Review Essay: Paul Shrimpton, The Making of Men

courtesy Gracewing Ltd

In 1848 an Oxford don named Charles Daman, a close friend of John Henry Newman in their Oriel College days, penned a guide to aspiring students at Oxford. Titled Ten letters introductory to college residence, Daman’s book aimed to do what he and Newman had striven to do as tutors, even in the face of a collegiate structure that did not support their efforts: to guide adolescents (“inchoate and promissory men”) toward those exercises and pursuits that would help them achieve the dignity of civilized manhood. With Newman, he regarded undergraduate life a “dangerous season,” agreeing with the latter that “nothing is more perilous to the soul than the sudden transition from restraint to liberty.” Daman’s advice to an inchoate man was to first master himself through ordering his time, reading, and companions.

Nineteenth century England saw great change in the direction of higher education. The very educational model to which Daman and his more well-known friend Newman dedicated their lives was already being challenged: first, by the Humboldt-Schleiermacher-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel-Kant model of the University of Berlin, with its eros for wissenschaft (research); second, by the economically-driven universities in Britain such as the Queen’s Colleges and the University of London. At Berlin, at least, there was yet a model of bildung (formation or development of the young person) that shared much of the model of paideia that had its antecedents in the academies of ancient Greece, though in the truncated form of self-discovery instead of the more robust model of mentorship that had prevailed in the ancient world. Yet in the modern British universities, Daman and Newman saw little more than engines for turning young men into workers. Sheldon Rothblatt described the contrast this way:

One kind of institution hearkened back to an organic order of relationships and communities. The other belonged to the same universe of energy that built machines and factories. It was instrumental.

Paul Shrimpton’s new book ‘The Making of Men’: The Idea and reality of Newman’s university in Oxford and Dublin fleshes out this seminal period in modern higher education, showing Newman to be not only an exemplary theorist and writer, but also a visionary and administrator who worked tirelessly to see his ideas take root. The ultimate failure of the Catholic University of Dublin has, according to Shrimpton, cast an unfortunate shadow on Newman’s legacy, suggesting to many that he was an ivory-tower academic whose Platonic ideals could not take life in the gritty reality of Realuniversität. Critiquing the fact that many know Newman’s approach to university education only through his famous Idea of a University, Shrimpton writes:

However exemplary Newman’s educational achievements in Dublin might be regarded, it cannot be denied that his influence on the development of the university is almost entirely due to the Idea. Yet the Idea is about the essence of a university, not its fullness and well-being, and to discern what Newman meant by its integrity we need to look at the idea illustrated in history—at the University sketches—and in practice—at the Catholic University in Dublin (464).

Shrimpton’s book, therefore, is an important contribution to understanding how Newman’s ideas took shape, and in understanding why the ultimate failure of the Catholic University had less to do with Newman and more to do with the cultural and ecclesiastical milieux in which he sought to found the institution. The book relies on a great deal of archival research: those of the Birmingham Oratory, University College Dublin, and Archbishop’s House Dublin. With the publication of this research, we now have a much fuller story of the major players in the foundation of the University, especially Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin, who was both instrumental in supporting Newman’s ideas as well as later criticizing what he perceived as their shortcomings, particularly in the area of discipline. Shrimpton depicts Cullen as embodying the ambiguity about the Catholic University that ultimately contributed to its demise: being a place of learning for laity, yet being (in Cullen’s mind) more aptly supervised by the hierarchy. Newman, in contrast to Cullen, emerges as a liberal educator whose main goal was (to use today’s language) student formation—that is, the formation of the whole student in a system that relied on tutors as well as professors.

