by Nancy Enright

Saint John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University expresses an ideal that is much needed in today’s universities, particularly those with a Catholic affiliation.  In his Introduction, Martin Svaglic talks about how Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was “not so much breaking with as developing his Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic heritage….”[1] It was a gradual movement toward revealed truth at its source that culminated in Newman’s 1845 entrance into the Catholic Church.  But the development began with an evangelical conversion as a teenager, a conversion deepened by his experience at Oxford, where he experienced the positive influence of devout Anglo-Catholic mentors, like John Keble, and where he became a leader, perhaps the leader, of “the Oxford Movement.” What is it about Oxford that, despite its many flaws (including centuries of blatant anti-Catholicism, which barred Newman from it upon his conversion), links significantly to Newman’s developing faith, his commitment to truth and theological tradition, and his “idea of a university” as a place where disparate parts are linked to a central vision?  A glimpse of just a few literary explorations of Oxford will give some insight into why this particular place was a fitting site for Newman’s conversion and an inspiration for his famous work, The Idea of a University.

Perhaps the first literary reference to Oxford comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which he describes a ‘Clerk of Oxenford’ among the pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, ‘the holy blissful martir’ who was killed in the Cathedral of Canterbury at the orders of King Henry II. England was still Catholic then, of course, and academics were celibate and minor clerics.  Chaucer describes this early scholar in words that may resonate with many struggling academics today:

A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office….
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.[2]

So, what do we learn about our Clerk? He is not rich, and if there were “salary studies” as proliferate at some universities, his would be among the lowest.  He and his horse are thin, and he shows no attributes of worldly success, but what he does show is seriousness and courtesy, and joy in his subject. His speech and manner express reverence (for truth, for his students and colleagues, for God?) and “high sentence in moral virtue.”  Most of all, he loves what he does: “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” If he gets any money, he spends it on books.[3]  Clearly, the Clerk would agree profoundly with Newman’s axiomatic words from The Idea of a University: “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.”[4]

As time progressed, the Reformation occurred, and Oxford was no longer a place to train Catholic clergy and, in fact, Catholics could not attend it at all, there still remained that dedicated, sometimes ascetic and sacrificial spirit among scholars at Oxford that sought knowledge as its own renewal. Do we convey to our students the idea that knowledge is valuable for its own sake, not merely a preparation for a skill set that will ultimately demand a higher salary?  While acknowledging the importance of obtaining a job after college, both Newman and Chaucer valued more highly the focus on the immaterial. This is  at the heart of Chaucer’s description and a key aspect of Newman’s evocation of a university.  Its focus is not material, and its intellectual and spiritual work is of value for its own sake.

Skip ahead several centuries, now looking back to Newman’s time, we find several references to Oxford in literature.  In his work, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, depicts Charles Ryder’s reminiscence of as a student in 1923:

“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days—such as that day –when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour”[5]

Waugh, like Newman a convert to Catholicism, depicts the echoing of “the soft airs of centuries of youth.” Here Oxford is associated with not only with the past but also the present, with youth.  A thousand years of learning echoing in the streets, where the day’s students mingle (today as in 1923).  Newman talks about the importance of the interaction of students being at least as important as the courses they take:

They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He 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 great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or  what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.[6]

So, we can draw from this excerpt from Newman’s text that it is the relationships formed at a university that make the experience richer than the mere knowledge gained from textbook or lecture.

Finally, two very popular authors, whom I teach in my Core III/British Literature cross list course: Fantasy and Faith: Tolkien and Lewis and their Precursors.  Both authors went to Oxford.  Lewis came there an atheist, and though Catholics were now allowed to attend and even to teach at Oxford in the 1930s, he was warned against socializing with them.  Despite that warning, he became good friends with a philology professor, J.R.R. Tolkien.  On a late-night walk near Magdalen College’s Addison’s walk, on a tree-lined path near a stream and next to a deer park, Lewis, now a theist but not a Christian, listened as Tolkien and another friend, Hugo Dyson, talked about Christianity as “the one true myth.” Lewis, a lover of myth, found himself deeply persuaded by Tolkien’s argument that at one time in history, the qualities we love in myth became historical fact.  Soon after this, Lewis confessed that he now had become a Christian.  Oxford was the perfect setting for this discourse.  I have taken Addison’s walk, and the wind in the trees and the hush of the archaic, beautiful architecture and stone bridges, along the stream, must have been a perfect backdrop to this life-changing situation.  Oxford, as the archetypal university, was the setting for the spiritual and intellectual conversation that led to yet another conversion. Though, unlike Newman, Lewis did not become a Catholic (as, Tolkien admitted, he had hoped for), his dramatic turn to Christianity allowed him to become one of the twentieth century’s great apologists (as Newman was in his day).  These kinds of conversations can occur today—on any campus—if the right circumstances allow them.  If a university allows students some breadth to explore, some encouragement to interact and explore ideas, some focus on things deeper than a resume or GPA.

Newman admits that a liberal education does not “make the Christian,” and that is true.[7]  But if at a Catholic university or one inspired by faith (as Oxford was and is, though no longer Catholic, except in its long past), students must be allowed to explore the questions that can lead to the deeper truth that underlies all truths, as even Lewis, a young tutor at Oxford, was moved to explore questions of faith in the intellectual, but also spiritual climate, of conversing with his peers.  To create this atmosphere, there needs to be a sense of wholeness underlying the various parts of a university,[8] a respect for theology, a sense of the importance of learning beyond career options, a joy and love of teaching and learning.

[1] Newman, John Henry, and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), Introduction.
[2] Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 20.
[3] Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 20.
[4] Newman, John Henry, and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 77.
[5] Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited (Toronto, ON, Canada: Penguin Books, 1981), p.
[6] Newman, John Henry, and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), Introduction. Discourse 5.
[7] Newman, John Henry, and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 90.
[8] Newman, John Henry, and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), Introduction.