by Most Reverend James D. Conley
I came to the Catholic faith in the 1970s, during my undergraduate years at a public university in Kansas. On its face, that setting seems among the most unlikely places in which to encounter Jesus Christ and his Church. But, the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program specialized in the unlikely, and the extraordinary.
From approximately 1970 to 1980, three professors at the University of Kansas drew students into the riches of the Western intellectual tradition—forming their minds, their imaginations and their hearts, for friendship, and humility, and wonder. In less than a decade, a public university in Kansas formed two future bishops, an abbot, monks, priests and religious, and hundreds of men and women who’ve been reborn in wonder, and reborn in Jesus Christ.
At the very heart of the Integrated Humanities Program was the work of my spiritual patron, the great British convert Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. A prolific author he wrote eloquently on theology, history and literature. He brought a unique religious community to England, and oversaw its expansion. He preached beautifully and his sermons have become classics. But the great apostolic project of his Catholic life was the formation and education of Catholics who would know and love the faith, which would be the basis from which they undertook every other kind of noble project in their lives.
Newman founded the Catholic University of Ireland, and also the first English boarding school for Catholic gentlemen since the Tudor Reformation. And in his intellectual work, most especially The Idea of a University, Newman outlined the principles by which any university, Catholic or otherwise, should undertake its solemn mission.
A university, said Newman, is “a place of teaching universal knowledge”. A university trains the intellect to reason, so that students will possess the “faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.” Newman reasoned that to succeed, a university had to undertake its work with a commitment to “educate the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”
In short, Newman wrote that every university should be a place where young minds are able seek out and discern what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful.
Today, education in many places has been overcome by our cultural tendencies towards technocratic reasoning and a utilitarian preoccupation with earnings. Technical possibility has become the common standard of moral responsibility. The minute specialization of scientific and technological research in modern universities discourages reasoned reflection on the relationship between scientific advancement and moral goods. And the role of history, literature, poetry and philosophy is ever diminished—the humanities regarded too often as a curiosity; a tolerable deviation from the real work of career preparation. Too often, modern universities train students for earning and producing, without really preparing them for living.
In The Idea of a University, Newman wrote that “men whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them…. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”
The antidote to the problem of modern universities is the formation of minds that think with the “elastic force of reason.” This requires a revival of the classical approach to university formation—a revival of the poetic imagination, of formation in history and philosophy. Minds that know how to reason are the products of hearts and imaginations that have been transformed by wonder.
On secular campuses and Catholic universities, educators must become as intentional about human and spiritual formation as they are about the transmission of scientific and technical knowledge.
In A University Education, Fr. Juan Vélez provides practical reflections on the history and mission of universities. He offers insights for students and parents on the process of finding a truly meaningful university education, and he offers sober reflections for university administrators about the needs of modern students and the formation of meaningful university curricula.
There are many Catholic colleges and universities across the country committed to forming minds to know the truth, and hearts to choose the good. And there are excellent Newman Centers and Catholic Studies Institutes at dozens of secular universities, offering intellectual and personal formation to students seeking to know and serve Jesus Christ. A University Education is a useful guide for parents and students discerning the place in which God might be calling them to study.
A University Education is important for anyone concerned with the state of higher education in the United States, and the consequences for the Church, for souls, and for the world. It presents critical insights about the relationship between education, formation, and Christian discipleship. Newman wrote that “religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling the web of University Teaching.” A University Education offers historical and practical wisdom about the integration of Jesus Christ, and his Church, into the university formation of disciples, ready to reason, work, and live in the light of Truth.