The nature and purpose of a University remains an important question today, especially when the worth of many areas of study is measured by the utility. In his Idea of a University Newman addresses this question. Another question today is whether self-study and distance education are a substitute for a University? In this chapter Newman makes some observations with regards to this question.
If asked to describe in few words what a University is, Newman would use the ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” According to him a “University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”
Newman notes that in modern times books, pamphlets and articles abound everywhere due to the printing press, but all this printed material does not meet the needs of those who seek a university education.
“When they aim at something precise, something refined, something really luminous, something really large, something choice, they go to another market; they avail themselves, in some shape or other, of the rival method, the ancient method, of oral instruction, of present communication between man and man, of teachers instead of learning, of the personal influence of a master, and the humble initiation of a disciple, and, in consequence, of great centres of pilgrimage and throng, which such a method of education necessarily involves.”
Newman explains that the written word is a record of truth and an instrument for teachers yet “we must consult the living man and listen to his living voice.” No book can enter into all the minute questions which it is possible to ask teachers or convey the looks and expressions which are part of informal conversations.
“The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”
Newman offers various illustrations for education through contact with others. First he describes the many qualities of a gentleman and next asks where one expects for them to be acquired other than in high society. A second illustration is from Parliament. The work that is carried out there is learnt there. He writes that “the Houses of Parliament and the atmosphere around them are a sort of University of politics.” In a similar fashion scientific meetings are the occasion to compare and communicate ideas.
But Newman will assert that living among many others in a metropolis is by itself not enough to constitute a university education.