I am fairly certain that John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University has been on the required reading list of the Torrey Honors Institute since I began working here eight years ago. Given how we teach in Torrey, however, I had never had the opportunity to lead sessions on the text. So, back in December I asked to teach Newman this spring, and was pleased to be given seven sessions on Newman. That’s twenty hours of discussing The Idea of a University! And what has it done for me? Given me a new vision and vigor for what I do – teach general education (or, in Newman’s terminology, Universal Knowledge) for the purpose of educating students liberally in a university.
“A university, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge,” so writes Newman. It seems that it is most common today for universities to be seen as a place where you come to learn something specific so that you can do something specific and, preferably, to make more money in the process. I recently saw a commercial for a for-profit “university” whose main argument for attending was because you would get a job and make more money. Hence, in this mindset, a university has the end of work and money. But I do not think that this is unique to only for-profit universities that run commercials on major television networks. This issue is somewhat endemic to many universities in the United States and, I am sure, elsewhere. The bachelor’s degree of the twenty-first century is the high school diploma of the 1950s. Nothing could be further from the truth says Newman, and I agree with him.
In more than one place Newman says what a university is not. It is not a place to gather a superficial acquaintance of many sciences, or a place to get a smattering of details through memorization, or a place to engage in mere recreations or attain accomplishments. Newman acknowledges “that such amusements, such occupations of mind are… a great gain; but they are not education.” For the modern university it may be essential for student recruitment to have intramurals, clubs, games and even gimmicks but these should not be mistaken for the essence of the university. A university is not a university because some learning happens amidst the playing but only when the faculty and students are about the project of gaining universal knowledge. A university is not meant to be a playground but an institution of liberal, higher learning. The most important places on a university campus are the classroom, library and laboratory; everything else is meant to complement the “real deal.”