John Henry Newman is considered by many to be the most influential English-speaking religious thinker and educational writer since the Reformation.
Born in the City of London, Newman was a travelling scholar who studied and taught at Oxford University, was appointed rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and established the Oratory School in Birmingham, dubbed ‘The Catholic Eton’.
A man of intense spiritual and existential restlessness, he travelled extensively throughout Great Britain, Ireland, France and the Mediterranean and successively embraced Calvinist, Anglican and Catholic Christianity. His life was led by a passionate search for Truth that gained him the animosity of academic elite and ecclesiastic hierarchy, that costed him career and reputation, that severed friendships and family ties.
Cardinal Newman once wrote “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
In 2015, I entered a period of abrupt, profound change that put into question some of my strongest beliefs. What seemed at first a simple parenthesis in my professional career turned out to be one of the most significant steps in an ongoing transformational experience, a continuous quest for perfection, an open-ended search for Truth. This is the story.
The spring of 2015 was particularly benign in Nantes. The fertile Loire valley welcomed the arrival of the early warm Atlantic currents with blossoming chestnuts and bougainvillea while the cafés opened their summer terraces to the public.
This time of the year I increased the frequency of my morning runs along the Erdre River, just 5 minutes away from my apartment. Some days, in the early hours, the waters were so still that they resembled a gigantic silver mirror. It almost felt as if I could walk on them, jogging along the awakening ducks and swans.
Business was also good at Audencia. The International Office was on its way to meeting recruitment targets, the school was set to retain its prestigious ‘triple crown’ after satisfactory reaccreditation processes, and the faculty’s commitment with social and environmental sustainability had paid off in the consideration of Audencia as one of the ‘World Champions of CSR’ by the United Nations Global Compact.
Under the guidance of Ms. Desi Schmitt, skilled manager, inspirational leader and one of the kindest souls I have ever worked with the team had grown from a handful to fifteen strong professionals in less than five years. We were now recruiting over three hundred international students and organizing mobility for almost a thousand. The school had never witnessed such a level of diversity and big plans for transnational education and dual degrees were under way.
Life was sweet on all fronts.
I finished my travel schedule for the year in May. Back in the office, everyone was on an easy mood, looking forward to a long and relaxing summer break. Where will you go? They would ask me, and I would smile gently and come up with some formulaic response. Behind a laid-back façade, there was burgeoning questioning in my mind. I was torn apart by a burning desire to get ahead, to reach new heights, to prove my worth.
This beautiful city, this entrepreneurial business school, this multicultural team were my home, they were my family, thus my despair, was this not what I had always sought? Why couldn’t I settle for this fulfilling life? What caused this spiritual disquietude?
It was a Friday, last day of July, when I finally made up my mind. It all came to me in a flash. Almost simultaneously I accepted a job offer from St George’s, University of London and enrolled in the MBA in Higher Education Management at UCL Institute of Education. Audencia generously accepted an early termination to my contract and I started packing by bags.
Next stop: London.
I took the long-range bus from Nantes to London in mid-September. The journey took 12 hours, and by the time we reached Victoria Station it was already dark, but the city was bustling with energy. I felt tremendous excitement. The electrifying vitality of the global capital captured me with its buzzing tentacles. People from all origins and walks of life continuously moving through a sprawling territory ten times the size of Nantes. ‘I was born to live here’, I thought.
Not a month had passed before my initial enthusiasm had given way to despair.
In Nantes I had made I name for myself, gaining the respect of colleagues and competitors alike after years of recruitment success, partnership building and carefully crafted internationalization. Resources were also abundant in the privileged world of the elite French Grande Ecoles. From international travel to digital technology or specialist training, senior management would go out of their way to make sure we competed under the best possible conditions.
I soon realized that the rules of the game were different in London.
I stepped in my new job on September 21st as the International Development Coordinator in a team of four. St George’s, a constituent college of the University of London, is the only university in the United Kingdom exclusively dedicated to health sciences.
Founded in the late XVIII century, its illustrious history has been built through the works of alumni such as John Hunter, early advocate of the scientific method in medicine and Edward Jenner, pioneer of the world’s first vaccine.
The bronze busts of these giants still guard the college from the main entry hall, observing the ups and downs of everyday business from ironic distance.
It wasn’t long before my conceptions surrounding international education collapsed. There I was, tasked with implementing internationalization in one of the most multicultural corners of the Earth. A student body coming from 50 different nations and a local population built on successive layers of immigration from East Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and Eastern Europe made up for a fascinating melting pot where peaceful coexistence and respect were the rule.
My first thought was, what can I truly bring to this institution? I learned that years of successful work in practice-based business education did not ensure high performance in a research-orientated scientific environment. I was unable to realize where my language skills, digital abilities and commercial acumen would fit in this my new home. It was as if all the knowledge I had accumulated through ten years of experience in the industry was all of a sudden worthless.
For the first time in a long while, I was nothing but a rookie.
Every day I would walk through the main hospital entrance in Effort Street and try my best to adapt to this dynamic environment, and every day would be different from the day before.
