Teacher of Teachers: Blessed John Henry Newman

If John Henry Newman should be declared a Doctor of the Church, the honor will be in large part due to his work as an educator. As Benedict XVI has pointed out, the “definite service” that he gave to the Church was to apply “his keen intellect and prolific pen to many of the most pressing subjects of the day.” In other words, Newman (1801-1890) is not so much an authority in his own right as he is a witness to the tradition he strove so mightily to inherit and to communicate. This distinction is particularly apt when applied to his writings on education.

The Holy Father has characterized Newman’s educational vision as one in which “intellectual training, moral discipline, and religious commitment would come together.” Newman himself would be the first to acknowledge that this integrated conception owed everything to the great teachers and traditions of schooling that had nourished and inspired him. For apostolic spirit joined to a sense of the duties of a gentleman, what could exceed the Ratio Studiorum of the Jesuits? For speculative rigor, who could surpass St. Thomas Aquinas, his brother friars, and their exemplar among the pagans, Aristotle? For the quenchless thirst for holiness guided and regulated by pastoral good sense, is not the Benedictine and Augustinian heritage a twin peak not to be overshadowed? And what of Newman’s own beloved Fathers of the third and fourth centuries, especially the school of Alexandria? There, too, the philosophical spirit and the desire for union with God were happily married.

If Newman’s principles are those of the tradition, what then makes his own contribution so extraordinary? Surely something must be said of his matchless style. From the sonorous cadence of the great passages of the Idea of a University (think of his account of the theology that is contained in the very idea of God, or of his description of the gentleman), through the almost Romantic sensibility of his Benedictine essays and the first several chapters of the Rise and Progress of Universities, and, finally, to the razor sharp repartee of the “Tamworth Reading Room” and the exquisite satire of the dialogues in “Elementary Studies”: Newman succeeded in making debates about education not only interesting but enjoyable to read. No small feat that.

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The real cause of the enduring significance of Newman’s educational corpus is to be found precisely in his engagement with the disputes of the day and his reflection upon his own duties as an educator. Augustine identified the perfection of the will that must be attained by the seeker of Divine wisdom. Aquinas laid out the essential nature of the teacher’s task in his celebrated disputed question on the subject. Yet neither had the occasions that Newman did to explore and to defend the further ramifications of their insights. They seem to have been able to take for granted certain human goods that were threatened in Newman’s day. Moreover, the adversaries that they were called to face were simply attacking on other fronts.

The central and determining fights of Newman’s age, both within and outside the Church, were over education. This was the case in Germany, where Bismarck’s Kulturkampf attacked the independence of the seminaries. And it was also the case in France, where the hard-won Falloux Law granting Catholics the right to have their own schools again gave rise to a heated dispute as to whether Catholics should still be reared on the pagan classics. As for Newman, he became a champion of the tradition first against Anglican laxity and then against a certain rigorist fideism within the Catholic Church.  And, most notably, he stood in the breach against what Benedict XVI has called the “reductive and utilitarian approach” to education that was prevalent in the increasingly secular nineteenth century, that dull Benthamism which had in it not even a spark of poetry, to say nothing of Christian wisdom.

Against the merely measurable “facts, facts, facts” of the Gradgrinds of the day, Newman set in opposition much deeper ones: “Let the doctrine of the Incarnation be true: is it not at once of the nature of an historical fact, and of a metaphysical?” Here is the proper destination of the “philosophical mind,” which, if worth its salt at all, surely cannot “consent to ignore” such a subject. The truths presented for our consideration in the Scriptures—truths revealed by God—are the starting point for the most exalted, strenuous, and rewarding of mental adventures: sacred theology. Newman’s account of “the old Catholic notion” of theology may not be a definition of the science, but it has rarely, if ever, been equaled: “Faith [is] an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge.” To dismiss theology from the university was to impose a prejudicial, and tragic, limit to the human intellect.

The Idea of a University, the text in which this discussion is found, was written as part of Newman’s “campaign in Ireland” in the 1850s, a true odyssey of service to a Catholic people not at all his own. He accepted the post of rector of the new Catholic university in Dublin as an apostolic call, affirming the bishops’ understanding of the task. “When the Church founds a University,” he wrote, “she is not cherishing talents, genius, or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children, with a view to their spiritual welfare and their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.” This clear ordering of the task of education to its final end is typical of Newman. Where he differed from the bishops was not in his conception of the end, but of the means. They saw little for the Irish to gain from an Oxford-style education. Newman understood that, if pursued with intelligence and disinterested zeal, an authentic Catholic liberal education promised to make its students more virtuous. His defense of the independence and dignity of the university can only be rightly understood in light of his conception of Catholic liberal education as a means of perfecting man as such: intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

What is needed in our day is not only the reminder of the importance of liberal learning that is found in the Idea of a University, but still more urgently Newman’s ideal of a university “seated and living in colleges,” which he explained in a subsequent work, the Rise and Progress of Universities. There he elaborated upon a distinction he had earlier made in the preface to the Idea of a University, the distinction between a university’s essence and its integrity. Charismatic teachers, eager students, and the fearless pursuit of truth sufficed to bring a university into being, but for its well-being, more was required by way of moral and spiritual formation. These latter tasks were proper to the college, which is “a household” that “involves the same virtuous and paternal discipline which is proper to a family and home.”

The collegiate system that grew up in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and other university towns from the middle of the thirteenth century was the source of Newman’s inspiration. And although he did not see the collegiate life at Oxford in his day as perfect—he had been no unthinking conservative, but a reformer during his earlier years as an Oxford tutor—nevertheless he thought the genius of the institution both necessary and fruitful. It was the college that ensured the careful “training for those who are not only ignorant, but have not yet learned how to learn, and who have to be taught, by careful individual trial, how to set about profiting by the lessons of a teacher.” He did not envision vast lecture halls with students attending virtual discussion sections, but instead an educational experience far more personal and indeed familial. And for that reason he thought the college capable of being “the shrine of our best affections, the bosom of our fondest recollections, a spell upon our after life,” and “a stay for world-weary mind and soul”—that is to say, a true alma mater.

These and other noble principles are to be found throughout Newman’s educational writings, which indeed offer, as Benedict XVI has suggested, food for thought to educators of all kinds. Were their lessons to be widely pondered and heeded, the renewal that our schools, colleges, and universities so badly need would be well underway.

The Quotable Newman
The Quotable Newman is the definitive guide to Blessed John Henry Newman’s thoughts and ideas. You can pre-order the book by clicking the image. It is scheduled to be released next week.


  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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