The Personalist Project

A discussion we had in our class on Courtship in the Christian Vision, made me go back to this great quote from Newman, which I found in Fergal McGrath’s Newman’s University: Idea and Reality (pp. 338 – 339). It is far too good an example of Newman’s personalist wisdom not to share it here.

I will not comment on the passage other than by fully agreeing with McGrath, who introduces it by saying that “lengthy as the passage is, it deserves quotation in full, as saying about all that is worth saying of the difficult and ever-recurring problem of combining liberty and discipline in adolescent education.”

It is assuredly a most delicate and difficult matter to manage youths, and those lay youths, in that most dangerous and least docile time of life, when they are no longer boys, but not yet men, and claim to be entrusted with the freedom which is the right of men, yet punished with the lenience which is the privilege of boys. In proposing rules on this subject, I shall begin with laying down, first, as a guiding principle, what I believe to be the truth, that the young for the most part cannot be driven, but, on the other hand, are open to persuasion, and to the influence of kindness and personal attachment; and that, in consequence, they are to be kept straight by indirect contrivances rather than by authoritative enactments and naked prohibitions. And a second consideration of great importance is, that these youths will certainly be their own masters before many years have passed, as they were certainly schoolboys not many months ago. A University residence, then, is in fact a period of training interposed between boyhood and manhood, and one of its special offices is to introduce and to launch the young man into the world, who has hitherto been confined within the school and the play-ground. If this be so, then is it entrusted with an office as momentous as it is special; for nothing is more perilous to the soul than the sudden transition from restraint to liberty. Under any circumstances it is a serious problem how to prepare the young mind against the temptations of life; but, if experience is to be our guide, boys who are kept jealously at home or under severe schoolmasters till the very moment when they are called to take part in the business of the world, are the very persons about whom we have most cause to entertain misgivings. They are sent out into the midst of giant temptations and perils, with the arms, or rather the unarmed helplessness, of children, with knowledge neither of self nor of the strength of evil, with no trial of the combat or practice in sustaining it ; and, in spite of their good feelings, they too commonly fail in proportion to their inexperience. Even if they have innocence, which is perhaps the case, still they have not principle, without which innocence is hardly virtue. We could not do worse than to continue the discipline of school and college into the University, and to let the great world, which is to follow upon it, be the first stage on which the young are set at liberty to follow their own bent. So proceeding, we should be abdicating a function, and letting slip the opportunities of our peculiar position. It is our duty and our privilege to be allowed to hold back the weak and ignorant a while from an inevitable trial; to conduct them to the arms of a kind Mother, an Alma Mater, who inspires affection while she whispers truth; who enlists imagination, taste, and ambition on the side of duty; who seeks to impress hearts with noble and heavenly maxims at the age when they are most susceptible, and to win and subdue them when they are most impetuous and self-willed; who warns them while she indulges them, and sympathizes with them while she remonstrates with them; who superintends the use of the liberty which she gives them, and teaches them to turn to account the failures which she has not at all risks prevented; and who, in a word, would cease to be a mother, if her eye were stern and her voice peremptory. If all this be so, it is plain that a certain tenderness, or even laxity of rule on the one hand, and an anxious, vigilant, importunate attention on the other, are the characteristics of that discipline which is peculiar of a University. And it is the necessity of the exercise of this 'Lesbian Canon,' as the great philosopher calls it, which is the great difficulty of the governors of such an institution. It is easy enough to lay down the law and to justify it, to make your rule and keep it; but it is quite a science, I may say, to maintain a persevering, gentle oversight, to use a minute discretion, to adapt your treatment to the particular case, to go just as far as you safely may with each mind, and no further, and to do all this with no selfish ends, with no sacrifice of sincerity and frankness, and with no suspicion of partiality.

Comments (5)

Joan Drennen

#1, Jan 21, 2012 12:26pm

Jules, This passage from Newman ( that I came across via the PP) had a huge influence on me last year as our first daughter was deciding about college. I don't think many colleges live up to the "idea" of a university that Newman describes but I knew that if she could find one that came close, I would want that kind of life experience for her. His ideal that an Alma Mater should at the same time be tender and stern, lax and vigilant, in order to seize upon the moment when the young person is the most susceptible and the most self-willed, does describe a nurturing mother. I love this: "to go just as far as you safely may with each mind, and no further, and to do all this with no selfish ends, no sacrifice of sincerity and frankness"...He delicately captures that the educators must be the most disciplined.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jan 21, 2012 9:26pm

Thanks Joan. I'm so glad you like the passage as much as I do, and, I'm sure, put it to much better use.

But I'm also a bit embarrassed. Am I already starting to repeat myself? At the age 44? Poor Katie.

Peter Herst

#3, Jan 22, 2012 3:21pm

Thank you Jules!

I could not have found this at a better time. 


#4, Jan 26, 2012 3:44pm

The topic of this post reminds me of a section I just read in Dietrich von Hildebrand's The New Tower of Babel, "Adolescents tend to scorn reverence:"

"The adolescent between fifteen and eighteen years of age, espeically the boy, is endangered by an attitude we could call the hysteria of independence and bluff. He craves independence and, above all, he wants to impress other people with his independence and superiority. He refuses to admit taht anything moves him, fills him with respect, impresses or surprises him. He strives to play the role of the "independent man" who sees through everything, who is above all things, and who displays an unshakable security" (Dietrich von Hildebrand, The New Tower of Babel, 148).

"In such a state of mind one sees in any revernt approach to something a loss of independent virility and superiority, and the young man dominated by it is eager to exhibit a "nothing sacred" attitude toward all those things that call for a reverent approach, for submission, and for respect. He is inclined to speak irreverently about the Church, about moral obligations, about marriage, about love" (149).

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jan 26, 2012 11:16pm

Thanks Samantha. That's a great quote I had forgotten about.

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