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The discourses of higher education in Ireland

Religion, nationalism and economic development

Author - Nora French


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Newman, religion and liberal education

At the Synod of Catholic bishops in Thurles in 1850, it was decided instead to set up a Catholic university and the following year, an invitation was sent to Cardinal John Henry Newman to become the first rector. Newman was a prominent academic at Oxford university and a convert to Catholicism, and so, to the hierarchy, the ideal candidate for the position. He had been an important contributor to debates in England on the reform of the university and was vehemently opposed to the utilitarian model which was being promulgated by reformers from Scotland and on which the University of London was based. However, he did not know Ireland which was recovering from the Great Famine in the 1840s and where cultural and political nationalism was on the rise.

He was in Ireland between 1852 and 1858 and succeeded in establishing the Catholic University of Ireland (formally established in 1854). It led a troubled existence for the first 50 years and only really flourished when integrated into the National University of Ireland in 1908 as University College Dublin. A more important contribution from his time in Dublin was his writing of The Idea of a University. [1] This book is acknowledged to have had extraordinary influence on the discussion and conceptualisation of higher education generally (Garland 1996: 265; Pelikan 1992: Ch. 1). To quote from Turner (1996: 282) ‘No work in the English language has had more influence on the public ideals of higher education’.

Although he was writing in the context of what would have been a provincial, Irish Catholic institution

Newman against all odds and experience established the framework within which later generations … considered university academic life. Newman provided the vocabulary, ideas, and ideals, with which to discuss the concerns, character, and purpose of the university and of higher education generally. He furthermore articulated a vision of the university against which alternative visions, despite their relevance, usefulness, and practicality make the activity of the university seem intellectually and morally diminished.

(Turner 1996: 282)

His work remains well known throughout Ireland, not only to academics. It was for a long time on the curriculum for secondary schools and his ideas have permeated thinking on education within the universities.

The two main discourses on which his work is based are those of religion and of liberal as opposed to useful education, both closely linked to his own experience and concerns. The first sentence in the preface to his book defines education as ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’ (Newman 1996: 3; italics in original). This sentence is the basis on which he makes his arguments for the place of religion in the university and for the superiority of liberal education.

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