Jon Radwan

Learning about John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University with Kenneth Parker was a pleasure and a revelation.[1]  I was struck by how far my own education differed from his ideal.  As someone who earned multiple degrees from large state research universities in the late twentieth century USA, I can testify that seemingly every educational controversy Newman faced was long settled, laid to rest, and forgotten.  In 1988 Newman was definitely not part of our freshman reader at the University of New Hampshire.  Back in the mid-nineteenth century UK “mixed education,” educating Protestants and Catholics together, was a major concern, and the secularizing movement removing theology from the curriculum altogether was gaining momentum.[2]  In addition, the growing utilitarian and professional approaches to education he argued against took root and flourished at many universities including my own.  As I recall, my 1990s cohort of state students had no religion courses, rarely knew (let alone discussed) anyone’s faith denomination, and many pursued practical majors offering occupational training and placement.  In my experience, America’s separation of Church and State meant God wasn’t part of school.  Still, somehow, despite decades of positivism and secular materialism, over 150 years later I was taught something of the liberal arts; enough to help me recognize today that Newman’s ideal of a holistic curriculum taught within a caring community is worthy of attention and emulation.  While affirming the value of applied fields and objective sciences, and granting utilitarian ethics and policies their social advances, Newman explains how religious universities go further to create organizational cultures influencing society with a spirituality uniquely their own, a genius loci.  As fraternal associations these organizations have value in and of themselves, but when particular institutions explicitly engage theology as a valid knowledge domain they become spiritual matrices that open up student horizons and leaven society.  This essay details Newman’s description of genius loci in general and the ethos of Catholic liberal arts universities in particular to show how they work to humanize civilization.

Social structures and Genius loci
A genius loci is a supernatural power (numen), often personified as a being or spirit, connected with a specific geographic place.  In ancient Rome household and local gods provided sustaining energy and protection.  Early Roman polydaimonia, a vast plurality of small gods, was the primary cult system across the entire region.[3]  Inhabited and agricultural spaces (civilization) including field markers, crossroads, villages, and neighborhoods each had a generative spirit, as did wild (natural) places like forests and springs.[4]  In principle, all Roman spaces were ensouled with genii locorum, and while important and regular rituals could summon and engage local gods, their presence and power was prior to and independent of human recognition.  The world, met in its manifold concrete manifestations of earthly place, was both plural and spiritual, and always had been.

Newman’s use of genius loci contrasts with ancient Roman poly-daimonism, but first there are important similarities.  For any monotheist particular gods of place are imaginary, but the spatial principle of spirituality, recognizing supernatural significance within place, aligns with both creationism and divine grace.  Newman begins with Nature’s integrated diversity across all physical sciences indicating a singular Creator and progressively builds up a spirituo-social dynamic, a curricular tradition, that engages nature, God, and humanity.  The Idea of a University is striving to create a new cultural institution, a special institution devoted to education.

Newman’s immediate challenge is to launch Ireland’s first Catholic university, and in Discourse VI.9 he explains that even when theology is excluded any educational organization will still develop a distinctive and generative spirit.  In drawing numerous teachers and students together in one place, over time their mutual processes of adjustment coalesce into a characteristic tone and mode of social being.

Let it be clearly understood, I repeat it, that I am not taking into account moral or religious considerations [yet]; I am but saying that that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action.  It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow.[5]

Here there are clear contrasts with ancient Rome’s numen.  In Newman’s formulation the genius loci is socio-culturally created, not pre-existent, and geographic location matters but particular spaces are not imbued with their own independent supernatural power.  Instead, educational institutions are human systems, and as one works within this community the effects are formative, more or less, depending on a complex array of personal and social factors.  Knowledge is everywhere and we will learn something wherever we are, but learning within a long-term community explicitly devoted to knowledge and intellect is unique.  In learning a living intellectual tradition one gains an orientation to history and the universe as a whole.  Where most auto-didactics or isolated distance learners are quickly lost among so many seemingly equivalent and disconnected bits of knowledge, an educational institution, mainly by virtue of its communal quality (and especially when it is a tutor-resident space), transforms solo students grasping at bits into agents with an overarching perspective. Coming to understand how people build up knowledge together, how all learning is interconnected, and the value and significance of each of our various domains and facts in relation to all of the others, imbues the student with generative intellectual power, a genius.

