The Idea of Our University
A Commentary on John Henry Newman and the University of Dallas on the Occasion of
Date published: Oct. 10, 2019
By Bernadette Waterman Ward, Ph.D.
To found the famous Core curriculum of the University of Dallas, as an education "best for the individual," Donald and
Louise Cowan looked to John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University. He unapologetically promotes the Western classics — precisely because so few know
our own culture well enough to appreciate the depth of any other.
Students, he thought, should form their imaginations by well-tested literature, with
images of the noble and great before their minds. Material meant merely to stir addictive
passions narrows rather than enlarges the mind. But the classics must be studied thoroughly
in all the strangeness of their contexts, and their effects upon our culture.
Rather than "enfeebling the mind by multiplicity," Newman advised studying a limited
literature systematically and rigorously, through grammar and logic to history and
geography. Strong bones and joints make flexible bodies; this apparently rigid, interconnected
curriculum makes flexible minds. Newman says a student must "make good his ground"
— that is, rationally connect new information to material already understood. This
generated the 19-course, 71-credit University of Dallas Core curriculum spanning literature,
history, mathematics, theology, philosophy, language, economics, politics, art and
Newman wrote philosophy, theology, history and even novels — but he wanted to focus
each student's mind to "to digest, master, rule and use its knowledge, to give it
power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness."
The methods of the various disciplines enable students to enjoy relating ideas to
one another and testing those connections in new contexts. Shallow multiculturalism,
he thought, misses the interconnections, leaving "a mass of undigested knowledge."
Miseducated students today often judge other cultures by 21st century American values.
Worse, they may be helpless to distinguish differences in fashion from fundamental
disagreements — or fads of the current news cycle from real problems. A University
of Dallas literature or politics professor can confidently refer to theological or
historical issues, to philosophers or artists or economic theorists. Scientists are
expected to write, and to understand the imaginative aspects of their disciplines.
Debate proceeds civilly, often on a philosophical level.
The University of Dallas has various departments, rather than a single unified curriculum.
"An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences" as Newman recommended,
who "learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other." Newman explains, "A habit of
mind isformed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness,
calmness, moderation and wisdom."
Each fits into its proper context, and judges with the principles of its own science.
None is allowed to be a law unto itself or a tyrant to others; theologians, economists,
political scientists, biologists and all the others defend their viewpoints. Academic
integrity umpires the rivalry; no discipline is silenced. Neither mere egotism nor personal
prejudices can substitute for evidence and reason. Newman considered this mutual respect
to constitute a "science of the sciences." He himself most respected the discipline
of theology, in its promotion of the primacy of conscience and its wide view of a world
that makes sense under a rational God, balancing realities that are physical, moral
and spiritual at once.
A balanced circle of sciences challenges each discipline to recognize higher values
than survival, or power, or partisanship. Rather, all admire "the magnanimity or self-mastery,
which is the greatness of human nature." Newman's ideal university does not produce
a certain type of social arrangement, serving some political or personal end; it forms philosophical
minds to work freely on any problem.
Because the university is Catholic, its members acknowledge God's call to care for their
neighbors — and first of all to consider their obligation to speak and hear the truth
among their fellow students and professors. Rather than disinviting those who hold
opposing views, or shouting them down, students learn to logically challenge their ideas
in relation to their own thoroughly examined tradition. No "free speech area" needs
to be defined, and no political views must be quashed. The student body is mainly
Catholic, but, with a robust grounding in reason and their own culture, they can debate
opposing viewpoints without fear — albeit not perfectly in all cases, but with growing
maturity. The University of Dallas has prospered by embracing the ideal of Newman's