How to Succeed in College IV: Cardinal Newman

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.


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8 years 3 months ago
I have a couple comments
First, the use of the term liberal in todays politics was made popular during Franklin Roosevelt's time as president.  Its use arose in the late 20's as a new way to say progressive which got a bad name as a result of Wilson's presidency.  We mainly use the term ''liberal'' today in that context.  Though it is interesting that the very negative term ''progressive'' is making a come back mainly because liberal has gotten a bad name and few today know the really bad baggage that ''progressive'' had.
Originally liberal flowed from ideas in the 19th century such as Mills and de Tocqueville.  It emphasized liberty and universal education as protection from oppression.  The modern use of liberal and the traditional use have little in common.  So Newman was a 19th century liberal and I personally agree that a liberal education is highly prized but most can not afford it in the sense that if one is paying close to $150,000 for a college education, then one had better be able to pay for it with employment.  It is probably best gotten after college today as there are numerous opportunities to expand one's understanding of the world with a traditional liberal education.
So I second Newman's recommendation but college may not be the best place to get such an education since a most college professors are illiberal in the traditional sense.  A high percentage of college professors are atheist and as such they must defend this ideology by what they teach and hence limit a truly liberal education.  They identify strongly with the modern use of liberal which is anathema with the traditional use of the term.
Second, Father Schroth use the term ''right wing'' and I bet he can not define it or justify his use of this expression.  It is a typical pejorative thrown at those who one does not like or agree with.  As discussed on other threads, it is a meaningless term in today's society unless one wants to use it in a libertarian sense and I am sure that Father Schroth does not have that intent.

david power
8 years 3 months ago
Newman was interesting because for all of his love of tradition he was insistent on finding his own path.The question to which the author disagrees with Cardinal Newman is one I asked myself about ten years ago ,and is the same question that perplexed Aristotle.What is the relationship between knowledge and virtue?Such an education does not make you a more moral person but perhaps more consciously aware of moral questions.
Those who would define themselves as moral people or think it secretly are probably only so within their own definition.
Does the reading of a book or listening to a lecture eliminate Original Sin? Newman was Catholic in a way that most of us today would struggle to be. Like Chesterton and Wilde he understood profoundly the difference between  Catholicism and other relationships with reality.He would spot the intrinsic puritanism of our ways in an act because he being catholic by sensibility would agree that "the puritan is only strong enough to stiffen,the catholic is strong enough to relax" . Apart from the rightwing comments it was a good  article.  Thanks 


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