It’s the winter of 1854. Cardinal John Henry Newman becomes rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. What we know today as University College, Dublin.
Newman was a bit of a troublemaker. Intellectual. Reactionary. At 27 he got the dream gig of vicar at St Mary’s, the University church at Oxford. He quit after 4 years after falling out with the college head. He started the Oxford movement, defending apostolic succession. That got him banned from Oxford completely and caused his split with the Anglican church.
Newman crossed the aisle to the Catholic church. Before long found himself sent to Dublin to start their new university. He had ideas. In a lecture tour, which became a book in 1858, he laid down his Idea of a University.
Curriculum is always political. The church pushed theology, seeing the university as kind of lay seminary. Academia wanted, well, academia. Science in particular. The church didn’t think science sat too well alongside theology. Remember we’re also in the age of Darwinism. The Origin of the Species would come out a year later in 1859. Newman proposed what he called ‘the web of university teaching’.
By definition a ‘university’ would teach universal knowledge. Electromagentism. Gravitation. Classical Literature. Even Grammar and Composition. A rounded, liberal education. One where each student might educate their intellect and reach toward truth. To reason. To analyse, compare and discriminate. To think. He said the purpose of education was to prepare students for the ways of the world.
Newman believed in the interconnectedness of all knowledge. Many things as one whole, determining mutual dependence in the universal system. Subject-matter as one. For the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together.
The notion resonates today. Information, knowledge, content. Interconnected. Understanding comes from the connections themselves. The web of teaching giving us what John Henry Newman called a ‘clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things.’