A few days ago, Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt directed me to an article by Roger Scruton in the American Spectator (September 2010). Scruton's critique of the contemporary university takes its inspiration from Newman's The Idea of a University, which he describes as "the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old idea of the scholarly life" (50). "The university of Newman's day," he goes on,
was a place in which men (and it was then an institution for men only) lived for scholarship, and arranged their lives around the sacrifice that scholarship requires. It was not simply a repository for knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality. (50)
Moreover, Scruton continues, the university "was to be an integral part of the social order." It was, in fact, to be "eminently respectable: critical of society only because critical of itself" (50). Needless to say, Scruton believes that this ideal has vanished, and that now, the university expects "ideological conformity, rather than critical appraisal," and primarily protects the speech of those "whose loyalty to the established order is questionable at best" (52).
There are some intriguing ironies about this piece. Not, of course, the fact that Scruton has invoked The Idea of the University without mentioning the final tendency of Newman's argument: the university "is a place of teaching universal knowledge," he announces in his preface, but we must understand that "practically speaking, it cannot fulfil its object duly, such as I have described it, without the Church's assistance; or, to use the theological term, the Church is necessary for its integrity."1 (We will put to one side that Newman's idea of a university had nothing to do with the reason he had been invited to Dublin, which was to further "the severely practical task of equipping young Irishmen to be lawyers, doctors, and teachers."2) As Newman goes on to conclude in the third Discourse, "Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of University Teaching" (57). All subjects had to be understood in an organic relationship both to each other and to religious truth, lest students (and practitioners, for that matter) go in directions that "run counter to the principles of Religion" (66), even inadvertently. After all, anything could undermine religion, even "Grammar" (74). Hence, the need for the presence of theology in universities, to act as "a necessary context for the proper conduct of the other disciplines."3 Ultimately, the "subject-matter of knowledge is united in itself," not because it is about this subject or that subject, but because it is actually "the acts and the work of the Creator" (76). Now, a true liberal education, Newman notes, "makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman" (89)--that is, the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself does not lead to morality per se, but "taste," "a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life," and so forth (89). And this, Newman believes, is an excellent and important thing.
However--and this is a big however--Newman doesn't stop there. For, having invoked the gentleman, Newman later reminds us what a gentleman developed "apart from religious principle" (147) actually is. This gentleman may be Christian, or he may not; he may be "profligate" (147), or he may not. As Sheridan Gilley bluntly puts it, "[f]ar from simply admiring this paragon, as is sometimes assumed, Newman regarded it as wholly insufficient without the Gospel. The filthiest and most uncultivated Catholic peasant infused with the grace of the sacraments has a prospect of heaven denied to the man who had all these natural virtues and nothing more."4 "Liberal Knowledge," Newman goes on in the final Discourse, is without a doubt of "great secular utility," but may be either the "serviceable ally" or the "insidious and dangerous foe" of Christianity (149). A resurrected Newman, in fact, would point out that Scruton has chopped off his actual conclusions about liberal education. For producing the right kind of "personality" is not, in the end, the point. In fact, warns Newman, the "tendency" of liberal education he appears to be celebrating is actively dangerous to Christianity:
This then is the tendency of that Liberal Education, of which a University is the school, viz., to view Revealed Religion from an aspect of its own,--to fuse and recast it, --to tune it, as it were, to a different key, and to reset its harmonies,--to circumscribe it by a circle which unwarrantably amputates here, and unduly developes there; and all under the notion, conscious or unconscious, that the human intellect, self-educated and self-supported, is more true and perfect in its ideas and judgments than that of Prophets and Apostles, to whom the sights and sounds of Heaven were immediately conveyed. (151)
That is, from Newman's point of view, the Liberal Education which appears to form the perfect gentleman is, in fact, enacting its own kind of deformation as it goes. It elevates "human intellect" to the center of things, and therefore may promote a dangerous skepticism about, scoffing at, or at best a genial relaxation about revealed truths. These are the men who "halve the Truth," as Newman versified elsewhere. What we have here, in Ian Ker's words, is a "tension between the genuinely unconditional insistence on the absolute value of knowledge in itself and the equally firm conviction that knowledge is emphatically not the highest good."5 It takes the Church, Newman concludes, to ensure that a Liberal Education achieves its desired end. The Church "fears no knowledge, but she purifies all; she represses no element of our nature, but cultivates the whole" (161).
