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It is important for students to understand the things that gave rise to the world we live in today
Working at a university, it’s great to see students returning to campus as Covid restrictions ease. While teaching and learning have continued online during lockdowns, a college campus is a pretty empty place without students.
Among those starting their studies this month at Australia’s Catholic University are 27 young people studying for an arts degree with a focus on Western civilisation. ACU is one of only three universities in Australia to offer this important course, which was established in partnership with the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization. The program is supported by an extremely generous bequest from the late Paul Ramsay AO, a distinguished Australian businessman and philanthropist.
For the next three years, these students will be immersed in the tradition of philosophy, religion, politics, art and literature that gave birth to the world in which Australians, as part of the West, live today. They will read some of the most important books of this tradition and reflect on how our values, laws and institutions, and our way of life have been shaped, for better and for worse.
Tradition defined simply means to pass on something. We don’t have to learn everything ourselves. We can learn lessons that those before us have accumulated, often through hard work and bitter experience. That way we can maybe avoid repeating some of the mistakes they made, and add a few things we learned in turn, to pass on to those who come after us.
However, it is not so much about accumulating knowledge as it is about accumulating wisdom. As any parent or teacher can tell you, children and young people have to learn things on their own, often the hard way. The story is the same from one generation to another. Tradition is a heritage, but we must appropriate it. When a tradition is passed on, we actively receive it, not passively.
The usual caricature of tradition is that of something frozen in time that is now hopelessly outdated but continues to block progress or set us back. When someone is described as “very traditional”, it can be a polite way of saying that they will never get over it and move on. It is a descriptor that can also be used less politely. Modern secular societies like to think of themselves as compassionate and enlightened, and “traditional values” as thoughtless and heartless, which is a convenient way to dismiss people who disagree.
Students in ACU’s Western Civilization course do not study a collection of fossils suspended in amber. They engage with some of the greatest thinkers, writers and artists – ancient, medieval and modern; pagans, Christians and seculars – because the accounts they give of their thinking, feelings and experience help to illuminate ours. They read these books not just for the answers they can give, but perhaps more importantly for how they wrestle with important questions.
questioning and criticism are central to the appropriation of a tradition. it is something different from all the cries condemning the West as unique and irremediably evil.
Questioning and criticism are central to the appropriation of a tradition. It is something different from all the cries condemning the West as a unique and irremediable evil. We know there is much to criticize and question in the Western tradition. We are reminded of this every day. It may just be another way of saying that there is much to question and criticize in the human condition. What every tradition, Western and non-Western, reflects (and reflects) is our experience as human beings, in all its darkness and light. This makes curiosity about other traditions and openness to learning from them a necessary part of understanding your own.
Most Australians think we live in a good country – good, not perfect. To say that we live in a good country is not to minimize the crimes and injustices that are part of our history and our society today. On the contrary, it should inspire us even more to tackle these problems honestly. Western tradition is the main source, but not the only one, to help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of modern Australia. We must confidently own it as part of our history and pass it on.