Newman the Teacher

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By Andrew Nash

We are used to thinking of John Henry Newman as a great theologian, but it is often forgotten that he saw himself primarily as a teacher. ‘Education’ he once said, ‘has always been my line’.

As a young Oxford don at Oriel College in the 1820s, Newman was one of the college’s Tutors, supervising students individually. Most Tutors saw this as a purely academic role, but for Newman it was part of his vocation as a priest of the Church of England. His approach was holistic: he was as much concerned for the students’ spiritual lives as he was for their academic progress. He had a natural style of communication, without the pomposity of a stuffy don, and quickly gained his charges’ confidence. A number of them were to become his disciples and friends.

He was soon given a much more public teaching platform when he was appointed Vicar of St. Mary’s, the university church. Here his preaching attracted large congregations of students. In his sermons he was calling them to holiness of life and making them aware of the riches of historic Christianity, which he had learned from his study of the early Church Fathers, including the sacramental life. His preaching style was quiet, with pauses between his sentences, and many of his young hearers were later to speak of how Newman’s words seemed to speak to them personally. The university authorities resented Newman’s growing influence which they saw as too Catholic-minded, and some of the colleges even altered their meal times to try and stop the students from going to his services. But his reputation grew. The students loved the spiritual leadership that he was giving and used to say ‘Credo in Newmanum’ – ‘I believe in Newman’.

Newman was beginning to have doubts about the validity of the Anglican position. His public teaching role came to an end in 1840 when he stepped down from his ministry after the furore caused by his Tract 90 in which he had interpreted the Church of England’s protestant statements of belief in a Catholic way. After five years of prayer and reflection, culminating in his ground-breaking Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he became a Catholic. Following study in Rome he decided to found the Oratory in England, and in Birmingham he and his fellow Oratorians threw themselves into the busy work of an industrial city parish. His teaching days appeared to be over.

Then in 1852 he was called to be the Rector of the newly founded Catholic University in Dublin. Here he gave the lectures that were to become his book The Idea of a University which has since become a classic of educational thought. Interestingly, it contains an account of university entrance interviews, including one applicant who has read a lot but understood little. Written as a play script, the interviews are so vivid that they could be acted out as models for applicants on how to and how not to behave at university interviews.

Newman had all the headaches of administrative work setting up the fledgling university, but he also acted as the Head of one of the houses where the students lived. He was living with them day to day, eating with them every evening. As at Oxford, he was concerned for their personal development and moral welfare. He could be tough on a student who wouldn’t keep the house rules or had a bad moral influence. But he knew that young men need relaxations and that a university residence couldn’t be run like a seminary. Some of the clergy were shocked to discover that Newman provided his students with a billiard table.

Despite Newman’s efforts, the new university struggled to be a success, and eventually he resigned as Rector. But back in England some of his lay Catholic friends now urged him to open a school. Many of the converts who had followed Newman into the Catholic Church had themselves been educated at Public Schools like Eton and Winchester. Now they wanted the same quality of education for their sons but in a Catholic environment. So in 1859 Newman opened the Oratory School in Birmingham (not to be confused with the later London Oratory School). His aim was to provide a first class academic education to prepare laity for university and the professions. It produced some of the country’s leading Catholic laymen, including the Duke of Norfolk, the writer Hilaire Belloc and an early Olympic gold medallist, John Pius Boland, who later became a Member of Parliament.

Newman hired well-qualified lay teachers, but he also took a personal role in the school, interviewing each boy at the end of term on their progress. He also produced an annual play – a comedy, in Latin! Yet during these years he was continuing his wider intellectual work, including his spiritual autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and his great philosophical work on how we can come to certainty in belief, the Grammar of Assent; and in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk he explained the 1870 definition of Papal Infallibility against its extremist interpreters. When he became a Cardinal, he was revered as one of the greatest Catholic figures of his day, but among the Oratory schoolboys he was affectionately referred to as ‘Old Jack’; and he never missed the cricket match on Speech Days.

Newman’s approach to education proved to be prophetic. In one of his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in 1852, Newman had called for an educated Catholic laity, a call which was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. The Catholic University developed into University College Dublin, though it no longer has any Catholic affiliation. The Oratory School, now located in the Oxfordshire countryside, survived and flourished. His educational thought inspired the foundation of Catholic universities in the United States. He was one of the few churchman of his time who had no problem with Darwin and evolution. He foresaw the secularisation of Western society, and many Catholics today draw inspiration from his writings about how to respond to it. Newman continues to educate us today.

Dr Andrew Nash is a retired headmaster whose career included teaching English at The Oratory School. He is the editor of the critical editions of Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England and Newman’s Essays Critical and Historical, Vol.I, published by Gracewing.

Isaac Withers