Emboldening a new generation of critical thinkers

In 2020, an extraordinary philanthropic vision has enabled an exceptional group of students to embark on an adventure to understand and challenge history’s most eminent ideas.

Published

15/04/2020

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A visionary gift is set to reinvigorate liberal arts education in Australia and equip the trailblazers of tomorrow.

Whether consciously or otherwise, our thinking is shaped by a rich history of ideas. In 2020, an extraordinary philanthropic vision has enabled an exceptional group of students to embark on an adventure to understand and challenge history’s most eminent ideas.

The UOW Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation is uniquely designed to provoke profound conversations. Made possible by a $50 million, eight-year gift from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, the degree is being led by its primary architect, Senior Professor Daniel D Hutto.

“The program operates on the assumption that these great works from the classical period to the present influence our thinking, for good or ill,” Professor Hutto explains.

“One of the program’s most distinctive aspects is that it explores a variety of great works of Western origin – not only written texts and literature, but narratives, art, architecture, music, poetry – in a carefully curated and coordinated manner. We approach these great works through the philosophical lens that ‘to come to know thyself’, you must examine the influences, or potential influences, on your thinking.”

Hutto says students will learn how to think, not what to think. While STEM and professional degrees have taken centre stage in recent years, the liberal arts have much to offer in developing insightful future leaders across a diversity of fields, from business and politics to the arts, sciences, community and more.

“You can’t have serious thinking on important topics like democracy, freedom of speech, or even the nature of thought and how we relate to one another, without first understanding the foundations. Without this, we fall prey to unreflective, pre-packaged thinking.”

One of the largest single philanthropic contributions to humanities education in Australia’s history, the Ramsay Centre gift has enabled the rapid establishment of the degree and the new School of Liberal Arts which plans to recruit up to 10 academics and support staff. And, it promises an astonishingly powerful set of experiences for students.

“The gift supports 30 annual scholarships of $30,000 for up to five years, plus one return airfare for an approved international study program for each scholarship student,” Professor Hutto explains.

“The cohort is capped at just 35, with students benefiting from small, personalised class settings and unrivalled access to academic mentorship.”

The School of Liberal Arts will also host a regular visiting speaker program and an annual major public lecture.

The Ramsay Centre, formed in 2018 following an endowment by late Australian businessman Paul Ramsay AO, aims to reinvigorate the study of liberal arts and foster interest in exploring the masterpieces of Western civilisation.

“This gift offers an unprecedented opportunity to advance humanities education,” says Professor Hutto.

“Demand has been astronomical, including for strictly limited non-scholarship places. We’re attracting a high calibre of students in the arts and humanities, and have selected not just on ATAR but on a variety of factors such as creativity, critical thinking, self-awareness, the desire to empower others, and qualities such as empathy, humility and diplomacy. Those who benefit from the scholarship can focus on the challenging and absorbing program without distraction.”

Students will undertake a sequential program of 16 subjects which can be part of a double degree connected to other UOW disciplines.

Though the new program has attracted indignation amid fears that it would elevate Western thought and ideas to the exclusion of others, Professor Hutto says this couldn’t be further from the truth. It also doesn’t shy away from examining the darker elements of Western civilisation, including its impact on Australia’s First Nations peoples.

“We do not just foster a great conversation between the many diverse perspectives within the Western tradition; at least half of the core subjects make contact with other traditions of thought. Here we draw inspiration from internationally-based, non-Western ‘great books’ programs,” states Professor Hutto.

In one such subject – ‘Wisdom, Truth and Reason’ – students explore key Greek philosophical works in dialogue with Indian Buddhist teachings and apply what they learn in a contemporary context.

“We’ll relate some of Aristotle’s thinking about the nature of rhetoric, and the difference between using an argument to pursue truth versus persuasion, to modern questions in the media and arguments by prominent modern thinkers and politicians,” explains subject coordinator, Dr Elena Walsh.

“We will also look at Buddhist philosophical logics that make room for the possibility of true contradictions. This focus on open-minded and respectful discussion of how divergent ideas relate to one other is deeply embedded throughout the course.”

It’s a bold program where courageous thinkers are sought out, nurtured and comprehensively equipped to address future complexities. Professor Hutto is energised by the potential for diversification and growth.

“It’s early days, but we’re already sketching out what new opportunities this might create in liberal arts education that connects with other schools of thought.”

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