Sunday, May 25, 2008

Newman as a beacon for 'liberal' education?

I suppose, given his influence in Dublin it should not be surprising that Newman is held in high esteem in Ireland (and amongst Catholics in England of course) and is almost always raised in discussions about the nature of the University, but what does often surprise me is the extent to which he, or rather his 'idea' of the University, is invoked by those who see themselves in opposition to the 'neo-liberal agenda.' (I am in particular reminded of Bill Readings' summary of where Newman fits in the development of the University and the construction of the 19th Century project of the Imperial Nation-State.)

That somehow Newman's vision is the rallying point for such views is surely deeply ironic given his profoundly conservative attitudes and his antithetical opposition to research. After all, for Newman, truth is not pursued through research and critical scholarly activity but rather is a divine given, that the role of the university is, in contrast to the German Idealists, not to construct a republic of knowledge around Wissenschaft, but rather to bolster the traditions of church and state, holding theology ultimately in its primacy over the continental threat of philosophy, or at least, to centre on the study of literature rather than philosophy and science, and its utility as the means of building and reinforcing a national culture. That the university is not about producing knowledge (as scientific discovery does, for example) but simply about sharing it and encouraging 'young gentlemen' to reflect on it. Elitism being at the heart of the project, not to mention triumphal imperialism and more than a nod towards sexism!

Let us not forget his wonderful Discourses which include comments on non-Western peoples such as "look into the huts of savages, and see, for there is nothing to listen to, the dismal blank of their stupid hours of silence; their professional avocations of war and hunting are over; and, having nothing to do, they have nothing to say." Or later: "In the language of savages you can hardly express any idea or act of the intellect at all: is the tongue of the Hottentot or Esquimaux to be made the measure of the genius of Plato, Pindar, Tacitus, St. Jerome, Dante or Cervantes?"

Perhaps something we can discuss in the international/globalisation thread at the conference?

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