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Newman's The Idea of a University"

Newman's The Idea of a University" is "the single most influential book on the meaning of the university in the English language," Sheldon Rothblatt comments in his "The Modern University and its Discontents". In "The Idea of a 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 Newman focuses on the nature of university education. 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 fundamentally and principally against the Utilitarian view that education must have a pragmatic value.

In the essay Newman points out that the end of the university education should be as such that one could prepare oneself from the very beginning not only to be lawyer or a physician alone rather he should have the opportunity to have a survey of all knowledge. This type of university education leaves room for a student so that he could later decide for himself for which subject he has interest and then he can take up that particular subject like Political Economy or Medicine. Producing a section of people who are nothing more than a lawyer, physician, geologist or political economist should not be the aim of University education.

Newman advocates for a general culture of mind, for a cultivated intellect and has argued that the proper function of a university should be such so that university education could promote all branches of knowledge. To him, the end of a University education is that it will make a group of people who have a group of different branches of knowledge besides their particular subjects, so that in their public and professional lives they would be best fitted to be at home in any society. Newman points out that the function of the university education is to produce a group of people who are literate and cultured but it does not certainly promise a generations of Aristotles or Newtons or Napoleons or Washingtons or Raphaels or Shakespeare simply because this is not the aim or function of a University education. "But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual 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." Thus in the essay Newman is concemed with the common man and not with an individual separated from the common herd.

Newman's formulation of the idea of a university was essentially a defence of what he appreciated about Cambridge and Oxford as they then were and what they had been. Universities taught "universal knowledge", an idea expressed earlier, though with qualifications, by Edward Tatham. Newman did not accept the notion that universities were free markets of ideas; rather, they played a mentoring role: inculcating proper values, dispensing appropriate knowledge, teaching correct forms of interpersonal relationships and aesthetics to prepare the pupil for the practice of noblesse oblige. Newman and other "humanists...favored knowledge directed towards explicating personal and moral relationships. Newman "was not absolutely opposed to university affiliated professional schools...but professional education was not His aim is to promote a liberal education which is good and useful, not only because that it produces something which has an immediate market value but because it contributes in making a group of people who are cultured and besides being specialist in a particular field has a gift which serves him in public and supports him in retirement.


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