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Critical note on The Idea of a University

John Henry cardinal Newman was the leader of the Oxford movement, which aimed at the revival of the Catholic faith in England. His work The Idea of a University, from which the present essay included in the National University Syllabus is an extract, consists of nine lectures delivered in Dublin to which Newman came in 1851 to found a Catholic University.

Newman pleaded for the non-utilitarian cultivation of "intellectual excellence" under ecclesiastical supervision. The task of the University would be the creation of true gentlemen, amply developed in mind and manners. He advances the conservative ideal "liberal education" which is pursued for its own sake.

In this essay The Idea of a University Newman focuses on the nature of university education. He points out what should the function and purpose of university education. Newman argues that university education aims at imparting liberal or philosophical knowledge. He also opines that knowledge has its own real and palpable purpose; it has its own rewards. End is inseparable from knowledge itself. To Newman knowledge is power and it is not only excellent, but it is something more, it has a result beyond itself.

Newman advocates that Liberal Education is the "business of a University." By liberal education Newman means which is not servile, not physical or mechanical in nature. To him liberal education is that education which produces nothing tangible or profitable but which is invaluable in a sense for it maintains its ground for ages because of its self-sufficiency and independent value. It is an education, which does not have market value and is quite different from instruction. Newman in his approach is fundarnentally and principally against the Utilitarian view that education must have a pragmatic value.

Newman also talks about the fruits that liberal education as the function of a university would produce. He is logical in his approach and his method is syllogistic, Newman is of the opinion that university is not a birthplace of specialists. The purpose of university education is not specific but general. University is not a place for heroes or geniuses like Shakespeare, Newton, Napoleon, Washington or Raphael but an abode for all people; it aims at an education for the common mass. It aims at the development of the common intellect of the cormmon herd. University has a very simple, ordinary but great vision in view. In Newman's words- "But a university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end: it aims at raising the intellect tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power., and refining the intercourse of private life."

Newman is definitely underlining the importance of moral and ethical education in this essay. By liberal education he actually means the ethical sense or education or the moral vision that person needs in his private, social, national and intellectual life. Newman points out that the function of the university education is to produce a group of people who are literate and cultured. The task of university education is to produce gentlemen who are full of common sense and who could be master of any situation.

In professing his ideas Newman is completely anti-utilitarian in The Idea of a University. Newman is argumentative and constantly supports his argument by citing examples. But Newman's ideas are not wholly acceptable. Newman's argument can be accepted only to some extent. His theory that liberal education is independent of results is not tenable in the modern perspective. Education for the sake of education is a renaissance concept, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. literature, arts, language and philosophy were taught to educate and expand the minds and hearts of the students. Universities were the centres of excellence, and arts and theology were pursued for their own sake. But today the concept of education has changed. Mere useless knowledge does not serve the purpose of the students. Knowledge must aim at the twin objectives of practical usefulness and humanistic development. University today is not simply a seat of gentleman's education. Sit must combine excellence and relevance. So, Newman's ideas, however high-flown and erudite they may be, are not wholly relevant to the modem age, which is basically an age of specialisation. But, still Newman's "The idea of a University" is "the single most influential book on the meaning of the university in the English language".


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