I learned about UK quality assurance constraints, ever-tightening immigration regulations and the complex interrelation of scientific and clinical learning. New terms such as the General Medical Council or the United States Medical Licensing Examination were thrown in at every committee meeting and my ignorance would become apparent.
In the cold winter nights, after 10 or 12 hours of intense work, I would sit to meditate silently in the darkness of my room, invaded by a deep sense of insignificance and unworthiness. The experience was one of humility. It took me months of intellectual struggle and personal effort to understand that, like Cardinal Newman before me, I was entering a new path of growth.
Now it was time to embrace change.
The Tree of Knowledge
After years of travelling and meeting people from all trades I have come to realize that, beyond fate or chance, an individual’s destiny is guided by three fundamental qualities: will, skill and talent. In hindsight, I understand now that it was precisely an imbalance in the self-perception of the three attributes which made me jump into the unknown and seek enrolment in one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
At one point, my thirst for achievement run into a wall of insecurities. Years of action and reflection had taught me that I was certainly driven and that I could acquire the necessary abilities to face up any challenge. However, behind a mask of self-assurance, I kept serious doubts about my natural capacity to excel. I knew I had the strength and the science, it was the art in it that escaped me.
My first contact with the UCL Institute of Education (the Institute) occurred in October 2015. Months before I had accepted an offer to enroll in the MBA in Higher Education Management and I had since been reading extensively and intensively on the management of teaching and research in preparation for the first residential week.
The Institute has been classed top of the world in Education sciences for several years in a row, ahead of Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge. Through its corridors research stars like Claire Callender OBE, Vincent Carpentier or Gareth Williams mix with extraordinary practitioners such as William Locke, Sir Peter Scott and Michael Shattock.
The Institute’s reputation is a magnet for luminaries from around the world and visiting lecturers come from all four corners of the Earth to teach and research in an environment of free-flowing ideas.
Walking through the Bloomsbury campus in a clouded autumn morning on my first day of lectures I got the slightly unreal feeling of entering a temple of Wisdom. For the first time in my life I was being introduced to one of the great courts of intellectual progressive thinking, a place where major philosophers, scientists and social reformers lived, loved and taught during the past two centuries.
Everyone from Jeremy Bentham to Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf had at one point confronted established ideas in the green lawns of its squares or the busy corners of its cafés, and now I was sitting in the middle of it all, would I be up to the challenge?
The MBA turned out to be an extraordinary experience. Nearly 50 senior academics and administrators coming from Australia, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, the USA and all corners of the UK gathered to learn state-of-the-art techniques in the management of strategy, finance, governance or student services.
Beyond technical improvement, the confluence of world-class researchers, experienced practitioners and participants coming from all horizons made for an explosively creative environment where all ideas were up for serious challenge. As the program advanced, my firmest assumptions crumbled against the backdrop of critical thinking.
Acknowledging my own ignorance was the starting point of an intense learning experience.
Essential readings included revered figures of higher education studies from Burton Clark to Ron Barnett and renowned authors in the fields of internationalization, marketing, accounting and law.
Their ideas and analysis were discussed through a dynamic set of activities ranging from student-led seminars to syndicate group work where current higher education policy and practice were open for questioning.
For two long years I sacrificed holidays and weekends, rising at 6 a.m. every day to study for two hours before heading off to work and then staying for another two, three, four hours to move forward with my assignments.
Many times I approached the point of breakdown, when the goal seemed unachievable and I would question the worthiness of the extreme effort. I also had to endure the incomprehension and recrimination of friends and family, who felt alienated by my lack of concern for leisure time. And yet I persevered.
For only measuring myself up against the best I would be able to reach new heights.
Lead, Kindly Light
There is no moral or conclusion to this ongoing story. The wretched conditions that I endured during the transition to London, St George’s and the MBA may be perceived by some as a downgrade in living or working standards. Far from that, they have triggered a spiritual renaissance of inconclusive features that is opening up a world of opportunities for the future.
Against the backdrop of change in an uncertain world, the only possible response is to constantly reinvent oneself, no matter how much effort or sacrifice this requires. We must vigorously confront conformity, struggle against our own prejudice and pre-conceived ideas in order to pursue Truth.
John Henry Newman wrote “Growth is the only evidence of life”, and he dedicated his to a search for what is intrinsically true, good and beautiful. Cardinal Newman died in 1890 and was buried under a memorial stone where it can be read Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth”).
In October of 2008, his grave was opened with the intention of moving any remains to a tomb inside Birmingham Oratory. His wooden coffin was found to have disintegrated and no bones were found. A forensic expert from the University of Birmingham concluded that total disappearance of a body was unlikely over that timescale.
Some believe that he continued his journey beyond what senses can perceive. I like to think that in his need for change he followed a defined course, that in his travelling he was guided by an indefinable force, that in his spiritual pilgrimage, Cardinal Newman was led by Light.
“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”
Lead, Kindly Light. John Henry Newman. 1833.