John Henry Newman and Catholic Higher Education

An interview with Dr. Paul Shrimpton, author of "The ‘Making of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin"

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Shrimpton, who teaches mathematics at Magdalen College School, Oxford, to talk to him about his wonderful new book The “Making of Men”: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin (Gracewing, 2014). In sharing with me what motivated him to write the book, Dr. Shrimpton offered a number of fascinating insights into why Newman’s educational achievements should continue to enlighten and guide present educators.     

CWR: One of the pleasures of studying Blessed John Henry Newman and his great work is meeting other scholars who devote so much of their lives to the same study that has fired one’s own heart and mind. What led you first to studying and then to writing about Newman?

Paul Shrimpton: I first came across Newman’s Idea of a University when I was 18 and in my final year at secondary school, and I returned to it five years later, in my final year at Oxford. Not only was it couched in sublime English, but so many of Newman’s thoughts had that resonance of truth about them that I became entranced with their author—not just as a writer, but as someone who was actively working in education, as I wanted to do. Then in 1990, shortly after reading Ian Ker’s magisterial biography of Newman, I had the opportunity to write a dissertation on Newman and education as part of my Master’s course, and I have been engaged in researching and writing about Newman ever since.

CWR: Your first book, A Catholic Eton: Newman’s Oratory School, remains the classic study of Newman’s Oratory School. How did The “Making of Men” grow out of that first book?

Shrimpton: After finishing my doctoral thesis on Newman and the foundation of the Oratory School, I decided to try to turn my research into a story for the public. I was fortunate enough to have access to hundreds of documents in the Birmingham Oratory archive—letters to Newman or between friends of his, and other items connected with the foundation of the Oratory School. While I was working on this treasure-trove of primary sources, I realized that it might be possible to do something similar for the Catholic University Newman founded in Dublin. I had noticed that key features of Newman’s school foundation had been neglected in the existing accounts of the university—especially Newman’s pastoral approach to education, his vision of the residential place of learning as the best place for human flourishing. So having identified a lacuna in studies of Newman’s educational activity, and having the sources to hand, I set to work on The “Making of Men.”

CWR: You mention a few highly regarded studies in The “Making of Men”—those by Fergal McGrath, for example, and A.D. Culler. How does your study differ from those? Are there other scholars from whom you have benefited in your work on Newman?

Shrimpton: Fergal McGrath’s Newman’s University (1951) is an impressive piece of scholarship, and it has been the definitive work on the Catholic University for 60 years, but it does have important gaps. McGrath says nothing about Newman’s previous educational activity in Oxford; he does not really give a picture of day-to-day life at the Catholic University while Newman was rector (which is surprising, because the book is full of detail); and he says very little about what happened after Newman’s departure. I was able to fill in the gaps using the archival material that McGrath could not find or did not know about, and so bring out the pastoral dimension of Newman’s vision.

The other major study, Dwight Culler’s Imperial Intellect (1955), focuses on Newman’s idea of a liberal education and his theory of knowledge, but the section dealing with Dublin is actually quite short. A lot of new material has appeared since the studies of Culler and McGrath were published; and the development of the history of higher education means that we can now put the subject within a broader context.

Besides the leading Newman scholar, Ian Ker, I have drawn ideas from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the historian of education Sheldon Rothblatt. Of course, I have benefitted in countless ways from many others, and I have credited their input in my copious footnotes and bibliography.

CWR: Two vulgar errors dog Newman and his educational work. One, that he was an advocate for a kind of education for the sake of education, with no concern for the practical implications of education; and two, that his work in Dublin with the Catholic University was an immitigable failure. What do you have to say about these two misconceptions? 

