Moralizing Newman: Intellectual Formation in Idea of a University

Moralizing Newman: Intellectual Formation in Idea of a University

Almost two centuries ago, St. John Henry Newman detected the seeds of what are now rotting weeds in our educational establishments. His writings on education, therefore, bear important insights to diagnose the root and restore the whole. For instance, Newman famously articulates that no system in itself is the solution. True renewal, in education and other things, grows from well-formed persons, not expensive and unwieldy programs.

         Newman has much to offer professors, teachers, parents, and students alike. However, these contributions are often obscured by well-meaning academics who mis-read and facilely dismiss his notions about the intellect. In the preface to Idea of a University, he writes,

[The University] 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. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.

Newman appears to be strongly dividing intellectual from moral formation, and banishing the moral from the University. Many worry over this apparent disregard of moral formation, which would be a departure from a tradition that holds moral formation as necessary to apprehending intellectual truth. But this is a mis-reading. The Idea of a University is a collection of discourses addressed to the bishops and laymen invested in the foundation of a new Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland in 1851. Newman’s statements are carefully crafted for the occasion and the audience. Many in Britain were promoting “mixed education,” that is, schools where both Protestants and Catholics could attend, leaving theology and religious formation out in favor of a looser conciliation. In the midst of rampant Rationalism and secularization in the long century, many like Newman were rightfully disturbed. Newman’s Idea discourses strongly opposed mixed education, just after Pius IX condemned it in 1850. 

Newman’s sensitivity to the occasion and audience is complex. It should be kept close in mind that Newman’s style is not scholastic, more like classical oration or polemics, aimed at persuasion, moving hearts and wills, not just minds, on given occasions. Ecclesiastics wanted strong seminary formation; Rationalists demoted theology from Queen of the sciences to a soft, disposable liberal art; and long-disenfranchised Catholics, kept out of University by law in England and Ireland since the 1600s, suspected English educational institutions of breeding a Protestant ethos. Martin J. Svaglic puts it well in his introduction to Idea: Newman thought the University liberals needed “Hebraizing,” while Catholics needed “Hellenizing.” The Rationalists needed strong moral ballasts, while Catholics needed intellectual cultivation. By 1863, Newman would write in his journal, 

To me conversions were not the first thing, but the edification of Catholics… Catholics in England, from their very blindness, cannot see that they are blind. To aim then at improving the condition, the status, of the Catholic body, by a careful survey of their argumentative basis, of their position relatively to the philosophy and the character of the day, by giving them juster views, by enlarging and refining their minds, in one word, by education… from first to last, education, in the large sense of the word, has been my line…”

Thus, in speaking about the University and intellectual formation, Newman is not elevating intellect above morality. He is making careful distinctions between the University and the Church, the University and the College, secular knowledge and religious formation, and the formation of an individual within the context of an institution’s ultimate purpose. 

The University and the Church

         Newman’s Catholic University in Dublin sought to provide a refuge of sound Catholic education for students from across the British Isles, still two decades before the abolishing of the University Tests Act, which welcomed Catholics back into the educational establishment. Contradicting both the Rationalists and the Church of England’s Erastian tendency, Newman affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Church, which even the University must submit to. Early in the Preface to Idea he lays out his second principle: the University “cannot fulfill its object duly … without the Church’s assistance … the Church is necessary for its integrity.” In Discourse IX he elaborates that Philosophy contributes to morality only under “the shadow of the Church.” The object of a University is to form minds in the truth, for which moral and spiritual authority is required. But the Church, not the University, is such an authority, both competent and necessary. The University has an office to perform: its essence, teaching universal knowledge, cultivating a “culture of the intellect.” The Church, true to her own distinct role, “steadies [the University] in the performance of that office.” The Church oversees the “spiritual welfare” of students, tending to “their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.” The Church assimilates intellectual endeavor under the aegis of faith and morals, orienting all to God.