Catholic Higher Education:  Liberal Arts meet Theology
Because Newman’s genius loci is a cultural creation, not a spirituo-geographic given, moral questions cannot be put off for long.  Which doctrine and idea?  Which code of thought and action?  In a word, which tradition?  Newman’s idea is to unite two traditions, Greek and Christian.  This is not an innovation; it is an ancient and proven synthesis that his contemporaries were dismantling on multiple fronts.  As noted above, in the nineteenth century UK religion in general was increasingly excluded from higher education, and the liberal arts were falling before scientism and the critique of utilitarian professionals.[6]  Ireland needed a Catholic university in the 1850s because despite widespread faith, Catholics had no non-Protestant option.  This section outlines Newman’s approach to liberal arts universities and explains his argument for why they should engage theology as a knowledge domain and Christian ethics as an attitudinal corrective.

After Discourse I’s introduction, the first half of The Idea of a University explains theology’s place within a liberal arts education.  A university, by its very name, claims to be oriented to the whole.  University teaching is deliberately oriented away from merely trending or apparently chaotic physio-social micro or multi-verses, as with many journalistic or political discourses, but rather affirms that the knowable is all part of a unified field.  However vast and dynamic, this field is one, and a liberally educated person is empowered to systematically assess manifold facts as they relate with one another to constitute the whole.  It categorically follows that excluding any knowledge domain renders one’s education less than universal, and in a liberal arts context less than liberating.  Curricular censors, however well meaning, set limits that guarantee ignorance and error.

To emancipate and include theology, the question becomes whether our words about God communicate genuine knowledge, worthy of university teaching, or mere opinions appropriate for particular groups and specialized schools but irrelevant to authentic scholarship.  Newman understands how atheists might justify excluding theology, but also cautions them against intolerance.  The tougher issue is that most of his audience is nominally theistic and, at the same time, religiously intolerant.  This is his argument with Protestant education, the tradition within which he was raised.  By excluding theology from their own universities Protestants make God a matter of culture and heart, but not of the intellect.  Faith is denied as a rational mode of engaging reality, and instead becomes mere taste and custom.  Their functional atheism is painted over with a thin layer of religiosity that retreats from rational inquiry to dissipate in manifold dogmas of personal interpretation and preference.  In contrast, if God is real, as all theists profess, then something can be known of Him and it is the duty of a university to engage that knowledge.

In opting to communicate theological knowledge the university integrates truths about God into a unified field, but Discourse III takes this point further and deeper.  It’s not that Theology is one co-equal branch of learning among many, it is also a condition for understanding the whole.  All sciences work in concert to balance and correct one another, so the omission of any one instantly prejudices the rest.  Newman’s larger position is that theology is a particular knowledge “branch” of such historically “wide reception, of philosophical structure, of unutterable importance, and supreme influence” that excluding it invalidates what one has learned of all other domains.[7]  Here he argues from analogy.  He asks his listeners to imagine an education that denied human agency, but still claimed to teach universal knowledge.  Many of today’s readers don’t need to imagine this contradiction—Newman’s opponents were very successful in secularizing social sciences and this hyper-scientistic view grew into the twentieth century’s Behaviorist movement.[8]  Newman was blessed to miss out on Modernity’s era of dominance—for him teaching humanities while denying human will is as misguided as teaching creation without a Creator.

From a creationist view of the sciences, recognizing unity and harmony of design across all of nature, Newman extends his argument to cultural ontology.  Religion is of such historically wide allegiance that it is a constitutive element of every human culture underpinning and forming material within all disciplines.  Atheism is a recent ideology, an aberration, so much so that it is a guaranteed misinterpretation to read classic literature and fine arts without serious consideration of their religious context.  Similarly, engaging public affairs in current events and across historical trends without recognizing religio-spiritual motivations and moral valences is folly.  Humans are religious creatures, living within divine creation, so to learn about both nature and culture one must account for the divine.[9]  Theology, far from mere opinion, is a necessary condition for knowing.

