Richard M. Liddy

No work in the English language has had more influence on the public
ideals of higher education.  No other book on the character and purposes
of universities has received so frequent citation and praise by other
academic commentators…Like the negotiator who succeeds by being the
first person to get his material on the table, Newman against all odds
and experience established the framework within which later
generations have considered university academic life. (Frank M. Turner) [1]

Kenneth Parker’s seminar on Newman’s Idea of A university came at a most propitious time as I am presently working on a book on John Henry Newman (1801-1890) as seen through the eyes of the Canadian Jesuit philosopher/theologian, Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984).  Parker’s seminar replicated many of the characteristics of a university education as set out in Newman’s classic work. A relaxed style combined reading and lecture along with a great deal of active participation on the part of the attendees. I found particularly interesting the participants’ sharing of their own experiences. Bernard Lonergan once articulated the benefit of such a seminar as distinct from a unilateral focus on teaching “content.”

Everyone will have his own difficulties.  There is an advantage, then, to
having a seminar on the subject.  It gives people a chance to talk these
things out…to talk them out with others.  There is a set of concrete
opportunities provided by the seminar that cannot be provided by any
mere book.  The more you talk with another and throw things out, the
more you probe, and the more you express yourself spontaneously,
simply, and frankly, not holding back in fear of making mistakes, then
the more quickly you arrive at the point where you get things cleared up. [2]

I personally became interested in Newman before I encountered Bernard Lonergan as my teacher of theology in Rome in the early 1960s.  It was not until many years later, as I wrote a book on the sources of Lonergan’s philosophy, that I discovered that Newman was the major influence on Lonergan’s life and thought.[3]

My fundamental mentor and guide has been John Henry Newman’s Grammar
 of Assent.  I read that in my third-year philosophy (at least the analytic parts)
about five times and found solutions for my problems.  I was not at all satisfied
with the philosophy that was being taught and found Newman’s presentation
to be something that fitted in with the way I knew things.  It was from that
kernel that I went on to different authors. [4]

Throughout his life Newman found himself engaged in various controversies about the nature of education and he invariably pointed to this personal aspect as key. Writing in his University Sketches, some popular essays written after his Idea, he likened a merely stiff and formal atmosphere of education to an ‘arctic winter.’ “An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.”[5] Reflecting on his own experience of “the tutor controversy” in the 1820s with the Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, Newman noted:

I have known a time in a great School of Letters, when things went on for the most part by mere routine, and form took the place of earnestness. I have experienced a state of things, in which teachers were cut off from the taught as by an insurmountable barrier; when neither party entered into the thoughts of the other; when each lived by and in itself; when the tutor was supposed to fulfil his duty, if he trotted on like a squirrel in his cage, if at a certain hour he was in a certain room, or in hall, or in chapel, as it might be; and the pupil did his duty too, if he was careful to meet his tutor in that same room, or hall, or chapel, at the same certain hour; and when neither the one nor the other dreamed of seeing each other out of lecture, out of chapel, out of academical gown. I have known places where a stiff manner, a pompous voice, coldness and condescension, were the teacher’s attributes, and where he neither knew, nor wished to know, and avowed he did not wish to know, the private irregularities of the youths committed to his charge.[6]

This promotion of the genuinely personal nature of the educational enterprise is, at the same time not to detract from its great seriousness. For Newman, the aim of a university education is a certain “enlargement of mind” that makes a person a refined member of human society. To contribute to such an enlargement of mind the university provides an environment, a “circle of disciplines,” within which students study, learn and undergo a significant human development.  In his University Sketches, Newman gives a wonderful description of the founding of universities, how ancient teachers would enter a city, set up tents in a beautiful site to which pupils would flock to imbibe wisdom and learning.[7] As such, then, a university answers to a need of our very nature:

Mutual education, in a large sense of the word, is one of the great and
incessant occupations of human society, carried on partly with set purpose,
and partly not.  One generation forms another; and the existing generation
is ever acting and reacting upon itself in the persons of its individual members.[8]

The essential principle of the university is the professorial system, that is, the living influence of one person upon another, the teacher on the taught.  Books are important instruments in the consolidation and communication of knowledge, but the influence of a teacher provides what books never can.  “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.” [9]

A university, therefore, implies a center where teachers and students gather, there to engage in the process of intellectual exchange in various fields.[10] The point of this process, “the action of mind upon mind,” is not merely the memorization or cataloging of facts in one particular area, nor a smattering of facts in a number of different areas, but rather an “illumination of mind” that is a value in itself and that justifies the greatness of this human process. The aim of a university education is not merely expertise in a particular area or profession, but rather an essential quality that consists…

…not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of
ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous
action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in
upon it.  It is the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning
the matter of our acquirements; it is making the objects of our knowledge
subjectively our own, or to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we
receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without
this no enlargement is said to follow. [11]

Newman is aiming at describing a particular quality of mind, a particular widening and deepening that comes with being genuinely educated.  He goes on to describe this quality:

There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another,
as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them.  We feel our minds
to be growing and expanding then, when we not only learn, but refer what we
learn to what we know already.

