‘Give your teachers a hard time’: Professor Simon Haines delivers speech to inaugural Ramsay Scholars

4 March 2020

Ramsay Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines was recently invited to speak at a special welcome reception for the inaugural recipients of the University of Wollongong -Ramsay Scholarships.

The University of Wollongong has partnered with the Centre to deliver its unique Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation, which will provide students with a world-class liberal arts education, made possible by the generosity of the late Paul Ramsay AO.

In his address Professor Haines encouraged students to challenge their teachers, and to allow themselves to be challenged back, as they form their own understanding of ideas generated by extraordinary classic texts and join a great conversation that has been taking place for thousands of years. 

See the full address below:

Chancellor, Acting Vice-Chancellor, thank you so much for your hospitality this evening, warm and generous as always, and indeed as Professor Farrell says what a wonderful moment this is, for all of us at the Ramsay Centre, and for our partners in the University. For our part on the Executive let me just say how very much we have enjoyed working with you and all your colleagues—and Chancellor may I through you pass on my especial thanks to the Vice-Chancellor for the key role he has played in bringing us to this point.

 The two groups I really want to address are of course the new scholars, but also the new teachers. You are the people this whole enterprise is all about—the ones I’m sure Paul Ramsay would wish to put front and centre of an event such as this. What I’d say to the scholars, apart from congratulations, is that you are embarking on a course of study, of reading, writing, thinking, discussion, which you will remember your whole lives, and which will set a pattern for you, we hope, that will not only stand you in good stead in any career you may choose, but will enrich your mind and spirit for the whole of your life. These extraordinary texts, these works of art, literature, philosophy, science, religion and faith, have been chosen, and are considered so extraordinary, for a very good reason—they resist all attempts to pigeonhole them, to say they are about some theme or other, that they represent some specific point of view or position. They are great works because they are, and always were, from when they first appeared, complex, rich, resistant: they can’t be so easily herded into a category. Don’t forget that, insist on it in all your classes. What matters here is YOUR OWN engagement with these classic texts, the ideas and insights they give you, which you will have to defend or just simply share. Whether it’s Thucydides or Dante or Mary Wollstonecraft or Germaine Greer the ideas they spark in you are your ideas, and your engagement with them is unique—no-one else will have quite that idea. They will belong to you for the rest of your life, those thinkers and artists, those ideas: they will form part of your own minds. That’s what this course is for: resisting easy or conventional assumptions about them, understanding why they have been so formative for us today, understanding a wider world of ideas and insights and deeply critical thinking so much older and larger than modern Australia and yet so foundational for us. This degree is totally radical in this country—it’s the first time something like this has been offered on this scale in a major Australian university—so you are pioneers. And I’d repeat that these books and artworks are your inheritance—they belong to you. So take possession of them for yourselves, by joining a great conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. Own them, own that tradition—make them yours. 

So give your teachers a hard time, as they will give you one—and to the teachers I’d say that as we all know you haven’t really read a book at all until you have to teach it, or better still discuss it with your students, or better still know how to stand back and let them discuss it—you’re so lucky to be doing this, I wish I was too!

 Good luck to you all and above all enjoy your reading and your discussions. You will never have another time, another opportunity, like this.

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The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry…. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. "
- Robert Maynard Hutchins