Flat White

Great books, liberal arts, the Ramsay Centre and why they matter

10 October 2019

5:00 AM

10 October 2019

5:00 AM

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is partnering with universities to offer what is often referred to as “Great Books” programs. The mystery and controversy around great books education is partly due the fact that the titles of such programs, like those already offered at the Millis Institute or Campion College, has little-to-no purchase in Australia. The language of “great books” and “liberal arts” is familiar to those in North America but alienating in the Antipodes.

Are great books programs racist, elitist, and bigoted? Is the goal to produce white supremacist lemmings who would love nothing more than to denigrate and destroy non-western cultures? Does a liberal arts education trigger racist violence? These types of questions have been bandied around in the public discussion surrounding the establishment of Ramsay-funded programs at the University of Wollongong and the University of Queensland.

People might feel understandably skittish about the advent of great books programs in Australia considering some of these objections. Certainly, if a great books education is offered with the purpose, whether implicit or explicit, of undermining non-western cultures and denigrating women, then I say be gone with it!

However, as an insider, I can say that this is not what goes on. I have the privilege of lecturing in a great books program at the Millis Institute in Brisbane. I teach history and philosophy to a diverse cohort of students who range in age, gender, religion and ethnic background. And I do it because I think this kind of education matters.

This semester, I am teaching three units. One is on the Protestant Reformations, indisputably one of the most significant series of events of the past millennium. Another is a philosophical exploration of secularisation. Finally, I am teaching a unit on ancient political philosophy. My faculty colleagues are teaching a variety of units, ranging from the poetry of John Milton to philosophies of science.

In each of these units, students are expected to read at least 25 pages of primary source material for each class. If we are studying the Reformations, they read Martin Luther, John Calvin or William Tyndale. In the case of the unit on secularisation, we have been carefully considering Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, along with the secularisation theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Hans Blumenberg, Karl Lӧwith, and Peter Berger. For ancient philosophy, the students read the better part of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and parts of Augustine’s City of God.

Not only do they have to read these books, but they must come to class prepared to interact with me and their fellow students. I lead the discussion, but the students do the majority of the talking. Indeed, I expect my students to talk for most of the class, with my guidance. I expect them to intelligently pose questions about the text, probe the ideas therein, interact critically with the book’s big claims, and persuasively communicate their own ideas to the class.

During this wide-ranging, three-hour-long discussion, students also get a chance to challenge each other, making the classroom not just a passive space for the reception of ideas, but one of mutual sharpening and (at times) intellectual combat. This is one of the most important aspects of the great books program at the Millis Institute. The warmth and camaraderie of the classroom leads to an environment where people feel safe to ask questions and explore ideas, even when they disagree with one another.

The students leave each class having had the opportunity to test their ideas with others, think out aloud, and interrogate the text and each other. It prepares them for life in the big wide world, where people don’t necessarily back down because they might wound your pride or hurt your feelings. Rather than being meek, these students humbly, but persuasively, communicate their argument.

The classroom environment and pedagogical method are not the only markers of a great books education. The content is important. Rather than read textbooks, or books about books, we read the best books. Rather than read the latest, we read the tried and tested. Rather than chase after new ideas, we explore the ideas which have shaped our world and will continue to do so. This usually means reading old books, and invariably means reading “great” books.

Great books are books that have entered the scholarly discussion through the consensus of a long intellectual and cultural tradition. Great books have shaped the intellectual life and imagination for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some books, like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, are quite new but are already proving their “greatness” by describing a pivotal aspect of modern life in a way that impacts the direction of multiple scholarly disciplines. Age is not a strict prejudicial factor. However, importance is.

Next semester, my students will read the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Each of these thinkers disagrees with each of the others in one way or another. However, each of them wrote works which have stood the test of time; they are still read today, still quoted today, and have demonstrably shaped the practice and theory of politics since their time.

Another important marker of a great book is truth. Note that I am not suggesting that all great books are completely true, or even partly true. Rather, truth is a marker of a great book in that the text in question will help in the quest for truth. Some of my favourite authors are ones that I disagree with; they help me define my own thinking because they are clear, creative, and provocative. Some books change the way you think through persuasion, others change the way you think through negation. In either case, great books provoke the reader in their own journey towards truth.

I mentioned before that the student cohort at the Millis Institute is diverse. That kind of thing matters in our society. However, as a lecturer, what I value most is whether the student is demonstrating the capacity to think for themselves, not what their gender, sexual or ethnic identity is.

Can my students think deeply and critically? Do they respect the text they are studying without idolising it? Can they articulate and defend their opinion in class and in their assignments? Whether they are male or female, Caucasian or Polynesian or Asian, atheist or Christian, gay or straight – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they can walk away from class thinking for themselves and knowing more about their world.

Students like this don’t need to be to be spoon-fed theoretical frameworks which help them spot racism and sexism in literature or philosophy texts. They can see it because they’ve learnt how to think. They’ve learnt how to recognise injustice, how to enjoy friendship in literature, and what the various responses could be to human suffering and what that might mean. They’ve learnt how to do this by reading great books. Even better, though, they’re equipped to spot wisdom as well, no matter who is expressing it.

Whether it’s through reading Augustine, the fourth century North African bishop, Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading-edge nineteenth-century feminist, Moses, the Jewish prophet and political leader, Judith Wright, the Australian poet and activist, or Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman leader and philosopher, students develop healthy habits of mind whilst being confronted with ideas that challenge their own easy assumptions.

This is, in fact, the main point of a great books education. Rather than being an arbiter of truth, a program like ours fosters independent thought and provides a healthy challenge to modern presumptions. Ultimately, students in a great books program learn to think for themselves.

So, what happens in a great books program? Minds grow, souls are fed, and people are developed who are ready to take on any number of roles in our society with gusto, creativity, and depth of thought. This is what we are trying to do, anyway. The Ramsay Centre surely wants the same.

So, what’s the big problem with great books programs? That’s one question I don’t have an answer for.

Dr Simon P. Kennedy is Lecturer in Intellectual History at the Millis Institute, a great books program at Christian Heritage College in Brisbane. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.

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