Newman is concerned that the University not encroach on this ecclesial domain. The University will not, in itself, produce a rational moral utopia. The University is important, but does not itself dispense nor guarantee morality. This would be a reversion to Enlightenment rationalism, which thinks that moral progress can be made through the unaided exercise of reason. Therefore, the University is an intellectual, not strictly moral, authority in society, although it makes use of moral formation and must be guided by other moral authorities. The University is not, ultimately, a Church, nor a Natural Family, nor a Moral Reformatory. Newman might have said it this way: the University recruits moral formation for the cause of intellectual progress, while the Church recruits intellectual formation for the cause of Christian moral and spiritual progress. Both, together, with their distinct purposes, are vital parts of a flourishing society, while distinct in essence.

The University and the College

         Further, since their inception in the Medieval ages, schools of higher education have been small societies unto themselves within the wider society. The term “university” was applied only relatively late, as the studium generale developed Canon Law, Civil Law, Medicine, and Theology as the higher, more universal pursuits. For Newman, himself an Oxford man, a University is very distinct from, although organically related to, a College. The college, historically, brought young pupils in contact with tutors. The tutors not only met with students regularly one-on-one, but also lived in close proximity to them as moral exemplars. This was, at least, the historical precedent, which had practice had fallen far from the idea in Newman’s own time as a student, tutor, and fellow. The tutors were supposed to be in loco parentis, in the place of parents, since many of the young men traveled from far away to live at and attend school. The University, on the other hand, which was constituted by many colleges and tutors within it, was defined by bringing students in contact with professors in the higher faculties, usually by means of professorial lectures. In Historical Sketches Volume III, Newman has an important series of reflections titled “The Rise and Progress of Universities,” also collected under the title University Sketches. These Sketches are an essential supplement to the Idea. Newman makes clear that the “tutorial system” fulfills the strict idea of the College, the proper aim of which is moral formation, while,

The professorial system fulfills the strict idea of a University, and is sufficient for its being, but it is not sufficient for its well-being. Colleges constitute the integrity of a University.

Moral formation is the proper domain of the college, not just for Newman but also, in his argument, for the historic university-college system. The “essence” of the University is intellectual formation, but this is the bare-bones “idea”; it is not the living, flesh and blood human reality of people gathered together for intellectual endeavor. The colleges supply the “well-being,” the eudaimonia, the moral formation necessary to order intellectual endeavor. University Sketches is all about bringing the “idea” of a University to life, applying the abstract notions to the living embodiment and human phenomenon of pursuing knowledge.

Intellectual formation limits the “being” of a school, while moral formation animates the “well-being” of a school. In Chapter XIX of University Sketches, he clarifies:

The University is for the world, and the College is for the nation. The University is for the professor, and the College for the Tutor; the University is for the philosophical discourse, the eloquent sermon, or the well-contested disputation; and the college for the catechetical lecture. The University is for theology, law, and medicine, for natural history, for physical science, and for the sciences generally and their promulgation; the College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics, and those rudimental sciences which strengthen and sharpen the intellect…

Moral formation is in some degree a prerequisite for “cultivation of mind” and “improvement of the individual,” the agency of which is primarily the college tutorial system. He continues,

Colleges themselves are important political bodies, independent of the civil power; but at the same time they are national bodies; they represent not the human mind, but sections of the political community… whereas a University is an intellectual power, as such, just as the Church is a religious power. Intellect, as well as Faith and Conscience, are authorities simply independent of State and Nation; State and Nation are but different aspects of one and the same power; and thus the State and Nation will endure chapters and colleges, as they bear city companies and municipalities, but not a Church, not a University.

The college is in close proximity to the functioning of the “political community,” of which it is a representative. The Church and University, on the other hand, are independent from the State as Authorities, operating under the respective auspices of “Faith and Conscience,” authorities unto themselves insofar as Faith grasps the true God, and Conscience is purified so as to know truth. The University is thus a representation of the “human mind” in a manner distinct, but related to, colleges, which bear closer resemblance to a political concern for people’s “well-being.” Colleges serve more parochial, provincial purposes, whereas Universities are, well, more universal and metropolitan, representing the human mind in a more purified sense. The college forms students holistically in order to generally approach truth; having been thus formed, the University allows students to actually approach that truth in specific actuality.

