Reverend Professor Ian Ker of Oxford University gave a lecture on John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University” at Harvard Law School in September, arguing that careful attention is needed to understand Newman’s perspective on the goals of a university in light of modern day assumptions about education.  Co-sponsored by the Catholic Law Students Association and Harvard Catholic Student Association, Ker’s talk was given on Sept. 29 as part of a larger celebration of the life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was beatified ten days earlier during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England. Newman, a fellow at Oriel College and clergyman in the Church of England, was a leader in the Oxford Movement and a convert to Roman Catholicism.

“’The Idea of a University’ is still the one classic work on university education,” Ker said.  “It is famous for its advocacy of a ‘liberal education; as the principal purpose of a university. However, Ker noted, the nature of what Newman meant by a liberal education has often been misunderstood.

Ker cautioned that what Newman calls ‘special philosophy’ can be very misleading to a modern reader, who may suppose that what Newman means is that the heart of the curriculum will be courses in philosophy. “[Newman] does not mean the academic subject we now call philosophy, but ‘Knowledge when it is acted upon and informed […] by Reason,’ Ker said. “In other words, knowledge which ‘grasps what it perceives through the senses, [but] which sees more than the senses convey’; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea.”

Ker said another misunderstanding of Newman’s idea of a liberal education is that he was advocating the “study of the liberal arts for the usual kind of reasons.” According to Ker, while Newman does not stress cultural value in his discussions of literature, he does argue in the second half of ‘The Idea of a University’ that traditionally the classics, and the subjects of thought and the studies to which they give rise, have, on the whole, been the instruments of education.

“This could be very misleading for a modern reader who will understand by the Classics the languages and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. But, in fact, Newman is thinking of the seven liberal arts of the medieval university, which […] comprised grammar, rhetoric, logic and mathematics, which was subdivided into geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. This education in the liberal arts was hardly what we would mean by an education either in the liberal arts or in the Classics,” Ker said.

Ker, the leading authority on the thought and writings of John Henry Newman, is the author and editor of more than 20 books on Newman, including “John Henry Newman: A Biography,” which was recently republished in 2009. Ker has been a senior research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford University, since 2005. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and holds an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Leicester.

— Greg DiBella