The Catholic University of America

April 28, 2011

Oxford Scholar Discusses Misconceptions of The Idea of a University

 
  Rev. Ian Ker delivers his lecture on Cardinal John Henry Newman.

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Rev. Ian Ker described Cardinal John Henry Newman’s book The Idea of a University as “the one classic on university education” in an April 27 lecture titled “Newman’s Idea of a University — Some Misunderstandings.”

However, Father Ker — one of the world’s leading experts on Newman and a senior research fellow in theology at Oxford University — noted that Newman’s work has been misinterpreted in some ways.

Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 19, 2010, was the rector at the Catholic University of Ireland from 1854 to 1858. The book, which was published in 1873, was written in two parts at different times: one on university teaching (1852) and one on university subjects (1858).

In his book, Newman wrote that liberal education was the principal goal of a university. Newman’s definition of a liberal education, Father Ker noted, is not a liberal arts education as it is understood today, but “a real cultivation of the mind.”

“The heart of his philosophy of education was to use one’s mind, to think,” said Father Ker.

In order to perfect the intellect, Newman felt that a university should teach students how to use all parts of the mind, Father Ker explained. For example, students should be able to use their imagination, make judgments, see how subjects relate to each other, and express their thoughts clearly.

Father Ker notes that Newman would have been opposed to large lectures where students scribble endless notes without the information sinking in.

“The learning of facts is not, for Newman, a liberal education because it’s just memorizing,” he said. “You’re not using your mind.”

Newman also saw students as a large part of the teaching process, which is why he thought it was so important for students to live on campus and create an “intellectual community.” Even if there were no teachers, the students would still be capable of learning from each other. Newman thought a self-education — through books and conversations with peers — offered more development of the mind than “impersonal lectures,” Father Ker said.

Cultivating knowledge applied not only to the mind, but to the university as well, Father Ker said. Newman thought that the University should be open to teaching anything that is knowable. Although a university couldn’t possibly teach every subject, it should be open to the possibility of teaching any topic.

Similarly, in order to receive a liberal education, students should be made aware of subjects other than those they are studying. Even if they can’t pursue them all, they benefit from the knowledge of their existence, explained Father Ker.

 

Audience members listen to Father Ker's lecture.

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One of the most common misunderstandings about Newman was that he thought a University was only a place for teaching universal knowledge, not the advancement of it through research. Father Ker noted that some readers of Newman’s book think he was “hostile” toward research. In fact, while at the Catholic University of Ireland, Newman laid out plans for research institutes.

To Newman, research is a part of a university in order to protect the interest of science, but that’s not the only reason, according to Father Ker. “Research is an end result of intellectual pursuit,” he said.

In the end, Father Ker noted that all universities have changed since Newman’s time but that does not mean that his ideas are irrelevant today.

“The fundamental principles of Newman are still of value,” he said. “If you stray too far from them, you can’t be a university.”

While preparing for his new role as president of CUA, Garvey read The Idea of a University. The book inspired Garvey in his selection of the inaugural year theme “Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University.” This lecture was part of a series of events related to that theme.

Father Ker is generally recognized as the leading authority on the life and thought of Newman. He has written and edited more than 20 books about Newman, including the Oxford critical edition of The Idea of a University and John Henry Newman: A Biography. He is also the author of The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961 and Mere Catholicism.

In introducing Father Ker, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, described the scholar as “breaking news” in the United Kingdom as his new book, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, was just published there last week.

Father Ker has taught both English literature and theology at universities in Britain and the United States.

 

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