After a controversial multi-month negotiation, Ramsay Centre CEO Simon Haines and University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj have signed off on a deal that will see UQ offer a major in Western Civilisation. Given all of the surrounding controversy, this would seem to be a dangerous punt for UQ.
This new offering will be a “liberal arts” program focusing on the great books of western civilisation and will be purportedly taught in small group forums which promote active learning and critical discussion.
Most of the media surrounding the lead up to the agreement between UQ and the Ramsay Centre has been negative. UQ Students and faculty have protested, online forums have lit up with outrage, and people have even claimed that the ideology underpinning the liberal arts is a cause of racially-charged violence.
How can this be? Has Peter Høj just signed UQ up to a program that will produce dangerous graduates and encourage further divisions in our already fractured society?
The phrase “liberal arts” is foreign to most Australians. However, the liberal arts are still taught at all major Australian universities in one form or another. Programs that have a special focus on liberal arts, like the one proposed by the Ramsay Centre, are only just being introduced in Australia.
Put simply, the focus of a liberal arts education is on the key areas of philosophy, religion, literature, and history. Other areas, such as music, science, and fine arts, can also be placed under the liberal arts banner, as well.
Those who read these books and participate in critical class discussions are asking big questions, seeking meaningful answers, and wrestling with hard issues. People who study in a great books program are embarking on an intellectual adventure where they won’t be taught what to think, but rather how to think. They are taught to reflect critically on western society and its history.
I know this because I teach in a tertiary-level liberal arts program at Christian Heritage College in Brisbane. It is an intellectually rigorous environment, where students learn how to think for themselves. The “soft skills” of many of today’s leaders, like critical thinking, deep reflection, persuasive communication and creativity, are developed in a liberal arts education.
This is evident in the fact that one in three Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. The impressive list of liberal arts graduates includes former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. A liberal arts education will prepare students with the skills to be influencers in today’s world.
Students will be learning these skills whilst interacting with some of the best minds in human history. The traditional model of liberal arts education is small group discussion focused on great books—works by Plato, Confucius, Augustine, Chaucer, Voltaire, Jane Austen, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf.
Students ask questions of the text and of each other as they discuss the ideas. It is a challenging, sometimes combative, environment. The texts are not read without criticism. On the contrary, they are interrogated and held under the microscope. The ideas that have shaped our society should be not be passively accepted, and a good liberal arts education won’t let someone do that.
On reflection, then, is it a good thing that UQ has signed on the dotted line with the Ramsay Centre? You bet it is. In fact, the two universities (UQ and Wollongong) that have come to an agreement with the Ramsay Centre are putting themselves out in front of those who haven’t.
They’re offering rigorous degrees which have the potential to attract the best and brightest students from Australia and overseas. They now have the resources to hire exceptional faculty and expand crucial humanities education and research.
And they can say with confidence that their new degrees will produce graduates and leaders who are capable of self-reflective critical thinking about society and history. People who don’t have this ability, people who don’t practice hard thinking about ideas, are more likely to be followers. They will be more likely to swallow whole what others tell them without deciding for themselves, and as a result will have their intellectual horizons limited to what they’re told to think.
In contrast, the new liberal arts graduates will be able to think “outside the box” and think for themselves. They will be more likely to demonstrate leadership in thought, word and deed. They will be prepared to do this by a liberal arts degree. Reading great books prepares people to impact their world.
So, I say bring on the expansion of liberal arts education in Australia. Those, like the leadership at UQ, who are helping this along, are backing the right horse and it will be to the benefit of Australian society.
Dr Simon P. Kennedy is Lecturer in Intellectual History at the Millis Institute, a liberal arts program at Christian Heritage College. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of his employers.
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