Cross-disciplinary path to broader learning

27 February 2019

Integrated great books programs fill a major gap

There have been various reactions to the idea of Ramsay Centre funded degree programs getting a foothold in our universities. At first glance the most sensible argument against a new program focused on the great books of the West is that our universities already teach many of these books and epochs.

What need is there then for a specific degree in Western civilisation? After all, as Dirk Moses, professor of modern history at Sydney University, has said, the content of European culture is the default mode of Western universities.

This is certainly true of most of our major universities, most of the time. Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Locke, de Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Marx, Mill, Freud – all usually find a place in various departments.

Shakespeare is studied in the English department and Plato’s Republic may still even be read in its entirety in some philosophy departments. Homer and Virgil will appear in the classics syllabus, and Machiavelli and de Tocqueville will no doubt be found over in the history and politics departments, while the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral may well feature in the school of art history, and Don Giovanni in a school of music.

What you will not find, however, in any university in Australia, is a program that attempts to integrate these works into a coherent whole.

There are no integrated, chronologically ordered programs in our major universities that require students to read great works across the disciplines of history, literature, politics, philosophy, psychology, religion and science, and to be immersed in art, architecture and music from that chronological history of thought, beliefs and practices.

This is a major gap in our research-oriented, disciplinarybased university system that desperately needs to be filled. This is where integrated great books programs come in.

One argument against such courses is that they are too general in their focus. For some specialists, the idea that Cervantes doesn’t just belong to students in the Spanish department, or the Old Testament to students studying religion and Hebrew, is anathema. The university, as they conceive it, is principally a place for specialised knowledge and research.

But this is contrary to the best tradition of liberal education, which seeks to initiate students into a broad awareness and critical appreciation of their own cultural heritage across disciplinary boundaries.

At the oldest English universities, this ideal survives in the advice often given to students that they should attend the best classes at university, across the various schools, irrespective of the degree for which they are reading.

In the US, a different and more coherent attempt to realise the vision of a broad education emerged in the 20th century with the rise of the Great Books movement championed by John Erskine, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. This gave rise to the Columbia core curriculum and was the inspiration for “the new program” at St John’s College, Annapolis, among dozens if not hundreds of other great books programs across the country.

Today, all students who graduate from Columbia College have read Homer’s Iliad, Sappho’s lyrics, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, the Koran, Luther’s Preface to Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, among so many other works. In addition, they have all studied the major movements of Western art, architecture, music and science.

Unfortunately, the same level of broad cultural literacy cannot be assumed in most students graduating from a single Australian university, not even in those emerging from humanities faculties.

This is not only detrimental to an Australian student’s understanding and critical engagement with the riches and complexities of Western thought, art and political practices. It also slows down their progress in the studies they do undertake.

Moses has argued that many teachers in the humanities are today “deeply concerned about students’ cultural literacy. It is a brave new world teaching, say, European history, to students with little or no knowledge of Western intellectual and cultural traditions, the Bible, literature and history.” To help rectify this, Moses says he would welcome extending the great books program at his own institution, the University of Sydney, which currently covers only a small number of texts and is available to only a select group of students.

There is no reason why universities generally cannot look at practical ways of making such programs available to all students, including those outside the humanities and social sciences.

Isn’t it eminently desirable that the next generation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, town planners and computer programmers have a broad cross-disciplinary grounding in the humanities?

As Google outreach manager Sally-Ann Williams said a few years ago in these pages, some insights and innovations are “only possible at the intersection of disciplines”. Great books programs allow the disciplines, in a very immediate way, to speak to each other, and for students to join the conversation.

And they proclaim loudly that no single discipline – whether in the humanities, social sciences, computer sciences or hard sciences – has a monopoly on the truth.

To problem-solve in a dynamic world, we need the agility that comes with being conversant with multiple perspectives across the humanities and sciences.

Such programs need not be as large as the proposed 12-16 course Ramsay-funded program, which – large though it is – still leaves room for an outside major, in Asian or indigenous studies, for example, or a second degree (in law, for instance, or engineering).

A six-course program, focusing on some seminal books, science, art, architecture and music from the ancient to the modern worlds, would be straightforward enough to establish, and would comprise at most a quarter of a standard threeyear degree, still leaving plenty of room for specialisations and professional qualifications.

Such programs would bring together students and teachers from across the university, providing them with a common enterprise and a core body of humane learning, irrespective of their own chosen specialisations. This knowledge belongs to them all.

Private philanthropy could be sought for the running of such programs. With gifted teachers devoted to Socratic class discussion drawn from across the university – who, like those in the Columbia core, would necessarily teach as generalists rather than specialists – the sky is the limit.

Anyone who has taught in such a program – or has seen them in action at places like St John’s and Columbia – knows how exciting and rewarding they can be for all involved.

Stephen McInerney is the executive officer (academic) at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

The Australian, by  Stephen McInerney

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Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience"
- David Bentley Hart