The Proposition of an Ideal Hi


John Henry Newman, born in 21 February 1801 and dead in 11 August 1890, was a great British educator and an active advocator of liberal education in 19th century. (Baidu) The Idea of a University, his magnum opus, is regarded as a representative book analyzing higher education in the world.

In The Idea of a University, the writer firstly described the challenges that the theology course in many traditional British universities was confronted with. As the English Industrial Revolution radically struck the fundamental status of traditional British education, the influence of the religion gradually diminished while the science became more and more influential in British society.

In my humble opinion, the main idea of the discourse 2 to the discourse 4 of the book may be concluded as mainly arguing that the acquisition of knowledge is for the sake of knowledge itself.

In order to conform to the trend of the science era and protect their own benefits, the British capitalist class looked for the change of British university. Nevertheless, many British universities, such as Oxford University and Cambridge University, rejected the transformation of the science education and stuck to the traditional education.

In view of this situation, there established some new colleges and universities which specially taught the knowledge of science. These new colleges and universities were distinct from the traditional universities in many respects. They had lower requirement for admission and no theology courses. From the writer’s point of view, the generation of the new colleges and universities brought crisis to the British traditional higher education of classical humanism, which they had maintained for hundreds of years.

The writer set his argument on the basic premise of his definition of the properties of university. As he said from the view of etymology, University is the place where universal knowledge is taught. Pitifully restricted by my limited horizon, I cannot accurately understand many of the writer’s argument, but I will try my best to express my understanding of his theory.

From the writer’s perspective, universities should teach various kind of knowledge equally and completely, which is derived from the two essential aims of higher education. Newman, the writer, wrote, “in order to have possession of the truth at all, we must have the whole truth; and no one science, no two science, no one family of sciences, not even all secular science, is the whole truth.” Moreover, “if a student’s reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labor may favor the advancement of a particular pursuit, certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind.” So university should provide students with not only the professional knowledge but also universe knowledge and complete knowledge. Although different kinds of knowledge provide us with different matters of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves. Newman, the writer, especially attached magnitude to the completeness of knowledge. Thing itself is a whole, not divided into majors. Thus, philosophy and theology achieve their own status, “When Newton can dispense with the metaphysician, then may you dispense with us”, the writer replied to the question why the universities cannot only teach science. As the writer said, knowledge is a kind of state and condition of human intellect. Thus, the pursuit of knowledge is a spiritual pursuit. As the writer quoted Aristotle’s Rhetoric, of possessions, those rather are useful, which bear fruit; those liberal, which tend to enjoyment. By fruitful, I mean, which yield revenue; by enjoyable, where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using. And Newman also wrote, “knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward. ”

In fact, the writer actually argued against the utilitarian idea of building the earthly universities which only provide professional education for middle class in this book. In view of the importance of the completeness and universal of knowledge, the writer advocated liberal education passionately. Liberal education aims at the self-cultivation, intellect training. And it is a gentleman or an elegant lady that fully demonstrates that intellect, bravery, tolerance and maturity fully constitute one’s perfection. Newman wrote, “the purpose of a liberal arts education is to open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address and eloquent expression.”

To expound his view upon the relation between liberal education and professional education, he mentioned the relation between the good and the practical. What is practical is not always good, but what is good is bound to be practical. Liberal education aims at the cultivation of intelligence, and cultivation of intelligence is intrinsically good and it is ends in itself, thus liberal education is practical. Actually, the essence of this issue is the dialectical unity of instrumental rationality and value rationality, which was put forward by Max Weber, a German sociologist, approximately 110 years ago. To conclude, liberal education advocated by Newman does not regard utility as its purpose, but neither denies that it can be useful, which argues against utilitarianism validly.  

From discourse 5 to discourse 6, the writer mainly discuss the practical dimension of liberal education. In the writer’s opinion, the students should gain knowledge on their own initiative. Students should not only passively listen to the lecture and rigidly write down their notes, but also actively come up with their own ideas and put forward their questions. The truly effective teaching exists in the conversation between students and teachers. As Newman wrote,” Here then is a real teaching, whatever be its standards and principles, true or false; and it at least tends towards cultivation of the intellect; it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no inter-communion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy, three times a week, or three times a year, or once in three years, in chill lecture-rooms or on a pompous anniversary.”

