A recent John Henry Newman argument, step by step. Roger Scruton, in The American Spectator, argues for “a wholly new kind of university” based, somehow, on the principles of The Idea of a University. Good luck with that! Miriam Burstein warns Scruton, and me, that Newman’s argument is founded on his Catholic faith, even, at times, when he specifically claims otherwise. Reader beware. When Newman defends knowledge for its own sake, one of the “aims” he leaves unspecified is certainly a strengthening or even discovery of Catholic religious principles. Not sharing those principles myself, I am left dangling.
D. G. Myers asks if anything is then recoverable from Newman for anyone outside of a Catholic university or a similar institution. His central point, as I understand it, is correct, that the educators and administrators of the modern university do not have a cohesive purpose, not like Newman envisioned, and are often openly antagonistic. One could defend this state of affairs, but not with Newman’s arguments.
Burstein plucks a single quotation from Newman, almost a single word:
[R]eally, Gentlemen, I am making no outrageous request, when, in the name of a University, I ask religious writers, jurists, economists, physiologists, chemists, geologists, and historians, to go on quietly, and in a neighbourly way, in their own respective lines of speculation, research, and experiment, with full faith in the consistency of that multiform truth, which they share between them. (“Christianity and Scientific Investigation,” 341, emphasis mine)
I have made an excerpt from Prof. Burstein's excerpt of a marvelously long, twisty sentence. My slice makes Newman’s idea seem outrageous simply because he denies it is. Still – quietly, neighborly. I prefer, as more achievable, a similar metaphor from a bit earlier in the same discourse:
In this point of view, its several professors are like the ministers of various political powers at one court or conference. They represent their respective sciences, and attend to the private interests of those sciences respectively; and, should dispute arise between those sciences, they are the persons to talk over and arrange it, without risk of extravagant pretensions on any side, of angry collision, or of popular commotion. A liberal philosophy becomes the habit of minds thus exercised; a breadth and spaciousness of thought, in which lines, seemingly parallel, may converge at leisure, and principles, recognized as incommensurable, may be safely antagonistic. (337)
“Safely antagonistic” – even that, I would not want to take for granted, but it seems possible. My PhD is from a program based on, known for, its seminar model. All research of any seriousness was presented at safely antagonistic public seminars. The professional standards were impeccable. The audience, every member, typically, had read the paper in advance. We played havoc with any intended presentation or slide show. We skipped straight to the good stuff, by which I mean, the weakest arguments and evidence. We were brutal. To the extent that I am a competent professional in my field, it’s because of these seminars.
I have wondered if this safe antagonism can be replicated on book blogs. It seems so difficult. In the seminar room, every participant knew the rules and the limits of combat. On the internet, I’m afraid not. I try to respect the signals bloggers send about how aggressively they want to be challenged, but I’ll bet I misread them a lot, so mostly, I play it safe and try not to be a jerk. Too big of a jerk. Perhaps a more explicitly collaborative model makes more sense.
I have imagined digital stickers pasted to the top of the blog – “Have at me” (I’d use that one) or “Play nice” or “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Have at me! I'll thank you later. Maybe, ha ha, a lot later. It’s for my own good, the furthering of my liberal education. Maybe for your good, too.