Today youth often look for a university that has big buildings, comfortable dorms or successful sports teams. They look for a university where they have friends or in locations that are attractive. Few times do we hear students who seek a university because of its professors (except in the case of graduate students).
Instead Newman characterizes a university as a place where wise men, who are teachers, are found. He writes: “we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, we must repair to the fountain, and drink there.”
He notes that universities grew in cities where there were newspapers, libraries, societies, museums and trades. This was the case with Paris and London. The environment of Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca moved to capitals where students took up law, medicine and fine arts. Students moved cities to learn a profession. The metropolis became virtual universities.
Again Newman affirms that a university must be more than this. It needs to have a defined scope or idea, and it needs teachers.
“We cannot then be without virtual Universities; a metropolis is such: the simple question is, whether the education sought and given should be based on principle, formed upon rule, directed to the highest ends, or left to the random succession of masters and schools, one after another, with a melancholy waste of thought and an extreme hazard of truth.”
Having developed the notion of a university in his Idea of a University he goes on to comment on the role of oral transmission of learning. According to him, education from books is not sufficient, especially in the transmission of theology and religion.
“Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason; it is poured into his mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressing and then recurring to first principles, by all those ways which are implied in the word “catechising.”” Newman adduces the example of great men who learnt in this way: the uninstructed St. Anthony, the Hermit, or the blind theologian Didymus. He also refers to the Disciplina Arcani whereby sacred doctrines of Revelation were transmitted by oral tradition for some hundred years.
Newman insists that a university is a center, a place that brings together the best: “It is the place for great preachers, great orators, great nobles, great statesmen. In the nature of things, greatness and unity go together; excellence implies a centre.”
In such places truth should be sought after, rather than given lip service. “It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.” This vision of the study of knowledge and a tribunal of truth is absent from so many universities today.
As Newman set about establishing the Catholic University of Ireland, he hoped that with God’s grace, such a center of learning would once again be possible. For him, the university “is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.”