Newman’s idea of university’s intent is indeed inspiring. Recently, there is a heated debate on delicate egoism rising in china. We struggle for the admission to the prestigious universities, but why do we have this need for entering those prestigious universities? From Newman’s perspective, the higher education doesn’t aim at cultivating poets, governors or heroes. The higher education should surpass the cultivation of professionals and cultivate those who have fine cultivation and elegant behaviors. Through the cultivation of such people, the whole society makes progress and modification. In fact, as Newman had written , ”General culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refine his taste, and formed his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an engineer, or a chemist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he can take up any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense, then, and as yet I have said but a very few words on a large subject, mental culture is emphatically useful.”

In China, there is a slogan that scientific research should be put at the first place. Actually, there is nothing to be said against that university attaches importance to the scientific research, but university differs from the general scientific research institution, it should firstly be the place where cultivated people are trained. And reasons had been given by Newman in the book which I mentioned above. That’s why the western countries promote liberal arts. As Newman said, all knowledge forms one whole. Any peculiar branch of knowledge, however advance it may be, cannot and should not constitute our idea of the world.

There is a saying that philosophy is the game of white men who are rich. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that the humanities are of little use. But what does it mean that something is useful?

Surely, the knowledge of technology and science can benefit the human being in many aspects evidently. We can build many-storied buildings with our knowledge of mechanics and mathematics; we can design vehicles with many extraordinary functions with our knowledge of machinery. So, what can we derive from the learning of the wonderful poems, classical literatures and profound but extremely obscure philosophy works?

One may answer that we can learn how to communicate with others tactfully and persuade others more easily (or sophisticatedly). I must admit that it is quite true that some people successfully find a practical way of studying classical works. Pragmatism and utilitarianism must not be directly and simply used as pejorative terms. But he who regards the humanities only as an introduction to rhetoric completely misses the key point.

 Why do I need to be a gentleman, if I am able to make a living without being respectable like Confucius? It is one of the heatedly discussed points of the debate on the delicate egoism. Those who argue for delicate egoism hold the view that as a matter of fact, delicate egoists do not engender others’ material loss. But the profound humanists who have a broad horizon must be against it. Because however smart and cautious the egoists are, they will not really put heart into the modification and development of the society, then although they never do anything wrong, they never do anything really have essentially positive and long-term influence on our society. But due to their excellence performance, they will be in power for a long time, which may eventually turn out to be a burden to the development of a society.

Nevertheless, if one still sticks to the genuinely practical use of the liberal arts, the answer can be listed as follow. One can develop the strength of mind and an ordered intellect. Such exercises make our minds stronger and more able to grasp the profound ideas. Different subjects make our minds developed in different aspects. What’s more, we will be able to think for ourselves. We can develop our own opinions based not on the authority of parents, peers or teachers,but upon our own comprehension and examination of arguments and evidences. And the liberal arts prevail over any professional pragmatic education in this aspect. Besides, the enlargement of our knowledge can enhance our creativity and ability to see the whole of things. Then, we can be conscious of our shortcomings and disadvantages, and we know where to complement and how to become a better person. As Newman said, knowledge can draw the mind off from things which will harm it. And Socrates, the famous philosopher, said in Meno which is one of Plato’s famous dialogues that virtue is knowledge. As a matter of fact, liberal arts education contributes not only to our wisdom, but also to our well-being. Many people may not believe that Newton was a Christian which Newman had said in this book. What I wanted to figure out is that the more knowledge we gain the more likely we are to believe in God. It may be sound not persuasive, but many evidences substantiate this proposition. From this point of view, we can make sense why we will be happier if we receive liberal arts education in another aspect. The extensive culture of western and eastern civilization can provide us with infinite pleasure and many sources of improvement. The appreciation of painting or sculpture or literature can improve our sense. And empirical researches point out that intellect increase more through intellectual exercise than what we may assume before. What’s more, we may be happier if we are more educated and intelligent.

Who am I? Where did I come from and where will I go to? What is the end of my life? Why should I do this? How should I act? What do I deserve to seek? We are bound to be confronted with these questions one day and liberal arts education teach us to face them directly, and thus we struggle for the answer and eventually live a better life, though it should be a hard time for us to figure out the final answer.

Consequently, we need humanity courses in the university, and whatever the students major in, they need to learn the humanities.

Our universities should provide us with telescopes.



  • 蔡典

    The title should be The Proposition of an Ideal Higher Education.