John Cornwell

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), June 14, 2010 | Go to article overview
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John Cornwell

Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)

You argue in your new book that John Henry Newman continues to speak to us from beyond the grave. Why should we be interested in this mid-19th-century Catholic convert?

The book is about why he is important to people who are not Catholic Christians, people who are of other faiths and people who have got no faith at all. It's an attempt to say what it is about Newman that's worth discussing.


The story of Newman's life is that he moved from an early scepticism to evangelicalism, and then to various forms of Church of England Christianity, before becoming a Catholic. The central message of his life and work is that nobody should accept, in docile fashion, what they're taught by their school, their church, their parents, by authority. And that is a message for everybody - be prepared to be courageous about chucking stuff out.

That doesn't sound like a specifically religious view, though.

What makes it peculiarly religious is that the driving force for all this is the voice of conscience. This is interesting, because conscience, in terms of ethics and moral philosophy, is very outmoded. I find it significant that, even though contemporary philosophy tends towards forms of determinism, in the wider culture people are deeply into naming, shaming and blaming each other. So we haven't lost that sense of conscience. That's the driving force for Newman, the guiding principle.

His book The Idea of a University is also relevant in light of the debate about the future of higher education.

Yes. What comes out of that book is the idea that the educated person who may go on to be an economist in government, say, or a top scientist, will, when he is out in the world doing big things, see the wider implications of what he is doing. It's a sense of relating to a greater whole. Newman thought you start that at university.

He also insisted on the uselessness of study. Each discipline, he thought, brings its own reward with it, rather than having a vocational purpose. However, he was also very keen on people going to university to study vocationally.

There are parallels with some of the things John Stuart Mill was saying about higher education around the same time.

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