Humanizing Civilization
The liberal arts are powerful and generative, a genius.  Growing beyond simple animal awareness, a rational being can learn to see actual and potential connections, conceiving ideas and views about their stream of sensible knowledge.  This move toward generative synthesis is our Philosophical impulse, and like any energy it can be used to both create and destroy.  This existential fork is precisely why Newman needs to articulate the Catholic idea of a university education.  If knowing itself requires Theology, then liberal education especially requires it because freedom misdirected quickly becomes tyranny.  Demagogues are not ignorant; they are rhetorical masters manipulating reason and discourse to re-orient society away from God or community to concentrate power in self.  This is the danger inherent in atheistic education — when knowledge is decontextualized utilitarian power, as in an applied professional school, knowers are taught to use reason to achieve mastery.  In the sciences, prediction and control become supreme values dominating and skewing observation.  Miracles are explainable.  Knowing becomes a distanced and objective act of superiority and power, and the schools feed a continuous stream of clever masters into society.[10]

Newman’s alternative, his idea, is to leaven and humanize civilization with a stream of youth whose knowing is oriented toward holistic truth-in-relation and fraternal love over bigoted specialization or an empty social superiority trying to justify itself via style and taste.  This is the genius of the Christian philosophical ethic, and the socio-cultural mission of a Catholic university.  The knowledge/reason complex is defined in terms of fertility, not control, positioning the knower as parent and family rather than master. “Knowledge is called by the name of Science or Philosophy, when it is acted upon, informed, or if I may use a strong figure, impregnated by Reason.”[11]  Impregnation certainly is an especially powerful figure, with deep Platonic and Catholic resonances.[12]  If philosophical ideas are knowledge fertilized by reason, then intellectual energy is not controlled but generated, nourished, birthed, and nurtured in community.  Like our children, philosophical ideas are excellent and primary goods in themselves, fertile and vital and growing ripe with many potential applications and uses that while real always remain secondary behind their inherent goodness.  At the personal level, just as healthy living is a primary good independent of any specific physical effort, so are the intellectual habits of discerning truth from a holistic perspective in relation to God and neighbor valuable in themselves.[13]

Conclusion:  Alma Mater as Home
In sum, studying Newman on genius loci teaches us to take responsibility for spirituality in our cultural spaces.  Grace is omnipresent, but all organizations generate their own spirituality, so the key question will always be which genius?  A secularized educational ethos is characterized by critique, philosophy without religion.[14]  Sciences eschewing wisdom make knowledge into power to break down, predict, and control.  In contrast Newman’s genius is fecund and creative.  Principles of moral health and intellectual vitality are knowable and achievable, and the institution responsible for forming students into people who can help both themselves and the community flourish is a Catholic university.  In The Idea of a University Newman is creating a new school for Ireland, but it is not the first time he has done this.  Oxford and Oriel are beloved communities that formed him, but he grew beyond both and in 1848 went on to Maryvale and then Birmingham to found (generate) his own Oratory honoring St. Philip Neri.  Neri’s genius was immediate and relational, creating an attraction rooted in humility, purity, truth, and love.  He didn’t argue or even protest or warn, instead he engaged everyone as they were and shared himself with them in attentive fullness.  This direct and personal mode drew people to his room, and to faith.

He gave the same welcome to all: caressing the poor equally with the rich, and wearying himself to assist all to the utmost limits of his power.  In consequence of his being so accessible and willing to receive all comers, many went to him every day, and some continued for thirty, nay forty years, to visit him very often both morning and evening, so that his room went by the agreeable nickname of the Home of Christian mirth.[15]

Newman’s ideal university is not a focused laboratory or a workshop, it is a place like Philip Neri’s room writ large.  The space is not pre-ensouled by some mysterious numen, it is spiritualized by Philip himself.  He infuses everyone’s time spent there with truth and love, a deeply interpersonal Christian spirituality due everyone entering his orbit.  Understood as a genius loci Neri’s “Home of Christian mirth” resonates with Seton Hall and good Catholic universities worldwide.  With Newman’s leadership the Catholic University of Ireland was founded in 1854.  Seton Hall Universty was founded immediately afterward in 1856.  Bishop Bayley was operating in a different loci, but their shared genius is Catholic educational spirituality growing within fraternal home-space.  Bishop Bayley’s “home for the heart, the mind, and the spirit” continues to inspire because “home” is the maternal and familial zone where we learn to care, think, and pray together.  To be worthy of the name any alma mater must work to do the same.