Shrimpton: In the first place I think Newman was very much alive to the practical side of education. I think that few people today realize that the most successful faculty of the Catholic University—by far—was the medical faculty: when the Catholic University Medical School was absorbed into University College Dublin in 1909, it was the largest medical school in the country. Newman had a good understanding of the dynamics of science and its need for “elbow room”: you can see that in some of his lectures in the Idea of a University. He set up the faculty of science in Dublin 20 years before Maxwell opened the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge; he had chemistry and physics laboratories and ensured that the library was well-stocked with scientific papers and journals, he offered scholarships and prizes for science students, and he urged the scientists at the university to undertake research. And the chemistry laboratory was not just for medical students or those doing pure scientific research, but also for practical purposes—agriculture, mining, metallurgy, bleaching, even brewing and sugar-boiling and paper-making. He also tried to set up a faculty of law, though he did not succeed. But despite all this, Newman believed that a university “should be formally based (as it really is), and should emphatically live in, the Faculty of Arts.”

It is true that the Catholic University failed to take off; but it does not follow that this was Newman’s fault. In fact the venture was simply impossible: no one could have made it work. Ireland was devastated after the Great Famine of the 1840s; the British Government would not give the university either a charter or an endowment; there was no tradition of university education among Irish Catholics, and people failed to understand what it meant; Irish society was deeply divided politically, and clericalism and anti-clericalism were prevalent too. Interestingly, Newman was sanguine about the long-term prospects of the university. On leaving Dublin he remarked, “It does not prove that what I have written and planned will not take effect sometime and somewhere because it does not at once. […] When I am gone, something may come of what I have done at Dublin.” He also explained that the Dublin “disaster” fitted a pattern that was not man’s, but of a higher order: “It is the rule of God’s Providence that we should succeed by failure.”

CWR: What would you regard as the true essence of Newman’s idea of university education?

Shrimpton: The true essence of Newman’s idea of university education is encapsulated in his educational classic The Idea of University, but for its fully flourishing form you have to read his Rise and Progress of Universities and see what he achieved in Dublin. My book focuses on the latter, the full university education, rather than on the former, the essence. With that proviso, a very brief sketch would be something like this:

University education requires teachers and students. The subject matter is all knowledge, and although it is impossible to have all subjects represented, no major subject should be excluded on principle. The university is not primarily a research institution: it is a place where young people come to learn to think, to be “properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things.” Knowledge is an end in itself, and the university does not need to be justified by considerations of a utilitarian nature. In the course of providing “real cultivation of mind” and training in intellectual virtues, a proper university education will help the student acquire “a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.” In this sense, university education is useful because intellectual virtues are goods which have an intrinsic economic and social usefulness, even if this usefulness is not their main aim.

Newman’s attitude is summed up in his working principle that “though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.” This liberal education also provides training in social virtues: it “makes the gentleman” (but not necessarily the Christian). So, if “a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.” While admitting the theoretical autonomy of knowledge from morality—the university is not there to make men good, but to teach them to think—Newman maintains that in practice a link exists between them. Neither is there a clear division between the natural and supernatural orders: “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.” In both cases education entails benefits which extend beyond the purely intellectual.

CWR: Is it true that Newman’s ideas simply failed to find any traction anywhere?

Shrimpton: Newman’s Idea of a University is generally regarded as the most influential book in the English language on the nature and purpose of a university education, and it has influenced practice in higher education in untold ways. Identifying institutions that are particularly inspired by Newman is not so straightforward. In many ways, the liberal arts colleges in North America are most like his ideal, as they encapsulate the priority on teaching (rather than research), on a living intellectual community that nurtures and forms those within it, and on the liberal arts themselves, which are ideal for teaching students how to think. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the Oxbridge collegiate and tutorial systems incorporate his favored structures—the collegiate and tutorial systems—to promote that mental culture and social training he desires.

CWR: Does the present university bear out Newman’s analysis of what he saw as the problems afflicting the 19th-century university?  

Shrimpton: Newman’s analysis of problems in the 19th-century university focused particularly on the defects of the “professorial system” of university education, even though it was far from clear that this would become the dominant system throughout the world; instead Newman championed a fusing of the tutorial and professorial systems in a collegiate university. As well as identifying the weaknesses of a teaching system based only on lectures, Newman pointed to the wider implications of neglecting the pastoral dimension of education. He says: “These may be called the three vital principles of the Christian student, faith, chastity, love; because their contraries, viz., unbelief or heresy, impurity, and enmity, are just the three great sins against God, ourselves, and our neighbor, which are the death of the soul.” It is easy to see the results in today’s students: religious infidelity and indifferentism, sexual license of every kind, and a selfishly narcissistic individualism.

