The Idea of a University

In Newman's classic mid-19th century piece, the purpose and location of a university is discussed. Everything seems to be covered here, from books to gardens. His basic thesis? A University should be a place, where learners "from all parts" assemble "in one spot" for "universal learning".

Over a few thousand words, Newman then develops his support, mostly for the "one spot" idea. This is the idea I was most intrigued by since I am (1) currently a distance university student who attends synchronous classes, (2) teach university students mostly through asynchronous format, (3) and received my degrees from my hometown university (a discussion that Newman develops later in his piece).
Newman marks a difference from the learning achieved through books and the learning achieved through "the ancient method of oral instruction," and he argues in favor of the effect that a teacher/ lecturer/ mentor has on a student's life: "no book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversations". I agree with Newman here (but perhaps not for the same reason he is arguing; Newman spends much time arguing that teachers help develop high-bred skills in students).
In my choice to become a distance student, I was comforted by the fact that I would see/ hear/ interact with my professors every week via video meetings. Through Google Hangouts or WebEx, I am able to see my classmates, "from all parts", but after reading Newman, I ask: is Hangouts considered "one place"? This is something I am thinking through, and I think it is a highly theoretical consideration. The Hangout exists, but all the students are settled in their own lives in different parts of the world, and when we leave the virtual meeting, does that "one spot" cease to exist? We don't walk the same halls, see the same gardens, as Newman argues are experiences helpful in a university experience.
Also, I can't deny the fact that I held my university's program in higher regard than 100% online programs (besides, 100% online programs for my area of study don't even exist...yet!), which don't necessarily have brick and mortar, solidifying their existence. My school exists physically with students taking classes in traditional lecture halls, and I am also required to take traditional classes throughout my learning on the "real" campus that exists in "one spot". Would my degree have seemed less real/ meaningful without these things/ experiences? Since online learning is relatively new (when we think of learning as "since the dawn of man"), online programs don't have the rich traditional reputations that other programs have built for many years.
Admittedly, since I didn't leave home to attend university for my past degrees, I am able to simultaneously sympathize with Newman's views and argue against them. Case in point, my M.A. degree was a slow undertaking as I gave birth to my children and stayed home caring for them during that part of my education. How would Newman react to this and the many non-traditional students who are learning yet living the not-so-traditional university experience? Going back to school for my M.A. degree was in an effort to become more fully educated in English studies just because I love learning; I wasn't necessarily thinking about the career at the end, but that is luxury indeed. Also, most of my classmates in my M.A. program were not from the area, many from other countries, and I found myself enjoying their contribution to class in ways I probably wouldn't have if everyone was from my hometown. I remember telling my husband how class went that night in terms of how stimulating the discussion was in class; did it show me a new perspective? lead me to a new insight?
Still, I understand that my students and my classmates perhaps have/ had other reasons for their schooling: money, status, job security, etc. Newman doesn't seem to think these kinds of students are part of the "idea[l] of a university". Yet I respect my non-traditional, goal-oriented students' choices just to be present and push forward.
For example, his lengthy description of the hypothetical student in ancient Athens who has traveled far and wide to reach the hub of learning and sit under the greats is similar to most non-traditional students in many ways, but one: ancient student's motivation is simply to learn:
"He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart?"
This "poor" student has sacrificed much to learn, but he is doing so for love of learning. In contrast, I think many of my university students do educate themselves for love as well, but love of family (to provide); love of financial security; or even love of success (the American Dream). Sophia Deboick expands on this in her article for The Guardian, "Perhaps the ultimate problem with The Idea is its sheer anti-utilitarianism...[Newman] offers us little help on how the balance can be struck between pursuing knowledge for its own sake and giving students the saleable skills they surely deserve". 

Perhaps I believe that a university experience is largely in the hands of the student; I know I had to tell myself that many times as a student. The student who doesn't leave home to study but is proactive in engaging in stimulating conversation, promoting reflection and discovery, and seeks extracurricular opportunities to grow as a thinking human being may find a rewarding experience in whatever educational context they are in.


Works Cited
Deboick, Sophia. "Newman suggests a university's soul lies in the mark it leaves on students." The Guardian. 20 Oct. 2010. 6 Aug. 2016.

Newman, John Henry. "The Idea of a University." 1852. PDF file.