Beginners in the intellectual life, those who have not achieved this enlargement of mind, tend to be “merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.” Their conversation tends to be “unreal,” and “there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it.”[12] Newman speaks of those who “can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment, and their happy conformity in ethical character to the age which admires them.”[13]

On the other hand, the beginning of genuine enlargement of mind takes place when the young are impressed with the need for order and system in their thinking. Newman insists on the importance of method in intellectual training:

I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress
upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system;
of rule and exception, of richness and harmony.  This is commonly and excellently
done by making him begin with Grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness
and subtlety of teaching be used towards him, as his faculties expand, with
this simple purpose…. Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from
fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he
knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated
into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience
and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing
paradoxes, which carry away half‑formed and superficial intellects.[14]

It is interesting to note that a century later Bernard Lonergan would virtually define philosophy as “method,” that is, clarity about what you are doing when you are doing it. Nor is method or system in one area alone sufficient.  Newman is well aware of “the bore” whose conversation is limited to his own area of expertise.[15]  Hence the need in education for the systematic introduction into various areas of study.  This process, beginning in the lower years of schooling, should continue in the university.  There the enlargement of mind can take place through exposure to a variety of courses and professors.

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a university professes,
even for the sake of the students; and though they cannot pursue every subject
which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and
under those who represent the whole circle…[16]

So there is a “circle” of disciplines taught in the university and the circle itself teaches:

[The student] profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.  He apprehends the greatoutlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and shades, its great points and little…Hence it is that his education is called “liberal.”  A habit of thought is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom. [17]

Newman’s “enlargement of mind” is reminiscent of what Bernard Lonergan in the twentieth century would call “intellectual conversion.”[18] For Lonergan such a transformation of mind is not just a case of learning more or memorizing more. It is rather a break‑through to a whole new level or horizon of awareness.  It involves leaving behind imaginative and mythic structures that guided one’s previous development and beginning to function on a totally new and properly intellectual level.[19]  Much more could be said about Lonergan’s take on Newman’s The Idea of a University, and especially about his adoption of Newman’s “theorem” that leaving out any significant discipline—such as religion and theology—from “the whole” that constitutes  human learning results in a radical distortion of human knowing.[20]


[1] Turner, F., introduction to J. H. Newman, The Idea of a University (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 282.
[2] Lonergan, B., Understanding and Being, Collected Works of Lonergan 5 (hereafter CWL), (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), p. 18.
[3] See Liddy, R., Transforming Light: Intellectual Conversion in the Early Lonergan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), pp. 16-40.
[4] Bernard Lonergan, Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, CWL 17 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) p. 388.
[5] Newman, J., University Sketches, (New York: Alba House), p. 75.
[6] Newman, J. University Sketches.  For the controversy between Newman and the Provost of Oriel on the role of tutors, see Ker, I., John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1988), pp. 37-41.
[7]  See Newman, J., University Sketches (New York: Alba House), pp. 17-43.
[8]  Newman, J., University Sketches (New York: Alba House), pp. 6-7.
[9]  Newman J. University Sketches (New York: Alba House), p. 9.
[10]  Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 76.
[11]  Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 101.
[12]   Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. xliii.
[13]  Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. xlvii.
[14]   Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. xlv.
[15]  Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 130: “Now of all those who furnish their share to rational conversation, a mere adept in his own art is universally admitted to be the worst.  The sterility and un-instructiveness of such a person’s social hours are quite proverbial.”
[16] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. Idea, 76.  In his lectures on education from 1958 Lonergan recommends a general education that is especially strong on history, languages and mathematics as distinct from the social sciences that are always in flux. See Lonergan, B., Topics in Education (University of Toronto Press, 1993), pp. 205-207.
[17]Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p.76; emphases added.
[18] Lonergan, B. Method in Theology, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), pp. 223-225.
[19] The creation of each new science means the break‑through from a particular imaginative or mental groove to thinking in theoretical or systematic terms: e.g. from “the sun rises in the East and sets in the West” to Copernicus’ mental revolution in astronomy. For Lonergan the intellectual conversion that inevitably takes place in truly learning any one field eventually leads to a more general intellectual conversion that finds expression in a philosophy of knowledge, objectivity and reality. See Lonergan, B., Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). The core of such a breakthrough is fidelity to what Lonergan calls “the pure desire to know,” an openness of our spirit to the universe, to history and especially to one’s self as open to the universe and to history.  It is opposed to any premature narrowing caused by bias.
[20] See B. Lonergan, A Second Collection (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 156: “It was Newman’s theorem in The Idea of a University that to suppress a part of human knowledge has three effects: first it results in an ignorance of that part; secondly, it mutilates what of itself is an organic whole; thirdly, it causes distortion in the remainder in which man endeavors to compensate for the part that has been suppressed.  On this showing, one is to expect that secularism not only leads to ignorance of religion but also mutilates knowledge as a whole and brings about distortion in what remains.”