The Idea and Modern Ideas: Newman and Higher Education in the 1990s

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Perhaps the real genesis of this essay was a conversation I was having one warm August afternoon four or five years ago. Part of my duties as Dean of Humanities at my home institution was to explain to incoming transfer students how the courses taken at their prior college would be applied to Loyola' s core curriculum requirements. The young man in my office was indignant. Why, he asked in polite but insistent language, would this college not give him core credit for the three hours of Intermediate Guitar which showed on his transcript? It was then that the voice began to speak to me, that little voice in the back of my mind which summoned up--God knows from where--a sentence out of Newman's Idea of a University: "[P]laying stringed instruments is an elegant pastime, and a resource to the idle, but it is not education." (1)

Of course, a sophomore's mind is not easily turned, so I did not try out that sentence on him. But it was an immense comfort to me. And that was the beginning of a process which has continued ever since. Because as issues have come up which call for some kind of judgment, nothing has been more helpful than the observations by Newman which this little voice keeps whispering in my ear--observations which might almost serve as kind of Arnoldian touchstones for finding a steady course or shaping a proper reply.

In particular, this voice has been of inestimable value in helping me survive endless council and committee meetings. The Academic Council of the college, for example, was once debating the wording of a policy statement on faculty teaching loads. Quite predictably the draft contained language about how teaching and research could never be in tension, would always enhance one another. "To discover and to teach are distinct functions," the voice averred; "they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person." (8) On another occasion a dean's meeting was devoted to still another discussion about whether and how to revise the core curriculum. "I will tell you," said the voice sharply, what has been the pracucal error of the last 20 years-- ... distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it is, but enlargement, which it is not." (127)

This last instance of the core curriculum brings me to the subject which I wish to address in this essay. On those public occasions when I have had to represent the university during the last few years, no subject--with the possible exception of the fortunes of the basketball team, with which I am presumed to be familiar--has come up more often than Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Respectfully but seriously, my interrogators want to know what we in academia think of this indictment of our purposes and our proceedings. Sometimes but less often names like Hirsch and Cheney and Giamatti also come up, and again the question is how we who are in these institutions plan to respond to what our critics ask of us. The questions are offered gravely, by people who are genuinely concerned about the state of higher education. And as I have reflected on the issues they raise, the existence of the small voice which I have been describing has suggested an approach. Going beyond touchstone phrases, what if anything does John Henry Newman have to contribute to our conversations about college and university education in America in the 1990s? Are there ways in which Newman's Idea of a University can become a participant in our discussions, can speak to our concerns? When I say "our discussions," I am talking about the controversies generated by specific people. Allan Bloom has already been named. For our purposes here I want to add two others: Lynne Cheney, author of The Humanities in America, and the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, whose book of the same year was entitled A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. …