In other words, Scruton mentions the occasion of The Idea of the University--the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland--but neglects to mention that Newman's ideal university really is a Catholic university. Not a Baptist university, not an Anglican university, not a secular liberal arts college, but a Catholic one. Newman would certainly not endorse Scruton's decapitated version of the argument, inasmuch as he would claim that, far from lending itself to the kind of conservative stability that Scruton seems to imagine, it actually generates social instability, immorality, and discontent (because a "gentleman" ungrounded in Christian--i.e., Catholic--faith is both very unpredictable and very seductive). As I said, though, there's nothing unusual about that particular elision in Scruton's argument. The Idea of the University frequently enters into the conversation in secularized fashion, and Scruton does nothing different there.
But I was tickled by the very notion that one could invoke Newman, of all people, to complain about those whose "loyalty to the established order is questionable at best." One might begin with the obvious, which is that despite Scruton's complaints about modern ideological conformity, Newman is writing in the context of a demand for another type of conformity: the religious variety. After all, until the passage of the Oxford University Act in 1854, only Anglicans could matriculate at Oxford. There was nothing "serene" about nineteenth-century Oxford, where the hottest political dust-ups were about religion, not gender studies. Thus we have everything from William Sewell torching Froude's Nemesis of Faith to Jowett's troubles post-Essays and Reviews. The evangelical contingent thumbed its nose at the Tractarians by erecting the Martyrs' Memorial; in 1877, they countered the combined effects of the Oxford University Act, the University Tests Act (1871), and the Ritualists with the founding of Wycliffe Hall.6 Newman himself joined the fray of Oxford religious politicking in the campaign against Renn Dickson Hampden's appointment to Regius Professor of Divinity. More to the point, the Tractarians themselves sparked one of Oxford's great religious wars, one which rapidly spilled out to the country at large, and indeed across the pond.
And now would be a good time to point out that although Newman understood himself to be a conservative, many of his Victorian contemporaries saw the tendencies of his religious beliefs in a very different light. Far from "conserving" the Church of England, Newman and company were radicals out to wreck it. He was of "a party, which has taken more pains to revolutionize the church than any other party (if we should not except John Wesley) since the days of the Puritans [...]" Angry Protestants were convinced that "Puseyites" were fomenting dissent and spiritual unrest. Thanks to Newman and Co.'s "patristical infatuation," they "have been drawn step by step into gross and destructive errors; nay, I do not hesitate to affirm, that they have been led to embrace and promulgate doctrines subversive of the very foundation of our Protestant religion"; in fact, "I believe they wish to restore to them the greatly abused and long exploded power of the keys: in short, I believe that their principles go to establish a complete tyranny both in church and state; that they are for crushing the right of private judgment, for crying up the necessity of implicit faith in the doctrines taught by the ministers of the church; and that their great and ultimate aim is, to give the church an undue and despotic authority over the state." Tractarianism struck at the very heart of the British Constitution. It also threatened British morality, for these Oxford men were liars who supported lying, preaching one church's dogmas while taking money from another: "A fearful number of its appointed religious instructors are now to be seen, joined arm in arm, deliberately and confessedly walking back (and under the sanction and guidance, too, of episcopal direction) to Roman mummeries, monkish absurdities, and papistical blasphemies and idolatries; yet each retaining and taking with him his full share of protestant temporalities, although trying to cover the retrograde movement with the shout—'The church, the church!' —'The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we.'" All in all, the missionary George Townshend Fox warned readers of The Bulwark, "if such practices be patiently tolerated, it must taint the moral atmosphere and transform the national character."7 So much for Newman's perceived "loyalty to the established order"!
