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John Henry Newman and Online Education


In Newman’s thinking, residency was essential to meaningful higher learning. What would he have thought of online education in a Catholic setting?

By Gabriel Martinez


Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), arguably the most famous English convert to Catholicism of his era, was invited by the hierarchy to found a Catholic university in Ireland in the early 1850s. In 1852 he started a series of lectures to recruit the support of the Irish Catholic laity for the project; together with later writings on specific subjects, they form The Idea of a University, widely admired as perhaps the most important study of universities, secular or religious.[1]

In trying to convince the bourgeoisie of Dublin that a university education was worth supporting, he needed to explain, first, what it was and, second, what its fruits would be. Newman’s conception of the true mode of educating is far from the emphasis on self-expression, self-assertion, and unregulated choice that might be confused with a classical, liberal education. For him the main point of education is for students to know clearly what they know and what they do not know, to avoid superficiality, to avoid being unreal and pretending to know what they do not. In his scheme, one first teaches students grammar and mathematics, that is, that there are rules and exceptions and richness and coherence that must be respected for truth to be attained. online-education

In this context comes the question of residency in education. If part of the process of education is to learn to adjust one’s claims, and if the fruit of education is having learned to see one’s own knowledge as a part of a larger whole, then rubbing shoulders against a wide variety of classmates is undoubtedly helpful. The variety of students’ provenance and experience pushes them to seek for commonalities and generalization, to revise their expectations, to discard pre-conceived notions, to establish connections, and to accept standards and conventions,[2] so students learn, imperceptibly, to tell the difference between what they have really learned and with what they are merely acquainted.[3] Over time (and excluding questions of behavior and character formation), such a community will develop rules for action and thought, developing over time into a tradition and a characteristic mark of belonging and personality.[4] The place itself will have a spirit, and that spirit will be a real teacher.

A university is, at its heart, the coming together of teachers with those who wish to be taught,[5] a place where those who speak communicate knowledge to those who listen.[6] Surely there is convenience in bringing everyone who has the same purpose to the same place. But more deeply: One can read books about a topic, but to really know something deeply, consulting the scholar and listening to the living voice of the expert are irreplaceable. Subtle emphases and casual nuances; a shrug and an eye-roll; disapproval or support conveyed in tone of voice rather than explicit words. We think of universities as places of learning for good reason, for we also learn informally through casual contact.[7]

Newman qualifies his paean to untutored residency with “let it be clearly understood, I repeat it, that I am not taking into account moral or religious considerations.” Residency without exams, he knew, can be personally destructive even as it can be intellectually exhilarating.


Is online education nothing but a cruel necessity?


Online Education and Newman’s Idea

Would Newman have approved of online education, had he lived in our day? Given the importance he gave to place, would he have doubted that an online school could be properly called a school? Realist that he was, he might have answered that

simple as it is of solution in the abstract, [the question] has, according to difference of circumstances, been at different times differently decided. … It is no principle with sensible men, of whatever cast of opinion, to do always what is abstractedly best. Where no direct duty forbids, we may be obliged to do, as being best under circumstances, what we murmur and rise against, while we do it.[8]


Maybe even the Newmanian critics of online education would be willing to accept the transmission of information via electronic means as bowing to expedience. But is online education nothing but a cruel necessity?

Good online teachers and course designers hold, together with their critics, that the mere dissemination of information (a textbook plus a YouTube channel) is not education. A good online course demonstrates engagement: of the students with the material, of the students with one another, and of the students with the teacher. A high-quality online course involves frequent, maybe daily, interaction among all participants in the course. Surely, information is transmitted and its acquisition tested: lectures (in video or written form), handouts and outside resources, a final exam or project. But a good online course emphasizes the tutorial aspect: weekly quizzes that check students’ knowledge and progress; assignments that allow students to express what they know in their own words. A good online course requires (and is often centered around) substantive, frequent interaction with other students in weekly discussion boards.[9]

Among practitioners, discussion boards are where online learning really happens, as students can interact at any time during the day, disagreeing, contributing, sharing, and encouraging one another to learn.[10] A good discussion board can become the main learning experience in an online course and can compare well against face-to-face discussions.[11]


A good discussion board can become the main learning experience in an online course and can compare well against face-to-face discussions.


Consider a philosophy course in which students are expected to read Adler, Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Ayer, Churchland, Descartes, Plato, and Sartre, along with a substantial set of the professor’s own handouts, in which she or he explains the important points, making connections, and drawing contrasts. In one of the weekly discussion boards, the professor sets out a series of questions about Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, for example, regarding the origin of cities, according to Socrates. A student replies with a substantial, detailed paragraph. The professor indicates where the student is right and posts a further question for clarification or expansion. Another student answers with a question about Socrates’ opinions, and the professor points out the specific passages in the Republic where the answer may be found. A third student plays devil’s advocate and takes the opposite position, which the professor affirms and expands on at length. A fourth student clarifies with an analogy of her own. The first student goes back with a longer defense of his original position, which the professor uses as a springboard for a catechetical question — which a fifth student takes as an opportunity to apply the Republic to the current era. The professor wraps up by summarizing tentative conclusions. The same dynamic continues to play out, as other students post their own answers to the professor’s original post, prompting a flurry of thoughtful responses and replies, all moderated with a light touch by the professor.



No actual university answers to Newman’s desiderata. Yet there is no doubt that there is much that is lovely, much that is essential, much that is life-transforming in the living, physical community of a campus. To compensate for this loss, online courses and programs eliminate the temptation to showboat by a know-it-all speaker and the myriad temptations to promiscuity and dissipation that have always accompanied leaving home and joining an immature agglomeration with minimal responsibility and maximum freedom.

Online education responds to Newman’s insistence that moral behavior cannot be reasonably expected of people without “regularity, rule, respect for others, the eye of friends and acquaintances, the absence from temptation, external restraints generally.” To keep the university together and prevent theological error, moral deviation, and bullying,[12] he sought to influence students differently: to wit, with abundant funds, rules and regulations, doctrine and piety, and small learning communities.[13] In today’s context, this may be a more fitting description of home, with one’s parents, with one’s spouse and children, or under the eye of a boss and coworkers.


Gabriel Martinez is associate professor, chair of economics, and director of online education at Ave Maria University. This article is excerpted from the upcoming edition of the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, volume 39, no. 2.


[1] Cf. Theodore M. Hesburgh, "Reviewed Work: The Idea of the University: A Reexamination by Jaroslav Pelikan," The Catholic Historical Review 78, no. 4 (1992).

[2] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: I. in Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin: II. in Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1919), 146-47.

[3] Ibid., xix.

[4] Ibid., 147-48.

[5] Cf. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, "Meeting with Young University Professors," (2011).

[6] John Henry Newman, The Works of Cardinal Newman Vol. 10: Historical Sketches: Vol. III: Rise and Progress of Universities (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), 74.

[7] Ibid., 8-9.

[8] Newman, Idea of a University, 8-9.

[9] George Collison et al., Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators (ERIC, 2000).

[10] Errol Craig Sull, "Faculty Focus: Tips for Overcoming Online Discussion Board Challenges," (2012).

[11] James W. Brown, "The ABCs of High-Quality Online Discussions," (eLearning Industry, 2015).

[12] Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 189.

[13] Ibid., 74.