Philosophical adventures in time and space: Opening up great conversations - UOW Outlook Magazine

Philosophical adventures in time and space: Opening up great conversations

By Professor Daniel D. Hutto

An education in the liberal arts, unlike that of a purely technical or scientific kind, seeks to produce graduates who are capable of reflective understanding – graduates who can stand back and imaginatively evaluate what is required to think well about topics of foundational importance in our lives.

Studying for a liberal arts degree requires sustained engagement, in depth and detail, with some of the most powerful intellectual and artistic works ever produced. Intimate knowledge of past masterpieces is needed precisely because their ideas can hold sway over us, whether we know it or not. The fact is that the concepts that we use when thinking about important issues – such as truth, justice or selfhood – have a long history that already informs and constrains how we might think about such topics. Knowledge of influential works of the
past not only makes explicit those ways of thinking, it protects against idea and assumptions tacitly influencing us without question or examination.

With the philanthropic support of the Ramsay Centre, we are working to add to the UOW educational landscape, creating a unique, new liberal arts program in the form of the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation degree. Making best use of gifted funds, we have designed and will and offer dedicated subjects that will enable students to closely examine intellectual and artistic masterpieces of the past with a view to understanding how these still speak to us today. We have created a balanced and forward-looking, progressive liberal arts program – one that is fit for the needs of a multi-cultural 21st Century. This will significantly extend UOW’s range of educational provision and enhance its worldwide reputation for offering high-quality, personalised student experiences.

UOW’s Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation takes inspiration from five highly successful liberal arts programs from around the globe. It is a special blend that combines key elements of each.

Our program offers small class sizes and personalised attention to students, emulating St. John’s College, Annapolis and Santa Fe. Using the Socratic method, our approach to teaching is to facilitate each student’s intellectual development through the close examination and discussion of great works.

Our degree’s content focuses on provocative “ideas of enduring importance” for contemporary civilisation. Here we follow in the footsteps of Columbia University, New York which has offered its acclaimed core curriculum since 1918. Our students will critically examine how we might best understand the very idea of Western Civilisation and its contributions in the contemporary world.

We join St. Olaf College, Minnesota in drawing inspiration from the American Philosopher, Robert Hutchins and his idea of educating enabling students to enter into great conversations. Bringing the voices from the past back to life through their studies, our students will converse with great minds of other times and places.

Our degree opens the door to many great conversations by staging a series of well-planned intellectual adventures in time and space. At its core, the course comprises sixteen period-based and philosophy-focused themed subjects. Modelled on ‘history and mystery’ tours, our subjects are journeys though which curious explorers will come into direct contact some of the greatest intellectual and artistic treasures of our world. Our students will encounter, firsthand, a carefully curated selection of some of the greatest masterworks – art, architecture, poetry, literature, science, religion, philosophy – ever produced in human history.

Though focused on Western civilisation, our program deeply respects and values non-Western cultures, civilisations and traditions of thought. We have investigated how best to bring diverse perspectives into our great conversations, learning from Zaytuna College located in Berkeley, California. Zaytuna, the first and only accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the USA, demonstrates the advantages of bringing great works of the Western and Islamic civilisations into conversation with one another. Our course design has also been influenced by Yale- NUS College in Singapore, which has been praised for the way it embeds diversity by building cross-traditional requirements into the heart of its degree. In opening up dialogues across philosophical traditions students will explore alternative ways of thinking about important topics while drawing on a firm knowledge of how those same topics have been approached by Western thinkers. We are proud to report that in April 2019 the UOW’s Student Advisory Council commended our efforts in incorporating “diverse cultural and religious viewpoints into the curriculum”.

Above all, philosophical reflection and analysis are the lifeblood of our program. Our students will be tasked with questioning what they would not normally question. We aim to equip them to be intellectually fearless in their evaluation of possible answers to the most difficult and abiding questions. They will learn how to think, not what to think.

Putting all of these features together yields a liberal arts educational experience that is utterly unique in the world and not to be found elsewhere in Australia.

We are attracting some of Australia’s best and brightest minds to this program. At Wollongong, this includes efforts to recruit and support students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds – of which UOW has a proud track record. Financial means is not a barrier to joining our program thanks to the generous support provided by our Ramsay Centre partnership.

Looking ahead, graduates of our degree will be well placed to take advantage of the changing job landscape and re-shaped future of work. Like the liberal arts programs that inspired it our new degree aspires to “educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders”. The ability of well-designed liberal arts degrees to achieve this goal is well established. Columbia College, which is celebrating its centenary this year, has produced a long line of illustrious alumni, proudly including Barack Obama and several Nobel Prize winners within its community.

There is an urgent need for well-rounded, erudite creative and critical thinkers – thought leaders – who can appreciate and evaluate our needs as a society. Benefiting from an education that broadens and liberates minds, our graduates will be capable of addressing questions that a non-technical nature – questions that cannot be left to the auspices of artificial intelligences. As this Times Higher Education article reveals, the future knowledge economy demands intellectual and social skills of precisely the kind that our liberal arts degree is designed to engender.

Whatever graduates of UOW’s BA in Western Civilisation chose as their future careers – whether in the arts, business, education or politics – we expect they will lead the way in their respective fields. Our ambition is for these future leaders to be diverse, respectful, critical thinkers who leave us equipped to tackle the challenges facing Australia and the world.

Senior Professor Daniel D. Hutto is Head of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Wollongong.

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