For the past year there has been abundant curiosity, speculation and debate about the type of educational experience the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seeks to support at Australian universities.
Finally, this week thirty mostly high-school students from NSW, ACT and Victoria found out first-hand, as they attended our inaugural Summer School at Ingleside in Northern Sydney.
Billed as an academic extension program where students would learn to read and think at university level, immerse themselves in critical thought, and build on their debating, communication and presentation skills, the students gave feedback that it ended up being so much more.
For some it was a confidence boost that they could make meaningful contributions to arguments and form insights into complex texts and philosophical challenges.
For others it was that unexpected friendships could be formed with people from varied backgrounds who brought different perspectives to works that have informed the development of our western societies.
Others were thrilled that unlike other educational environments they had experienced, they were challenged to develop their conclusions based on meaningful and respectful challenge from peers, rather than seek one ‘correct’ response’.
The two and a half day residential course was intended as an introduction to the kind of thinking a future degree in western civilisation might offer.
At the heart of the experience was exposure to a teaching method called the Socratic method, a teaching approach that encourages students to engage in cooperative and critical discussions in small groups.
The program included examination of two key works, Plato’s, The Apology and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It also included multiple sessions on ‘Community of Inquiry’ where students were challenged with difficult philosophical questions.
A session with Bell Shakespeare saw students on their feet workshopping performance techniques to enhance their understanding of Hamlet and Shakespeare more generally.
And after meeting esteemed members of our Board, a session with former NSW Premier Nick Greiner enabled students to benefit from his insights on how a liberal arts education could provide transferrable skills for a successful business career.
Visiting academics included representatives from Campion College, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wollongong and the Philosophy in Schools Association.
Professor Simon Haines said he was delighted with the program and the students’ embrace of what was on offer.
“The rich discussion means we as teachers learn from the students too as they offer their unique insights into challenging philosophical questions and the Great Books of the ages.”
In December last year the Centre for Western Civilisation forged a partnership with the University of Wollongong to fund the creation of a Bachelor degree in Western Civilisation to commence in 2020. More information will be available later in the year at www.uow.edu.au
Quotes from student interviews with the Sydney Morning Herald 23 Jan 2019.
Sophie Jackson, 16
“I was a little bit overwhelmed when I first sat in this room and there were some people out there talking about some really high-level intellectual thinking. I was just sitting here going ‘wow, I feel a bit out of place’. But after sitting down in smaller groups and getting to have high-level intellectual conversations with a variety of people with different backgrounds, opinions and perspectives, it allowed me to open my horizons and I’ve learned so much.”
Scarlett Green, 17
“I was interested in the texts that we were studying.”
“This course offered an opportunity to learn skills that would be helpful for university – being able to think on a critical level and be reflective.”
Attendees at the inaugural Summer Program – January 2019