The University and Religious Formation

Ironically, those who fail to recognize this distinction are near the very Rationalism that Newman wrote about so forcefully against. That is, they might approach what he called “secular knowledge,” or intellectual progress, as that which makes humans moral. Rather, Newman distinguishes intellectual formation as the University’s proper end in order to avoid turning the University into the dispenser of morality and guarantor of moral behavior through reason alone. This is especially evident in his series of articles collected in The Tamworth Reading Room, in which Newman is at his highest pitch of polemical and journalistic rhetoric. The articles are in reaction to the public statements of Sir Robert Peel, soon to serve his second term as British Prime Minister. In 1841, Peel had founded a public Reading Room, a library which he expressed high utopian for, that it would ameliorate and even morally cultivate the condition of poor and working class English through intellectual and scientific education. Newman’s response is not only a strong defense of religion as the only real means of moral improvement, but is also barbed with satirical oratory about the blindness of trusting blithely in human reason as an ultimate moral formator:

It does not require many words, then, to determine that, taking human nature as it is actually found, and assuming that there is an Art of life, to say that it consists, or in any essential manner is placed, in the cultivation of Knowledge, that the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, and can thus be amused into immortality,—that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gases, or chipping of rocks, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretences which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms.

Newman was very much a champion of education, but he recognized the limits of pure reason and scientific inquiry. Inasmuch as the schools and libraries are essential for “cultivation of mind,” religion is the essential cause of moral formation.

The University and Personal Formation

 Both formation of mind and morals are, in their respective measures, instrumental to formation of religious conscience, the free moral authority that puts one in touch with the ultimate authority of God. In Chapter VII of University Sketches, Newman looks to the Greek schools at Athens as a model for his principle of “personal influence” as essential to formation of conscience, that true human cultivation, of mind or morals, occurs not through a system but through living contact with other well-formed persons. Interestingly, he focuses largely on the importance of the schools as physical places where this contact can occur, preeminently through the living persons of tutors and professors. 

While Idea of a University, corrects erroneous ideas and establishes first principles, University Sketches colors in the flesh and blood, the living reality, of education. Newman saw all systems as originating from personal influence, just as the total formation a pupil experiences while in the presence of a master or guide. He says that the “history of society… begins in the poet, and ends in the policeman,” begins with the inspiration of a powerful individual and ends in “system,” for good or ill. Given first principles, Newman still thought true education could not be formed exclusively by theory, but supremely through the actual, intimate contact between instructor and pupil.

This results in what the Preface to Idea describes as the complicated total formation of a human person. Newman hoped his University graduates would, in accord with knowledge and right reason, have formed a “philosophic habit of mind,” or “cultivation of mind” not only to understand truth, but to “do much for truth.” This implies virtue, high moral formation. Knowing the agricultural roots of the word for “cultivation” conveys the essence of Newman’s thought about “liberal education,” which “bring(s) the mind into form.” A liberal education, in the form of its cultivated pupils, “does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others.” Newman describes the successful pupil as having acquired “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, steadiness of view … power of influencing others, and sagacity,” which all culminates in “… a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science of profession.” The well-cultivated mind possesses the power to inform its own conscience, to seek out and integrate knowledge in service of its definite actions in society, church, or university. 

Further, this entails a maturation and transformation into a person of sense and manners—a person who does not merely know things, but knows how to apply those things in eloquent, mannered, compelling and beautiful ways. Thus, the end of a University education is the total integration of knowledge into the heart, mind, and soul of a well-cultivated person. In this sense, oriented to formation of conscience, Newman’s ideas about the University are supremely moral. The personal presence of a well-formed person leavens society with truth and charity, thought and action. No “mere hereditary Christian,” the graduate energetically and consistently works hard for the common cause of Catholic truth. 

