Unless you have been on the moon or in a prison cellar during the past month, you have seen or read something about John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the great 19th century intellectuals of the English church and the man for whom Pope Benedict XVI traveled last week to England to declare “Blessed,” which means that soon he will also be named a saint.
College students should know about him because there are Newman Clubs all over the country in state and secular universities to serve as auxiliary intellectual centers for Catholics on non-Catholic campuses.
Also because a right-wing alumni group from Catholic colleges called the Cardinal Newman Society has tacked his name on their efforts to discredit Catholic universities which, in their estimation are not “Catholic” enough. If you have let Barack Obama speak on your campus they will get after you. Newman himself would not recognize his ideas among them.
In England the pope was greeted by protestors who thought he had not done enough to punish pedophile priests, but he drew big crowds anyway, to the surprise of atheists and Protestants convinced the pope is irrelevant or a bad guy.
If you are just a basic college student, or even if you never went to college, why should you care? He has been hovering in the background of the Catholic and other college minds for over a 100 years because of his ideas about education. Every contemporary young man or woman who goes to college, whether he or she knows it or not, has been touched by his ideas.
Recently the media have run with some of the anecdotes about his life and death. When he died he was buried, at his request, next to his best friend, a symbol of the depth of their relationship. Did he as a theologian imagine that this would keep them together in the afterlife, or was it just a romantic gesture? When they recently opened his tomb in order to move it, he was nothing but dust. Apparently he wanted to dissolve, as testimony to his confidence in the resurrection.
More important, Newman matters because of his ideas. He said the whole people of the church, not just the hierarchy, should have a voice in the development of doctrine and governance of the church. And that popes should not rule for life. They get too old and make a lot of mistakes.
In 19th mid-century he was asked to found a university for Irish Catholics, since their opportunities for education at the elite Oxford and Cambridge were limited. Newman had gone to Oxford as an Anglican and had read himself into the Roman Catholic church. So he approached this task with gifts from both worlds. And to lay the theoretical groundwork he gave a series of lectures on what higher education is all about, collected in a classic book every top educator — at least the Catholic ones — has on his or her shelf behind the desk, The Idea of a University.
Here comes the hard part. He advocates “liberal” education. Not liberal politics, but education that has no utilitarian goal, “useless” in that it does not teach you a trade that will get you a job. He was not against job training itself; his university was to have a medical school. But all those philosophy, theology, literature, history, etc, courses that make up the “core” of liberal education are to train your mind. As you study, they should all be connected to one another in order to give you a specific unified vision of reality and then make you a special kind of person known then as a “gentleman.”
This is hard to swallow for someone who has come to college with a totally utilitarian outlook. Sometimes I was tempted to motivate students to read great books with the argument that to know Tolstoy, Dickens, Hemingway, and the Bible means you will recognize all the literary allusions in books and films, and you will shine in conversation. It’s true, but misses the point. Reading them will bring you into a different world and, if you let them, make you a better person. That might get you a higher salary, and it might not.
He also saw friendship at the heart of learning. He said if he had to choose between a college where the students listened to lectures and one where they had no lectures but all lived together and talked about their reading, he would take the intellectual dorm life.
Strangely — and I do not agree with him on this — he did not expect the courses to make you a more moral person. That, he said was asking too much. And he did not emphasize research and publication — creating new knowledge — for faculty.
But making you a gentleman made you more aware, more considerate, sensitive to others. A gentleman is “one who does not inflict pain.” When you think of it, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.