CWR: A good deal of Newman’s work with the Catholic University in Dublin grew out of his work as a Fellow of Oriel in Oxford.  Can you share with our readers how the one led to the other?  

Shrimpton: Newman was a Fellow of Oriel, then the most prestigious college in Oxford, from 1822 to 1845. He threw himself into pastoral and academic work, and while a college tutor he and two other tutors effectively laid the seeds of the modern tutorial system. Not only did he help to revive learning and set high academic standards, but he introduced a totally new teacher-pupil relationship: he would spend evenings and weekends with his pupils and invite them to his rooms for breakfast and dinner; he took a deep interest in their intellectual and cultural development, and fostered their spiritual well-being. This activity was not something distinct from his preaching at the University Church and his role in the Oxford Movement, but rather a practical working out of the movement’s principles. During the 1830s and 1840s there were various attempts to reform Oxford, and these too helped Newman identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Oxford system. When the Irish bishops chose Newman as the founding rector of the Catholic University, the institution he devised combined aspects of Oxford and Louvain universities, and drew heavily on his experience of working with young people.

CWR: Newman always regarded himself, first and foremost, as an educator.  He spent an immense amount of time, especially in his letters, educating the laity about the doctrinal truths of the Faith.  One does not find any comparable commitment to education in any of his Catholic contemporaries.  Why was education so important to Newman? 

Shrimpton: It is perhaps worth clarifying first what Newman meant by “education.” Remarks such as his famous declaration that “from first to last, education, in this large sense of the word, has been my line,” show that he had a very broad (“large”) conception of what the word “education” meant. He resisted the tendency—common then as now—to reduce its meaning and narrow its scope; in particular, he did not consider it something confined to formal moments or institutional settings.

Newman had a human vocation to educate, though he was shy by nature and had to work hard at it. At the same time he saw this calling sub specie aeternitatis as a means of doing good to others, a form of intellectual charity. When in his mid-20s he felt called to the Anglican ministry, he wondered whether he ought to pursue parish or missionary work, but instead he opted for teaching at an Oxford college, as he considered that a way of fulfilling his Anglican ordination vows and what God was calling him to undertake. Unlike other prominent educators, his preferred method of influencing others was individually rather than addressing them en masse; indeed, his mind instinctively recoiled from an identical treatment of individuals, for he felt that “an academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter.”

CWR: Did Newman anticipate the threats to education that we encounter now in so many of our universities and schools?

Shrimpton: Newman lived at the start of the modern age, when, for the first time, Christian educational traditions were being seriously challenged and alternatives proposed. This makes Newman very interesting for us, because he confronts non-Christian approaches at the time they were beginning to be propagated and responds to them with reasoned arguments. For example, on the occasion of the opening of a public “reading room” at Tamworth in 1841, when Sir Robert Peel gave a speech about the public benefits that greater access to knowledge would promote, Newman wrote a series of satirical letters to the Times to ridicule the belief that secular knowledge could lead to virtue and knowledge of God. He challenged the utilitarian attitudes that Peel espoused, arguing that education ought not to be confused with vocational training.

I think it would be an exaggeration to say that Newman anticipated many of the problems that universities and schools face today, but at the same time it is clear that his writings and deeds address many of the problems that we face today. In that sense his legacy is highly pertinent. For example, reacting to the explosion of information through the dissemination of cheap literature that took place in the first half of the 19th century, Newman wrote about the importance of the personal dimension of education and of gaining an overview, or “a connected view,” of things in order to caution about the use to which this unprecedented profusion of information would be put. Though [this was] not on the same scale as the Internet revolution, Newman’s words can steer us in the right direction when we face a similar problem today.

