To us who live in an age in which educators and pundits continually elevate reading books as an educational ideal and continually attack television as a medium that victimizes a passive audience, it comes as a shock to encounter Newman claiming that cheap, easily available reading materials similarly victimized the public. According to him,

What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes. Whether it be the school boy, or the school girl, or the youth at college, or the mechanic in the town, or the politician in the senate, all have been the victims in one way or other of this most preposterous and pernicious of delusions. [108]

Part of Newman's rationale for thus denouncing cheap, abundant reading materials lies in the belief that they supposedly advance the dangerous fallacy that "Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing"; but like any a conservative elitist in our own day, he fears the people unsupervised, and he cannot believe that reading without proper guidance — guidance, that is, from those who know, from those in institutions like Oxford — can produce any sort of valid education, and, one expects, had Newman encountered self-taught mill-workers and artisans who made discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, and geology after reading newly available books, he would not have been led to change his mind.

Like Socrates, who feared the effects of writing, which he took to be an anonymous, impersonal denaturing of living speech, Newman also fears an "impersonal" information technology that people can use without supervision. And also like Socrates, he desires institutions of higher learning — which for the ancient takes the form of face-to-face conversation in the form of dialectic — to be sensitive to the needs of specific individuals. Newman therefore argues that "a University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill."


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Last modified 18 October 2005