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Restoring the Interpersonal in Higher Education

— Many people today who try to read John Henry Newman’s classic volume The Idea of a University find it, well, a bit ponderous. The prose is eminently Victorian, and much of the specific historical context within which he was writing is lost on the general reader. The Idea of a University has been influential, certainly, but close analytical study is needed to feel that influence today.

Less well known is another of Newman’s works, one that is a bit more accessible: “The Rise and Progress of Universities.” A fine essay now available on the web draws on this work and uses it to argue for the importance of residential colleges within larger institutions:

  • Buckley, Michael J. 2006. Newman and the Restoration of the Interpersonal in Higher Education. Santa Clara, California: The Bannan Institute, Santa Clara University. (The Santa Clara Lectures, Vol. 13. The full essay is available as a pdf file.)

This would be an excellent document to print out and circulate for discussion among the students, faculty, and staff of any residential college.

The central argument of Buckley’s essay, derived from Newman and developed from a Jesuit perspective, is that personal interactions among teachers and students are at the heart of education:

Above everything else—above library and books, degree programs, buildings and systems, administrators and religious ministers—teachers are what the university above all offers uniquely to its students…. There are many ways of getting an education, and books do not a university make. Teachers and students, however, do make a university. One does not need a university for books; they can be found at home and in libraries. But one does need a university to have a congress of teachers…. What the university uniquely gives—as a library cannot—is the personal interchange and influence of great teachers.

So how can we maximize this influence? Through residential colleges:

Newman dwells, even lovingly, upon the residential colleges of the university—these abiding constituents of a university. Devoted to study, they are to be a home for those who live within them. Newman’s choice of “home” for the residential college carried much of the English connotations of that beloved word. The college was to provide security, refuge, shelter, moral training, instruction for the young and to become for them over the years, Newman wrote, “the shrine of our best affections, the bosom of our fondest recollections….” Much of the university was worked through the life of the colleges. Since the Middle Ages, the colleges had grown to become “the medium and instrument of University action.” The university was to be “seated and living in the colleges.”

And yet, Buckley observes, at “the very time in which Newman’s discourses were appearing—the American universities were shifting their paradigm from the Oxford inspired university living in its colleges [the very notion of the collegiate way itself], to Berlin and the research university of Wilhelm von Humbolt established by the Prussian Ministry in 1809.” This “Germanification” of American higher education elevated university at the expense of college, much to the detriment of undergraduate education. (And to the detriment of graduate education as well, I would argue.)

Can we recover what was lost? Yes, says Buckley:

Together with the academic development of the students, the university needs to care for that community support, that moral formation and development of character, that academic and religious life which Newman thought the province of his colleges. Is it unthinkable that Catholic universities in the United States should take from Newman different ways of housing undergraduate students than are presently in vogue? The restoration of the residential college as an academic and—yes!—even a religious community might constitute Newman’s third challenge, building upon the significant progress that has recently been made in university residential life. At present, in many universities, young men and women in the United States are removed from the familiarity of their own homes and neighborhoods, from the accepted mores and expectations of their parents and neighbors, sisters and brothers, elderly relatives and life-long friends. In other words, they are removed from much of what will in the future constitute the manifold of their lives as, indeed, it has formed them in the past. In many universities, they have often been placed with thousands of others of the same age in large buildings with lengthy corridors or subdivisions into suites. There is an inevitable and artificial void of what has been familiar, formative and even home.

This modern sterility—what I call the industrial model of higher education—contrasts sharply with the warmth of the collegiate model:

For Newman, the university must of necessity live most of its life—academics insistently included—in those residential colleges which the student and tutors and subsequent generations affectionately called home. For the hours of instruction, if they possess any vitality, must give way to the lengthy conversation of the students, and these in turn must be supported by a common academic, social and religious life in those institutions in which they live their daily lives. Education, to be effective, must be a matter of the day by day and the interpersonal.

Buckley concludes by quoting Newman’s own words from “The Rise and Progress of Universities” on the power of knowledge that is personally embodied:

“I say then, that the personal influence of the teacher is able in some sort to dispense with an academical system, but that the system cannot in any sort dispense with personal influence. With influence there is life, without it there is none; if influence is deprived of its due position, it will not by those means be got rid of, it will only break out irregularly, dangerously. An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.”

Hat tip for Buckley’s essay: Robert Gotcher’s Classical Catholic.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021