What do Newman’s The Idea of a University and Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised have in common? That’s the question many students asked themselves as they arrived at the Paul M. Henkels Academic Building Lecture Hall to hear Dr. Colin Barr speak.
Dr. Colin Barr, former faculty member and Chair of the History Department at AMU, is currently Senior Lecturer at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He returned to Ave Maria University for a lecture on March 30, 2015 as part of his U.S. tour promoting Aberdeen’s MLitt in Irish and Scottish History. (He was joined by AMU graduate Mary Hardy (’13), who is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Aberdeen. Two other AMU graduates, Alex Crawford and Rose Luminiello, are also currently earning Ph.D.s at Aberdeen.)
Barr began his lecture by giving evidence of how Newman and his work The Idea of a University have become “ubiquitous” in higher education. For example, in October 2010, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge gave a lecture outlining his educational vision entitled “The Idea of a University: Newman and Now.” John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, prepared himself for his role by studying Newman’s Idea. An Australian paper reported that Newman’s ideas on education “still gnaw at Vice-Chancellors.” And, as Barr pointed out, Newman’s continuing relevance was made clear by his beatification in 2010.
Yet somewhere in the midst of Newman’s relevance and popularity there exists a difficulty. How else could his educational ideals be championed by liberals and conservatives alike? Newman’s Idea is so rarely read all the way through, let alone in its historical context, Barr remarked, that it is little wonder “that their versions of Newman and his educational ideals are at best in conflict and at worst comically contradictory.” The Idea of a University, he said, “has become…an intellectual’s version of Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised, in which each viewer sees only the thing which he most desires.” The goal of the historian, he continued, is to discover “how we might think about approaching a hugely important historical figure who has become almost impossibly encrusted with myth, legend, politics and perhaps even prejudice.”
Barr went on to explain the book’s publication history and the context in which it was written. Newman was asked to conceive of and put into motion the first Catholic university in Ireland. Newman had to sell the idea of a Catholic university, Barr said. Why would anyone pay for a Catholic university when they could attend a secular university for free? The initial five sections of The Idea are Newman’s discourses on the importance of theology to a university.
Another thing Barr pointed out, something which is often missed, is that Newman makes a distinction between the university and the college. The college is the center of spiritual life, he said, the place where the formation of students’ lives takes place. The university is “something different”—the place where professors research, write, and lecture. What Newman writes in The Idea about the happenings on the college-level cannot be confused with what he writes about the university functions, and vice versa.
So why don’t people look at Newman and his works in their historical context? Because humans are lazy, Barr said. Newman wrote a lot, and it is difficult to sift through all of his work. But, Barr warned, “when we wish to use a source who wrote as much as Newman did, who wrote as beautifully as Newman did…we do ourselves a disservice…in not considering him as he was and how he existed in what he wrote.”
Barr concluded: “If we wish to quote Newman…what we must do is recognize whether we are looking into a mirror or whether we are looking into the past, and I would suggest into the past is a better place.”