Just over two months ago, on November 17, was the 150th anniversary of the resignation of John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman) as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. Newman was the founding Rector of the university, which had opened its doors to students four years earlier in November 1854. Without going into the details here, today’s University College Dublin traces its roots back to Newman’s original enterprise on Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
John Henry Newman was a remarkable man: a theologian, priest (in two different denominations), philosopher, educationalist, scholar and poet, who had a profound influence on opinions and events of his time, both in England and in Ireland. His epic poem Dream of Gerontius (set to music later by Elgar) also contains some well known hymns, such as ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. An Englishman who had been first a well-known Anglican priest, and then a Roman Catholic one, he had come to Ireland at the request of the Irish bishops to establish the Catholic University. It was not a happy experience for him, but it gave him a platform for an influential piece of writing, The Idea of a University.
Strictly speaking this was not a book, but rather series of lectures (or ‘discourses’) delivered to ‘the Catholics of Dublin’. The purpose of these was to set out how a university should address its intellectual and pedagogical tasks in order to provide a ‘liberal education’. Newman believed that students should be taught, in a critical context, to acquire knowledge for its own sake, not as part of a broader ultilitarian purpose. He summarised the university’s key obective as follows:
‘Its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.’ (Discourse 6, p. 127)
Newman has been quoted regularly in the debates about how universities should see their roles in today’s world. I would in fact encourage anyone with an interest in higher education to read The Idea of a University, which was a thoroughly liberal and progressive piece of analysis in its day, and an exceptionally good foundation for a new university (demonstrated, perhaps, by the fact that it did not recommend itself as such to the Catholic hierarchy of the day in Ireland). But whether it is a blueprint for a 21st century university is another matter; we are in a very different world from that of mid-19th century Dublin.
However, we cannot easily argue with Newman, because as a society we have not undertaken the important task of asking what we expect of a university today. Universities still on the whole continue on the course set for them in the Middle Ages, as perhaps adjusted a little as a result of the growth of the sciences and engineering in the 19th century, and the addition of education for the professions in the 20th century. We don’t even know whether there should be several models, or just one model with some marginal variations. Most of the reviews that have been commissioned focus sharply on organisational and related matters, but neglect this broader examination of mission.
As we face yet another strategic review of the system in Ireland, it is time that we ask this important question of general principle, before we move on to operational matters: what is our modern university actually for? If Newman were writing today, what would he say? It is time for us to address that.