The University is instrumental to this cause, but itself can only perfect what is supplied by other human bodies. Newman’s dicta that the University’s essential aim is “intellectual, not moral,” is a first principle about authority and boundary: it is not within the University’s authority to generate moral or social activists. It is the place of the University to supply society with knowledge; it is the place of other authoritative social institutions, like the Church, the Family, the political community, and the Conscience, to form criteria for acting upon that knowledge. The University supplies principles for philosophy and thought, not action. The University must not presume to be a Church or a Family or a State. Philosophic and scientific inquiries might imply a certain course of action, but to Newman it is not the role of the University to commend or ensure that course of action. The University produces free agents who, under other auspices, act in accord with truth.

Paul Shrimpton demonstrates this characterization of Newman’s thought in his book TheMaking of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin. According to Shrimpton, Newman saw the truest, highest embodiment of education in the instructor. The person of the teacher brings to life “the power of discipline with the power of influence” with “all the consistency of a living idea.” Newman himself practiced this: his students looked up to him as a “father rather than a superior.” Newman consistently wanted his students to use books, but not depend upon them, in the sense that he wanted their learning to truly enter their hearts and animate their being. Shrimpton narrates the vivid evidence of Newman’s actual practice of education, even surveying extant student papers with Newman’s personal comments, for instance, exhorting a student to think about how he would explain his thesis extemporaneously to someone who asked about it at a party. 

Shrimpton chronicles Newman’s fight, at Oxford, against academic decadence and lassitude, of students who dwindled into idleness without the harsh threat of failure. He saw the absence of a traditio docta, even if the traditio docens remained strong. His solution, in part, was to strive to make students feel at home, to feel that their school was a “place of residence” wherein they had responsibility, not merely privilege and punishment. Shrimpton illustrates with a striking quote from Newman’s 1856 sermon, “Intellect, the Instrument of Religious Training,” the first in a series preached before the Catholic University of Ireland in honor of the opening of its church:

I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline… I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.

Newman saw education as a corporal work of mercy. He took the motto of the University from the Latin of Matthew 25:34: “Hospes eram, et collegistis me” [I was a stranger, and you welcomed me]. It is the college, in particular, that does this work, welcoming strangers into a new collegiality, a new setting, a new hospitality, of diverse but unified persons joined in a common pursuit of truth. This ideal of mixing the religious and intellectual, the moral and academic, remained largely an ideal for Newman. Newman resigned his post as rector of the Catholic University in 1859, and returned undivided to his duties at the Birmingham Oratory. It had been clear the project was failing for some years, due in part to low enrollment, attracting instructors, and difficulty uniting the Irish Bishops and University instructors in a single purpose. Newman’s high standards for bringing moral and intellectual rigor under the same roof were perhaps ahead of his time, the full fruits of which might now, today, be more within our grasp. 


Newman’s philosophy is the full growth of 12th century scholasticism, which Newman himself said was “the germ of the new civilization of Europe, which was to join together what man had divided, to adjust the claims of Reason and Revelation, and to fit men for this world while it trained them for another.” Newman’s University is a place for teaching universal knowledge, by virtue of Reason. The Church’s possession of Revelation, and authoritative love for her children, grants her the duty and right to undergird with faith and morals this universal human enterprise to seek truth. The natural result of this complex human pursuit is the propagation of human persons formed in the truth who can effectively, intelligently, and conscientiously act well for the sake of that truth in society. Newman’s philosophy of education is not only in line with the historic Catholic principles related to formation of intellect, morals, and conscience, but his writings are essential for those today who are today fighting a more advanced stage of the same battle Newman fought. In order to “fit men for this world” while training them “for another,” the University and Church must work together, recruiting the full gamut of human potential, in order to produce persons of conscience and action. Without heeding Newman’s thought, we may inadvertently be training men “for this world” while making them unfit for “another.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s