The Cultivation of the Liberal Arts (I)

On the Purpose of a University Education
edited by Luciano Boschiero
Australian Scholarly, 2013, 128 pages, $39.95

The theme of On the Purpose of a University Education is summed up on its cover. It is a beautiful sketch from the twelfth-century Hortus Deliciarum by the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg. The original was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. But faithful copies had been made, one of which is in Mannix College, at Monash University, and is reproduced on the cover. The Abbess of Landsberg illustrates perfectly the great medieval understanding of the university. The Queen of Wisdom—Philosophy—sits in the centre of the circle. Sitting underneath and sustaining her are a young Plato and an older Socrates engaged in the Socratic dialogues. She holds a streamer proclaiming: “All wisdom comes from God.” Around her in a circle are the liberal arts—logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, music. (They are all represented by women. Feminism was alive and well in the twelfth century!) Down below and outside the garden of delights are four false prophets or magicians (all men). They are the professors of, let us say, atheism, relativism, anarchism and modernist poetry. Perched on their shoulders, whispering into their ears, are four black birds. You may well think that the history of university education since the twelfth century is the story of the gradual triumph of these false prophets over the Queen of Wisdom. I wish we could blow the whole sketch up into a poster.

The ultimate triumph of the four false prophets was imperceptible at first. This was a great age of faith. But the movement quickened in later centuries and culminated in our time. Take the University of Sydney as an example. When the leaders of public life in New South Wales in the 1830s first debated the idea of a university for Sydney, many took it for granted that it would be a Christian institution of some kind. But they did not prevail. The legislative founder of the university, the illustrious W.C. Wentworth, whose huge statue stands so prominently in the Great Hall of the university, won the argument with his ringing proclamation that the university “should be open to all, whether they are disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Mahomed, of Vishnu, or of Buddha” or of nobody.

In his inaugural oration in October 1852 the first Principal of the university, the Reverend Dr John Woolley, accepted Wentworth’s secularism wholeheartedly (although he kept open the option of Christian residential colleges). You may well think that there was no alternative in the 1850s. That may indeed be true. But it carried a high price, one we are paying today—the gradual abandonment of the liberal arts and the closing of the Australian mind. This is the message of On the Purpose of a University Education.

The calamitous consequences of the secular settlement in Sydney were not immediately apparent. The debate between the secularist and the religious, between the “enlightened” and the spiritual, simmered away for generations. The religious established bastions against the dominant secularism, ranging from the Aquinas Academy for Catholic laity to Moore Theological College for Anglican clergy. But they were always in retreat. There were inevitably occasional explosions.

Let me mention one of the most famous. It was in the morning of July 6, 1961, in St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral. It was a grand occasion—a service for the distinguished lawyers assembled from around the common-law world for the Australian Law Convention. The Governor of New South Wales, Lieutenant-General Sir Eric Woodward, was there. So were the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (Baron Parker of Waddington), the Chief Justice of the United States (Earl Warren), the Chief Justice of Australia (Sir Owen Dixon) and the Chief Justice of New South Wales (Dr H.V. Evatt). The Primate, Archbishop H.R. Gough, took as the theme of his sermon the consequences of the loss of belief in God.

His principal illustration was the recent trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, who had administered the Holocaust in the Third Reich, uninhibited by the voice of conscience. Communism today, Archbishop Gough went on, has the same searing effect on conscience as Nazism then.

Turning closer to home, he warned the assembled lawyers that soul-destroying materialist doctrines, which are the source of totalitarian atheism, were being taught in Sydney University. Philosophers in the university—he meant the philosophy school of Professor John Anderson—are not communists but they are teaching ideas “which are breaking down the restraints of conscience, decrying the institution of marriage, urging our students to premarital sexual experience, advocating free love and the right of self-expression”. He asked: “If it is true that empires and nations have fallen because of moral corruption, is it not the duty of governments to take note of the decline in morals and to take action” against the rot in universities?

The sermon inevitably provoked great controversy. Several churchmen and academics deplored the Primate’s “insulting” analysis and his “frightening” call for state action against the university. (One polemicist called on the Vice Squad to raid the philosophy department. He also urged the Queen to withdraw the university’s royal charter.)

The Sydney Morning Herald opened its pages to uninhibited debate. But once again, after a few weeks, the contestants withdrew to their corners or bastions and the issue simmered down. The general public was once more content to settle for the same live-and-let-live tolerance that has sustained the university since it was established. The secularists continued year by year to consolidate their triumphs. The liberal arts continued to decline. Vocationalism, commercial utilitarianism and political progressivism continued to supplant the cultivation of wisdom as the university’s purpose. Nothing really changed.

Or did it? Were there stirrings of the old liberal and Christian ideal that the purpose of a university is the cultivation of wisdom? There was for example some movement in Brisbane where, a few years after Archbishop Gough’s dramatic call to action, Karl Schmude among others took the first steps towards the creation of an Institute of Christian Culture—steps which culminated in Campion College in Old Toongabbie—a liberal arts college at once part of the Australian university system but in secession from that system’s vocationalism, progressivism and secularism. It only has about 100 students. There are about one million university students in Australia and over 200,000 in Sydney alone.

But Campion is a leaven in the lump—and a portentous if belated protest against the secularism so confidently and cheerfully broadcast long ago by W.C. Wentworth. It remains the only university college in Australia entirely devoted to the liberal arts.

Now Campion has produced this important book, On the Purpose of a University Education. I say “produced”; I mean that it is mainly the papers delivered at a conference at Campion College a couple of years ago which had been called to discuss these issues. Australian Scholarly Publishing in Melbourne has put out the book.

The symposiasts are not without hope, but they do not underestimate the historic challenge they face. The book begins with Luciano Boschiero’s confident appeal to the ideals of John Henry Newman and calls for a return to those liberal and medieval ideals. It ends with Gregory Melleuish’s cry from the wilderness: “We are standing in the ruins.” In between are major papers on the medieval ideal of a university (by Constant J. Mews), on the integration of disciplines (by Stephen McInerney), on the history of liberal education in Australia (by Geoffrey Sherington and Hannah Forsyth) and its decline (by Arran Gare).

The symposiasts do not purport to solve the problems they discuss. But they have opened a conversation on first and last things. It is the most promising conversation since the debate aroused by Archbishop Gough over fifty years ago. The book calls for the restoration of philosophy and the liberal arts and it places the Christian revelation at the centre of university education. Unless that revelation is confronted there will no progress in this debate.

So I gladly launch this symposium and strongly recommend it to anyone alarmed by the present condition and the future prospects of our secular universities. If you can, please print off and blow up the cover illustration as a poster for your study wall.

This is an edited version of the speech Peter Coleman delivered to launch On the Purpose of a University Education at Gleebooks in Glebe on April 11. Peter Coleman is a former editor of Quadrant and a former member of parliament for the Commonwealth and for New South Wales.

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