[1] Parker, K.  “John Henry Newman: The Oxford University Model.”  (South Orange, NJ:  Seton Hall University, 5/31/22)
[2] Newman, J. H. and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University “Editor’s Introduction” (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. viii.
[3] Rose, H. Religion in Ancient Greece and Rome.  (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1959), p. 172.
[4] “The word genius means ‘begetter,’ and personifies that particular kind of numen [supernatural power, mana) which enables the line to continue, generation after generation.” (Rose 193).
[5] Newman, J. H. and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University  (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 111.
[6] Newman was not the first educational theorist to face the challenge of Modernity.  In general southern Europe dealt with the Cartesian re-orientation of University priorities first.  Back in 1709 at the University of Naples Giambattista Vico was already fighting to preserve the Humanities in the face of a rising tide of Scientistic specialists.  “Since in our time, the only target of our intellectual endeavors is [material/mathematical] truth, we devote all of our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomena, because their nature seems unambiguous; but we fail to inquire into human nature, which because of the freedom of man’s will, is difficult to determine.  A serious drawback arises from the uncontrasted preponderance of our interest in the natural sciences.  Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology or permeate their utterances with passion.”  Vico, G.  On the Study Methods of Our Time.  Elio Gianturco trans.  (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 33-34.
[7] Newman, J. H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University  (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 52.
[8] In the mid-twentieth century many universities taught that reflexive conditioned responses are a legitimate, research supported, account of human action.  Volition and free will are an illusion for Behaviorists.  See Skinner, B. About Behaviorism. (New York:  Random House, 1974).  My state education was secular but not doctrinaire; I also learned competing liberal humanisms but no theisms.
[9] In contemporary research on Communication and Religion the necessity of accounting for God’s agency is termed “the God problem.”  See Schultze, Quentin. “The God Problem in Communication Studies.” Journal of Communication and Religion 28 (2005): 1-22.
[10] My interpretation of Newman on knowledge as power to master is influenced by Jennings.  See Jennings, W.  After Whiteness:  An Education in Belonging. (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing, 2020).
[11] Newman, J. H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 84.
[12] Fertility is a foundational theme within the Judeo-Christian tradition.  See Genesis.  For Plato, the Socratic maeutic casts knowing as “birthing” within a network of caring familial relationships.  See Phaedrus 278a-b.   “lucidity and completeness and serious importance belong only to those lessons on justice and honor and goodness that are expounded for the sake of instruction, and are veritably written in the soul of the listener, and that such discourses as these ought to be accounted a man’s own legitimate children—a  title to be applied primarily to such as originate within the man himself, and secondarily to such of their sons and brothers as have grown up aright in the souls of other men – the man, I say, who believes this, and disdains all manner of discourse other than this, is, I would venture to affirm, the man whose example you and I would pray that we might follow.” Plato. The Collected Dialogues including the Letters.  Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns eds.  (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 523.
[13] Newman develops the bodily/intellectual health analogy at length in Discourse VI.  See Newman, J. The Idea of a University. (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), pp. 93-105.
[14] Augustine’s account of philosophy imagining itself over religion in pride and hubris is a famous example of this pattern.  The books of the Neo-Platonists teach him many truths, but alone they are partial and spiritually stunted.  He attempts Platonic ecstasy and is “beaten back” by God.  “As for those who are raised on the stilts of their loftier doctrine, too high to hear him calling, Learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls, even if they know God, they do not honor him as God or give him thanks; their thinking has been frittered away into futility and their foolish hearts are benighted, for in claiming to be wise they have become stupid.” Augustine. The Confessions. Maria Boulding trans. (New York:  Random House, 1997), p. 133.
[15] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 180.