Growth of the College System ~ Cardinal Newman

JHN, Richmond portraitWriting about colleges at universities Newman noted that there were as many as fifty at Paris, twenty-four at Oxford, and a similar number at Salamanca. Cambridge, Toulouse and Louvain had colleges although less.

He writes that beginning in the 15th c. political changes among nations altered the composition and life of universities. The collegiate system produced institutions within the university that had a local, political and “aristocratic” character that in the case of England made the University of Oxford, the center of national life.

“At first Universities were almost democracies: Colleges tended to break their anarchical spirit, introduced ranks and gave the example of laws, and trained up a set of students, who, as being morally and intellectually superior to other members of the academical body, became the depositaries of academical power and influence.”

Whereas before few members of the aristocracy went to universities  nobles began to send their children to universities, and colleges were then set up for them as in the past they had been set up for the poor.

“Many Colleges too, which had been originally for the poor, opened their gates to the rich, not as fellows or foundation-students, but as simple lodgers, or what are now called independent members, such as monasteries might have received in a former age.”

The influence of the aristocracy as well as other political parties was introduced into the academic cloisters or faculty. The colleges, each with own origins, further developed its characteristics, informally representing  various bodies within society.

“Some of its Colleges represent the talent of the nation, others its rank and fashion, others its wealth; others have been the organs of the government of the day; while others, and the majority, represent one or other division, chiefly local, of the country party.”

Newman remarks how the development of colleges as strong institutions with their own political power had both good and bad effects on the university. The good effect was to give the university stability and vigor. Whereas in the 13th and 14th century students had flocked from France, Germany and Italy to Oxford now students from various ranks and places in England did so, making Oxford the center of English political power.

Early on nobles went to Oxford with a retinue of servants. The nobles followed with interest the academic life and proceeding just as much as the clergy and townspeople did. Although travel was still difficult before the age of railroads there were many messengers carrying news back and forth far and wide between Oxford and the rest of the country. Oxford became a place of national and political importance.

“So intimate was this connection, that Oxford became a sort of selected arena for the conflicts of the various interests of the nation, and a serious University strife was received far and wide as the presage of civil war.”

“Chronica si penses, cum pugnant Oxonienses,

Post paucos menses, volat ira per Angligenenses.”

Despite the difference between colleges and university, the colleges favored what Newman called “the university principle.” However the college idea in English university gained an ascendancy over the university. According to Newman in later centuries the university principle would be lost when the university was sacrificed to the college.

It is likely that here Newman was referring to the political nature of colleges which did harm to the intellectual pursuit and moral formation of students. On the other hand the college system allowed for a personalized education of students by means of tutors. Surely Newman was not lamenting this.

He quotes Huber regarding his sad appraisal of university education: “”Those days never can return; for the plain reason that then men learned and taught by the living word, but now by the dead paper.” The colleges were “far more given to the study of the Arts than to the learned professions, or to any special class of pursuits at all.”

In the following chapter Newman will continue to discuss the differences between a university as a whole and its colleges. This distinction is no longer applicable to modern universities where “colleges” have been replaced by “schools” even though some retain the name “college” as in a given college of medicine or a college of law, etc. He will focus on the political abuse of the collegiate system to the detriment of the university.