And, of course, from a Victorian point of view, there was almost nothing more contrary to the established order than to be Roman Catholic. (Even Jews usually fared better in the politico-religious discourse. Atheists, needless to say, were even more dangerous--yet another reason to dislike Catholicism, which many Protestants thought led inevitably to atheism. Catholics thought the same of Protestantism...) In the eyes of even many suspicious mainstream Protestants, Roman Catholicism was an invasion from without, designed to subvert British independence; a system that controlled its adherents by promoting criminal behavior and sexual immorality; an edifice antagonistic to liberty and economic growth. (Even the Dissenting groups who campaigned for Catholic toleration were not necessarily friends of the religion itself.8) Above all, Roman Catholicism led its believers on the path to Hell, and the nation that tolerated it was a nation that embraced its own damnation. "The holiest of all considerations in the mind," William Cooke told a meeting of the Protestant Association, "and the holiest emanations from the heart, is this proposition, that Rome, because Rome sets up Antichrist, and gives his glory to human creatures, and sets up images for worship, professedly to glorify Christ, which cannot be, because Christ will not be glorified by images, but by himself ;--Rome is, therefore, to be regarded with horror, and no peace is to be had with Rome."9 The pro-Catholic position was generally considered a liberal one (whether capital "L" Liberal or just liberal)--dangerously so, depending on whom you asked. "
1 John Henry Newman, The Idea of the University, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996), 3. All further references to this edition.
2 Vincent Alan McClelland, English Roman Catholics and Higher Education 1830-1903 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1973), 102.
3 George Marsden, "Theology and the University: Newman's Idea and Current Realities," in Turner, 303.
4 Sheridan Gilley, Newman and His Age (1990; Westminster: Christian Classics, 1991), 295. Cf. Ian Ker, who remarks that the gentleman lauded here is indeed "the ideal end of a liberal education," but is not, in fact, Newman's ideal. John Henry Newman: A Biography (1988; Oxford: OUP, 1990), 387.
5 Ker, 384.
6 On Wycliffe Hall and the politics thereof, see Andrew Atherstone, "The Founding of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford," Anglican and Episcopal History 73.1 (2004): 78-102.
7 G[eorge] T[ownshend] Fox, "'Speaking Lies in Hypocrisy.' A Characteristic Feature of Popery and Her Younger Sister Tractarianism," The Bulwark 3 (Oct. 1853): 93.
8 For a somewhat skeptical assessment of Dissenting efforts on that score, see D. G. Paz, Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992), 152-95. Timothy Larsen offers a more positive account in Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2004), 145-56.
9 "The Fifth Annual Report and Proceedings at the Annual Meeting of the Protestant Association, Held in Exeter Hall, May 12th, 1841," The Protestant Magazine 3 (June 1841): 187.
10 Edward Bickersteth, The Present Duties of the Protestant Churches. A Sermon Preached Before the British Society for Promoting the Religious Principles of the Reformation, on Friday Evening, May 5, 1837, at Percy Chapel, London (London: G. Norman, 1837), 10.
11 Victorian Catholic novelists make a point of insisting on their characters' patriotism: e.g., "'I glory in my country, I pride myself in her character of honesty and truth, and though many of my noble countrymen are of a faith opposite to that which I profess, yet so far from despising them on this account, I consider that they are not the less worthy members of society; not the less capable of raising higher still the justly celebrated reputation of my native isle.'" The Converts; A Tale of the Nineteenth Century: Or, Romanism and Protestantism Brought to Bear in Their True Light against One Another (London: Keating & Brown, 1837), 248. (The "Romanism" in the title is ironic.)
12 Erik Sidenvall, After Anti-Catholicism? John Henry Newman and Protestant Britain, 1845-c. 1890 (London: T. & T. Clark, 2005), 175.