CWR: In your Introduction, you quote one of Newman’s successors at the Catholic University at the end of Newman’s life, who says he felt “assured that the plan for higher education and the system of university government which you initiated and organized, will, centuries hence, be studied by all who may have to legislate for Catholic education, as among the most precious of the documents which they shall possess to inform and guide them.” Obviously, not all Catholic colleges today pay Newman’s plan for higher education much mind. Do you foresee this changing?

Shrimpton: Newman’s practical scheme in Dublin has had little direct influence on the development of the college or university anywhere, even of Catholic ones. A nodding acquaintance with the Idea of a University and the selection of a few choice quotations from it on a mission statement are one thing, but a study of the man of action and his schemes are quite another. My main object in writing The “Making of Men” was to encourage reflection on Newman’s practical contribution to higher education, because up until now there has been no adequate account of Newman’s educational endeavors in Oxford and Dublin—nothing that does justice to the full force of his pastoral vision and practice. So the book is in part a summons to reform by one of the great Christian humanists.

CWR: Many commentators have argued that while The Idea of a University is a great book and while Newman himself was a great educator, the plan for higher education that he advocated in both his book and in his Catholic University are simply impracticable in today’s unavoidably pluralist university setting. Dr. Stefan Collini, for example, who teaches intellectual history at Cambridge University, recently argued this in What Are Universities For? (2012). How do you respond to such objections?  

Shrimpton: I think we have to bear in mind that academics like Stefan Collini, even if they see the Idea of a University as impractical for the modern age, still have great respect for Newman’s argument that a liberal education transforms us as human beings; that it makes us into what we ought to be and need to be if we are to be good human beings; that it schools the mind in how to make judgments—and that this makes one better fitted to take any role. No one has expressed this as winningly as Newman. But it is true that while the successful, research-led university still pays homage to Newman, it does not really try to enter into his thinking, and so rejects Newman’s “Catholic” plans—and indeed the very idea of a Christian academy.

In The “Making of Men” I refer to the counter-arguments of the leading philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He asserts that the three major issues that put Newman at odds with the contemporary research university’s understanding of its mission are “its pursuit of highly specialized knowledge, the secular university’s understanding of what it is to be secular, and the university’s self-justification by appeal to considerations of social utility.” Each of these three points rejects a central affirmation of the Idea, and in rejecting these affirmations the modern university contends that Newman’s arguments are not just false, but irrelevant. But in addition, each of them betrays a fundamental defect of the modern research university which prevents it from engaging in radical self-criticism and evaluation of its ends. If the “successful” university no longer recognizes Newman’s arguments, it is because it has lost the ability to think about its own purpose and goal.

My book is written as a contribution to the debate about the university, but not by means of an extended argument. Instead, my book is about the university John Henry Newman established in 1854, the bricks-and-mortar institution he set up, together with its structures and genius loci—and it is these that are the book’s main response to Collini.

Against those who assert that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms, Newman argues that a true Catholic academy would recognize the legitimate autonomy of each discipline but would be blessed with the wisdom of the Creator in giving direction and unity to the whole of the intellectual endeavor, and be best placed to foster the true integral development of the human person. There, the presence of the Church would steady the intellect in its search for truth, sheltered from the “dictatorship of relativism,” which has undermined the very notion of objective truth in so many institutions and paved the way for political correctness to set the agenda. One chronic symptom of the postmodern society is that there are no longer shared values and a consensus of what it means to be a well-formed person; another that the young person is left to his own devices in that notoriously difficult stage in life when one is making the transition from home to the world. To the extent that the university neglects its role of nurturing well-formed and educated citizens, it will form adults incapable of participating in the institutions of social and political organization.

Newman provides a much-needed educational vision today as an attractive alternative to the shapeless, relativistic, and uninspiring alternatives of so many contemporary universities. His practice and example will appeal to those who value the idea of a liberal education, those interested in the education of the whole person, and those with an interest in the idea of a faith-based college or university. 


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About Edward Short 15 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.