Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 28 November 2010

28 November 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Newman 4: The Idea of a University

John Henry Newman became a Roman Catholic in 1845.  In the sermons at Morning Prayer this month I have been looking at some of the main themes in his work which can be of help to Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  Today I want to look at his ideas on Christian education.

In the 1850s, Catholics were effectively excluded from universities throughout Britain and Ireland.  There were Catholic colleges but their standards were much lower than those of the established Anglican universities.  Newman was asked to found a university for Catholics in Ireland which would grow into a university on the Oxbridge model.  This proved an extremely difficult task as he found the authorities who had invited him were divided.  Despite considerable opposition, he became the first Rector of University College, Dublin, which is now a successful Catholic university with 20,000 students.  One thing he did from the beginning was to lay out his vision for this new Catholic university in a book which became a classic for all those want to think about the place of Christianity in Higher Education and about the place of the Christianity within education in general.  He called his book The Idea of a University.

What Newman has to say has become extremely topical for us now.  Only last week students were demonstrating for a second time because university fees are going to rise sharply.  Most students from the UK already take a loan to cover their fees, but in the future they will be paying back larger loans for a lot longer than earlier generations of students.  Until they earn £21K a year they will pay back nothing - but then they are likely to be paying back their loan over ten or twenty years.  This raises important questions.  Will young people be put off university education?  How good a deal will a university education be?  What will students be buying when they buy a university education?  Will there be added value if they go to a Christian university or college?  What does it mean to talk about a ‘Christian’ university or college?  

Before trying to answer some of these questions, it’s worth noting that many of the same questions apply about Christian schools.  What Newman had to say about ‘the idea of a university’ (and particularly of a Christian university) could just as much be applied to ‘the idea of a school’ (and particularly of a Christian school).  What difference does to make if a school is Christian?   What is the vision or commitment that holds a school together?  What is it that enables students to see the things they learn as a small part of a coherent body of knowledge?’  For Newman, the Christian Faith makes sense of education, so the student realises that she or he inhabits one universe created by one God, and everything in the universe fits together according to the laws of natural science and the laws of morality, which are God’s laws.  A vision like that is the ‘big idea’ of a Christian education.

Newman’s experience of a university was, however, very different from that of students today.  He didn’t understand the place research in the life of a modern university.  Research for him belonged in specialist institutes like the Royal Society.  He saw a university as a place for teaching students something of the whole body of current human knowledge.  It thought it was vital for a university to be inspired by a coherent vision: it is not a supermarket of modules and courses, or a college to teach technical skills, though such skills are vitally important.  A university for Newman is a place where students mature through particular studies pursued in the light of the great truths about God and humanity passed down from previous generations.

Newman believed that a university or college exists to communicate truth.  Since the most precious truths available to human being are those which tell us about God, these must be taught freely within the university.  Newman has a special place for theology.  For him, theology is the science of God: it is an ordered body of knowledge about God and about human beings in relation to God, which needs to be passed on by qualified and skilled teachers.  This is truth revealed to us by God and should be respected as such.  It is truth which encourages us to explore the many other truths available to us within God’s creation.  God’s revealed truth gives us good reason for learning about history or economics or natural science or mathematics.  Each of these disciplines can stretch our minds to the limit and each takes years to master.  Study of these disciplines is to be welcomed – so long as it preserves a proper place for the truths given us by God and taught to us by the Christian Faith.  On the other hand, theology has to be prepared to be challenged by new insights that come to us from study of the world.  Theologians have, from time to time, to re-think the ways we speak about the central truths of the Christian Faith.  Newman’s Idea of a University was published shortly before Darwin’s Origin of Species.  I don’t think we know what he thought about Darwin’s theory of evolution.  I guess –and I hope I am right! – he would have had no trouble reading the creation story in Genesis in the light of Darwin’s new insights.

Newman challenges us in two ways.  The first is to ask what truth or truths we believe should be at the heart of education.  Little can be more important than the way we educate our young people (and it is much to be welcomed that there are now so many more educational opportunities for people at every stage of life).  If we are Christians, we must care about how our faith is to be passed on to the next generation.  Are we content that this should be done outside the educational curriculum, or should the teaching of the Faith be interwoven with the educational curriculum as Newman believed?  I think it should be interwoven, but not in such a way as to stifle freedom of enquiry in all the subjects of the curriculum.  It is vital that young people and their teachers are free to debate new ideas, but it also important that they can benefit from the coherent and inspiring vision the Christian faith can bring to their studies.

The other challenge is about what it means to go to a university.  In the future young people are going to have to borrow huge sums of money to go to university.  Will they think of this a personal investment for the future, rather like buying a house with a mortgage that has to be repaid over twenty five years?  Or will they think of it as joining a community of teaching and learning, which is dedicated to finding and following truth?  When Newman defended the place of the Christian Faith at the heart of education this was one of his key ideas: that teaching and learning is about being part of a community, and the best way to ensure that an educational community thrives is to make sure it is founded on God’s truth.

For his grave, Newman chose the inscription ‘Out of shadows and fantasies into the truth.’  That was what he hoped for what he died.  It was also his hope when he lived: that in this life we could pass ‘out of shadows and fantasies into the truth’.  For him this was what lifelong Christian learning is all about.

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