Some universities may be regretting their intransigence at hearing 150 lucky University of Wollongong students will be awarded generous scholarships to study a broad smorgasbord of seminal books, musical works, and fine art.
Following an acrimonious falling-out with the Australian National University over such weighty matters as whether the course should be called “Western Civilisation” or “Western Civilisation Studies” and after some rather unkind comments from academics at the University of Sydney, it began to look like the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation would never find a university willing to take its money.
Australian universities, which have managed to provide a home to numerous Confucius Institutes, were unable to accommodate even one centre devoted to the culture that created them.
At a time when leaky finances threaten to sink many humanities departments, the University of Wollongong will receive a gift worth $50 million, the largest donation ever made to the humanities in Australia.
In addition to the scholarships, the Ramsay Centre will pay the salaries of 10 “world-class” educators and cover the associated costs of offering a new Bachelor of Arts (Western Civilisation). Students will be taught in small group tutorials so that students and academics can pursue their studies in depth. This expensive type of teaching would not be possible without the support of the Ramsay Centre’s gift.
Wollongong’s bold leadership has paid off — not just financially, but more importantly, in the influence the university will have on Australian higher education.
Today’s universities are mainly concerned with preparing students for a career. There is nothing wrong with that. I was once a dean of medicine, and I clearly understood that my course was vocational. A fulfilling career is an essential part of a good life, but higher education should be more than just job training. While universities are busy preparing students for their careers, they must also be concerned about their character.
To paraphrase the Victorian writer, John Ruskin, the highest reward for a university education is not what graduates get paid but what type of person they become. By including electives and the opportunity to study for double-degrees, students completing Wollongong’s Bachelor of Arts (Western Civilisation) course will not only be prepared for a career, but they also will be given the opportunity to think deeply about history, philosophy, literature, and what kind of people they want to become. Character is an essential, but often ignored, part of real education.
No one would argue that an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare makes it any easier to remove a diseased gall bladder. However, Shakespeare could make future doctors more empathetic and more aware of human responses to suffering and pain. Such knowledge would make them better doctors.
Aspiring politicians will not improve their electoral chances by being able to quote poetry (especially not in Australia), but a familiarity with Shelley’s Ozymandias may make them more reflective and humbler about their accomplishments. Who knows … studying the fate of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil, might have caused our financial advisors to think twice before giving shonky advice to their clients.
Henry Ford famously called history “bunk”, but historical issues, even ancient events, still affect us today. As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
Of course, reading books is not guaranteed to produce wisdom or good character; experience also plays a role. As Odysseus learns on his journey back to Ithaca, some lessons can only be learned the hard way. Still, as Pasteur famously said, “chance favours the prepared mind” and preparing the mind is the precise purpose of the course on Western civilisation.
Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz is a former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Brunel University in London and Murdoch University in Perth, and a senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
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