Shrimpton’s use of the many letters and memos that Newman wrote as founding rector of the Catholic university fleshes out more precisely what Newman had in mind. The model was neither exclusively “professorial” nor “tutorial,” but rather a combination of both. He envisioned recent university graduates (initially, Catholic converts from Oxford) in their twenties acting as mentors to undergraduates, forming close friendships with them in a residential setting, steering their charges in the direction of study and moral growth. Professors would supply the tuition proper, and would also be encouraged to conduct research and writing. (The University’s successful medical school and laboratories testify to Newman’s modern thinking.) Yet the primary aim of the curriculum would be ultimately a student’s unified view of things, and thus the faculty of arts was for Newman the nucleus of the institution. In an interview recently published in Catholic World Report (CWR), Shrimpton explains Newman’s balance between teaching and research:

Newman had a good understanding of the dynamics of science and its need for “elbow room”: you can see that in some of his lectures in the Idea of a University. He set up the faculty of science in Dublin 20 years before Maxwell opened the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge; he had chemistry and physics laboratories and ensured that the library was well-stocked with scientific papers and journals, he offered scholarships and prizes for science students, and he urged the scientists at the university to undertake research. And the chemistry laboratory was not just for medical students or those doing pure scientific research, but also for practical purposes—agriculture, mining, metallurgy, bleaching, even brewing and sugar-boiling and paper-making. He also tried to set up a faculty of law, though he did not succeed. But despite all this, Newman believed that a university “should be formally based (as it really is), and should emphatically live in, the Faculty of Arts.”

The book begins with a study of Newman’s own experiences as a schoolboy, and moves on to explore how he developed a strong sensibility of the role of the tutor in his days at Oriel College, Oxford. His invitation to found a Catholic university in Dublin is the subject of chapter two, while chapter three draws in a good deal of Newman’s lesser-known writings to sketch his pastoral view of education. Chapter four is about the founding of the University in Dublin, and chapter five addresses the actual lived experience of students and faculty there. Chapters six and seven address his departure and legacy, and Newman’s later attempts to allow Catholics to study at Oxford. Several appendixes include excerpts from Newman’s relevant writings, as well as biographies of those involved in the Catholic University. The import of this book is that it very clearly shows how Newman translated his ideas about a university into practice. Shrimpton shows that the characterization of Newman as an idealist–and thus easily dismissible in the contemporary context, now so different from that of 19th century England or Ireland–is off the mark. Newman’s central idea about the purpose of a university is as relevant and edgy today as it was then. Shrimpton again, in the CWR interview:

University education requires teachers and students. The subject matter is all knowledge, and although it is impossible to have all subjects represented, no major subject should be excluded on principle. The university is not primarily a research institution: it is a place where young people come to learn to think, to be “properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things.” Knowledge is an end in itself, and the university does not need to be justified by considerations of a utilitarian nature. (…) Newman’s attitude is summed up in his working principle that “though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.” This liberal education also provides training in social virtues: it “makes the gentleman” (but not necessarily the Christian). So, if “a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.”

A key problem that Newman saw developing–and which we see in full flower today–is the limitation of what he described as the “professorial” system–the default system in much of the world today, which sees the role of the professor limited to imparting knowledge and leaving moral formation to the students themselves. His own experience at Oxford convinced him that education was as much the role of the tutor, a kind of elder brother who would steer an adolescent away from inevitable temptations. Consider the timeless words of one young man centuries ago, describing his first exposure to the freedoms of being a student away from home:

all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves. As yet I had never been in love and I longed to love; and from a subconscious poverty of mind I hated the thought of being less inwardly destitute. I sought an object for my love; I was in love with love, and I hated safety and a path free from snares. My hunger was internal, deprived of inward food, that is of you yourself, my God. But that was not the kind of hunger I felt. I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. So my soul was in rotten health. (tr. Henry Chadwick, Oxford 1991)

Saint Augustine recalls his youth being a time of being lured by various loves, unsatisfied by many until he found fullness in God. Shrimpton, commenting on Newman’s understanding of the pastoral dimension of education, points to the root of the problem:

[Newman] says: “These may be called the three vital principles of the Christian student, faith, chastity, love; because their contraries, viz., unbelief or heresy, impurity, and enmity, are just the three great sins against God, ourselves, and our neighbor, which are the death of the soul.” It is easy to see the results in today’s students: religious infidelity and indifferentism, sexual license of every kind, and a selfishly narcissistic individualism.

Modern university life, argued Newman, can lead to the fragmentation of the person, leading students to graft themselves to whatever objects of love are most readily at hand. The Making of Men is an important chronicle of the ways that Newman sought to re-center the student experience at university, in order that the experience of education might be one of integration. Would that we might recover the fruit of this insight today.

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