiences he presented to. He envisioned a university where science and theology existed side by side. He argued the presence of theology was necessary to maintain the moral integrity of the university, as well as essential to a holistic curriculum. Newman writes, “In order to have possession of truth at all, we must have the whole truth; and no one science, no two sciences, no one family of sciences, nay, not even all secular science, is the whole truth.” Theology, therefore, was seen as an equal science among the other subjects at a university. His university would not remain purely secular, as in, absent of studying theology, but secular as in ensuring students were able to think freely. Newman’s university encouraged students to think for themselves, as opposed to following strict ecclesiastical material from the Catholic Church.

Throughout The Idea of a University, Newman summarizes how liberal education, or the ability to think freely, is a sound foundation for character development. Newman states, “Education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character: it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connection with religion and virtue.” Nearly a century later later, African-American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued liberal education prepared African-Americans for political and civic leadership in the face of discrimination. In his essay, The Purpose of Education, King writes, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” The progress and security of civil rights, King argued, was possible through liberal education.

Newman also says, “It [liberal education] is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.” Newman speaks of a student who is well-defined in their conduct and methods of expression, and conveys their opinions with eloquence and confidence. Their rhetoric is persuasive and mature among others. The conduct of this student convinces others to pursue his method of acquiring it because they see that it contributes greatly to their character and identity. 

The Idea of a University has a lasting influence on higher education and remains relevant in today’s modern campus and job market. The Pew Research Center discovered that 39% of the American public believes the main purpose of a college education is to grow personally and intellectually. Forbes.com lists 12 qualities employers look for when hiring, among them independent thought and an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. An article from Inside Higher Ed, states, “We should not allow questions and criticisms arising from anxieties about change, nor the dazzle of the new, lead us to slacken our efforts to preserve and enhance the particular power and value of what universities offer. In other words, the increasing demand for market-based skills and the advancement of new technologies should not bury the fact liberal education remains the foundation for cultivating the mind, developing virtuous character, and preparing human beings to participate in the world.