The Idea of a University：A Boo何光琦
As to higher education, so many brilliant intellectuals have dedicated themselves to the core issue of “What is a university and what is it for?” This is exactly what John Henry Newman’s classic book The Idea of A University, first published in 1854, expresses its concerns on and attempts to answer. It was not until 1873 that all contents were collected in the book, making itself a rich collection of treatises consisting of two main sections.
The first section of the book is entitled “University Teaching”, which is actually a series of nine discourses on university teaching given on the inauguration of the Catholic University of Ireland, of which Newman the author was its first Rector. The second part, similarly, is a collection of occasional lectures gathered under the theme of “University Subjects”, mainly discussing all kinds of subjects in a university and nearly all branches of knowledge, including their different relations and distinctions. Starting with an etymological proposition that a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge, Newman unfolds his logical, eloquent arguments gradually and takes up an erudite defense of the virtue of universal knowledge, the value of liberal education and his ideal image of a university with classic traditions of cultivating students rather than merely teaching professional skills.
In the preface and the introduction as the first discourse, Newman stresses what a university should be, indicating that he needs to elicit the discussion of university education in his position of Roman Catholicism. Facing the challenge that the theology in traditional British universities was confronted with due to social drastic changes at the time, especially the challenge brought by natural science, the author emphasizes the completeness of knowledge from Discourse 2 to Discourse 4, in order to demonstrate the validity of Theology as a branch of knowledge as well as truth about God, and to make clear the relationships between Theology and other branches of knowledge. Besides, he draws an important conclusion in Discourse 5 that the value of knowledge taught in a university is not for utility but for the sake of knowledge itself, viz., that “knowledge is not merely a means to something beyond it, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake”(John Henry Newman, 1854). Therefore, in his opinion, we will disvalue the knowledge in universities once we only pay attention to the usefulness of knowledge.
From Discourse 6 to Discourse 8, Newman continues his discussion of knowledge, but his attention switches to the knowledge viewed in relation to learning, professional skill and religious duty. And further, in the last discourse of University Teaching, he argues upon his Catholic ground about the role Catholic churches should play in universities to carry out their duties towards knowledge without making such a university a Catholic Institution. Whether his arguments were successful or not, his original intention to reconcile university-church relation without violating the liberal spirit of universities is appreciated and well-meaning. From the first section, it can be simply observed that Newman gives what is probably the classic defense of liberal education, articulates a Christian vision for the unity of knowledge, and also articulates the friend/foe relationship in which the Church has often found itself with regard to higher learning.
The second section includes lectures on Christianity and letters, English Catholic literature, Elementary studies, a lecture on Infidelity, University Preaching, several lectures on Christianity and the sciences, and a lecture on the Discipline of the Mind. Among these lectures, it stands out to me that Newman owns the wisdom to let each discipline pursue its own modes of inquiry and classify them in a well-ordered way, as he explores what we call the intersection or integration of faith and disciplines.
To sum up, there is no doubt that the book not only is classic, but is still of value even until now. One of the strengths is that Newman’s powerful analyses of the issue are logical, profound, and involving a wide range of knowledge. Atheists may criticize Newman for the reason that his Catholicism limits his vision of university inquiry while finding his arguments convincing and his efforts to construct academic freedom challenging at the same time; at least they are bound to acknowledge his erudition. As an important figure in religion, Newman has the ability to be eloquent and avoid simplifying the problems. What’s more, although Newman places universities in a lofty position where universities become a place of universal education, he is careful enough not to exaggerate the function of them, asserting that it is qualified citizens not great genius or moral saints that universities are capable of producing. Unlike Socrates, Newman holds the view that Knowledge is not in any case the same as virtue and that the object of university is intellectual, not moral.
As a Victorian work, of course we can notice many constraints about it, including patriarchal, nationalist bias, and ultimate singular view of truth that Modernists may oppose and so forth, let alone the questionable conception of a university and controversial emphasis on imparting knowledge without researching and developing knowledge. However, it is not a book of concrete measures. The marrow of this book is more about its consciousness of questions than its answers. “I believe,” Nagel mentioned , “we should trust problems over solutions.”(Thomas Nagel, 1979) This book is heuristic because the questions it discusses are alive and hence at the center of discussion on universities for the last two centuries. His answers may include both truth and errors, but his questions have never died so far.
In conclusion, no matter whether you are a Christian or an anti-Christian, a scholar or a learner, a critic or an advocate, you will be immersed in the refreshing thinking and characteristic prose of this incredible, enlightening book.