Considering Online Education Through Newman's Principles

"The Idea of a University" by St. John Henry Newman can offer some important principles to guide our thinking about the possibilities of online education.

This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of Lumen.

Bust of St. John Henry Newman

Everyone’s talking about online education these days – and it’s not always complimentary. For many, it’s particularly hard to imagine how online education could fit with the liberal arts. There’s perhaps no one better to help us think about such a pairing in a richly Catholic way than St. John Henry Newman. His The Idea of a University – a foundational text for St. Thomas Catholic Studies – outlines his theory and ideal of university education. It also can offer us some important principles to guide our thinking about the possibilities of online education.

In Idea, Newman makes two key arguments: 1) that a university is a place of teaching all knowledge – no discipline can be excluded on principle, and 2) that the characteristic result for students is the development of a philosophical habit of mind. Such a mind is characterized by discipline and an ability to see the reality of things; it perceives relationships and connections, and recognizes and applies proper methods to each discipline. The method of mathematics is not the method of literature, nor is either the method of philosophy or theology. Yet these all together form a whole, as the well-formed mind begins to recognize. Truth is one, and there is a unity to faith and reason.

Dr. Michael Naughton during a lecture for the online graduate course The Heart of Culture: The Story of Western Education.

To think about online education with Newman must not mean to entertain a change of ends. There are those in the present day, as there were those in Newman’s day, who argue for utilitarian ends for education and who would say that the sole point of education is productive employment. Newman assails this position in his writings. Of course, liberal education may well, in a secondary way, be useful, he acknowledges, “but that is a further consideration, with which I am not concerned. I only say that, prior to its being a power, it is a good; that it is, not only an instrument, but an end.” (Idea, 112)

Thus, following Newman’s principles, we should first ask ourselves if there is any fundamental incompatibility between online university education and teaching universal knowledge. The answer appears to be no. No subject matter is inherently excluded. All the disciplines of a university and the integration of all fields of knowledge can be both taught and learned either online or on ground.

Father Martin Schlag provides a “Deep Down Minute” Lenten study break reflection for students during the spring 2020 semester.

Second, we should ask ourselves whether there is anything in principle that precludes the cultivation of a philosophical habit of mind in online education. Again, there is no “a priori” reason to think that this cannot be the goal of online education or that online education cannot achieve it. Such a habit of mind is rather a mysterious thing – not easily conjured, even in person. Nonetheless, it can, and must, remain the standard of judgment for the success of both on-ground and online programs. The goal of any true university program is the cultivation of such a habit in students. That we are aiming at this goal is not in doubt, if we are thinking with Newman.

For Newman, the indispensable means of education is personal influence, and this emphasis serves as a further test for designing an online course of study true to Newman’s principles. Personal influence – a notion developed less in Idea and more in Rise and Progress of Universities – is an overriding, even predominant, theme of Newman’s entire life and has an especially strong role for his theory and practice of education. At the Catholic University of Ireland in the 1850s, for example, Newman places the highest value on the personal influence of tutors and professors: “With influence there is life, without it there is none; ... an academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.” (Rise, 74)

Because we agree with Newman, personal influence has always been an important part of St. Thomas Catholic Studies, and that value can be seen in the development of the department’s online graduate program. It affects countless things, great and small. Lectures are recorded in professors’ offices, allowing far-flung students a peek at faculty members’ book titles and art. Students receive welcome videos, rather than dry welcome emails. Students hear the tremor of emotion as a favorite professor reads and interprets a poignant passage from Virgil. Guest faculty sometimes appear in online classes, helping students get acquainted with more than just their immediate teachers. In such ways, faculty help point Catholic studies students – both online and on ground – toward deeper love of what is true, beautiful and good.

A final way of thinking with Newman about online university education may be found in Newman’s phrase “genius loci.” He describes it variously, as “a self-perpetuating tradition” or “the spirit of the place,” which will depend “mainly on the intercourse of students with each other.” While authorities can’t create this spirit, they can encourage, foster and influence it.

Newman’s genius loci can arguably be understood not so much as “place as place” but “place as people,” yet the place itself serves a role. It is a great advantage that St. Thomas Catholic Studies has a place in beautiful Sitzmann Hall, that its professors are there in community, that it has students there in community. Online students will ever benefit from that, even at a distance. Newman speaks of students being “the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle,” (Idea, 101) and we consider that abundantly true in the case of Catholic Studies. The place and people, the genius loci, of St. Thomas Catholic Studies informs the content of all our classes and the character of our whole community. And sometimes the genius loci extends out from Sitzmann Hall, nurturing friendships at conferences and out-of-state student meetups.

Would Newman support online university education? That must remain an open question. But it is clear that those seeking to develop enriching online educational opportunities would benefit from reflecting on Newman’s principles and insights – and holding fast to the ideals of university education he articulates. If online university education is to offer something of value, it must look not just to technologies and techniques, but more importantly, to the true ends of education.

Dr. Erika Kidd is the director of the St. Thomas Catholic Studies Graduate Program. Gerriet Suiter ’19 CSMA is program manager for the new Department of Catholic Studies at Duquesne University and a scholar at the National Institute of Newman Studies.

The Catholic Studies Graduate Program is pleased to offer a variety of online and on-ground courses during the spring 2021 semester:

Philosophy Catholics Need (Online), Dr. Cathy Deavel

Science and Catholicism (HyFlex instruction), Dr. Peter Distelzweig

Augustine’s City of God, Dr. John Boyle

Crisis in the Church, Dr. Robert Kennedy

The Catholic Novel, Dr. Ray MacKenzie

For more information about the Online Master’s in Catholic Studies courses and other program options, visit our new website: