The nineteenth-century Catholic theologian John Henry Newman was recently canonized by Pope Francis. Newman is the author of many important works, but none are as relevant to Christian higher education as his The Idea of a University. In several weeks, I will lead a discussion on it. Here are a few initial thoughts, especially with an aim to contextualizing the work historically:
Although perhaps more invoked than read, Newman’s The Idea of a University remains a key work for thinking about a university’s confessional identity and the role of theology and the liberal arts therein. However, it is a difficult book because a) its discourses were written for a very specific occasion and b) Newman’s eloquence often veers toward prolixity. His tweedy donnishness and Victorian sensibilities also put off many contemporary readers—and this is to say nothing of his unconcern about questions that we might associate with pluralism.
1840s - Ireland - Bishops - Newman - Convert
In the late 1840s, Ireland’s bishops tapped Newman, a recent convert to Catholicism, to establish a distinctively Catholic university as a counterweight to Britain’s Anglican universities (and “Nonconformist” dissenting academies) and as a counter-example to trends of higher education on the Continent.
The French Revolution had devastated the university scene of Europe’s Ancien Régime, in which universities were theoretically “universal” institutions of Christendom, best seen in the professor’s so-called “ius ubique docendi,” the right to teach anywhere. Before the Revolution, 143 universities existed in Europe; afterwards, only 80. In 1793, the University of Paris—its Sorbonne for centuries synonymous with theological learning of the highest caliber–was shuttered, the endowments of its many “colleges” treated as ecclesiastical properties and appropriated by the state. When a new university system arose—Napoleon’s l’universitè imperiale of 1808—it was a highly centralized, statist creation, professionally-oriented, and decidedly in the service of the “nation state”; all professors were now civil servants and expected...
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