Teaching students to think well

The first cohort of the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation students have finished their UOW degree

They’ve enjoyed the privilege of special scholarships and small-group tutoring, but they’re also proving that their talents can change the world.

For Seamus King, pondering reason and using deductive logic is a daily exercise he’s become so adept at that he resorts to it even when arguing with his girlfriend (she’s studying law, so she appreciates the practice).

Yet one of the skills that he’s most proud of is developing intellectual humility.

“You’d think that after studying a degree centred on the great works of various Western thinkers, I would have come out with a set of fixed opinions on things. But it hasn’t been like that at all. I’m so much more balanced in my views. Actually, often I can’t make up my mind because I can see both sides of the argument,” Seamus says.

As a child, Seamus loved maths and science, a passion passed down to him from his father. But then in Year 12 his English teacher became a huge influence, sparking a fascination with literature and humanities, and thus leaving Seamus torn between pursuing medicine and arts. 

“Still conflicted, I applied for an early entry to the University of Wollongong to both pre-med and a Bachelor of Social Sciences and got accepted to both. But they didn’t make me excited the way I knew the university could,” Seamus says.

Seamus King BA Western Civilisation in bush

For a while, Seamus King was torn between pursuing medicine and arts.

Then, he heard an announcement of the new degree, the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation. Instantly, he knew this was what he was looking for. 

“I couldn’t wait to begin my studies,” Seamus says. 

Seamus is one of the first cohort of the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation students to have just finished their UOW degree. Open-minded and curious, they’ve spent their days exploring classical texts and seeing them fit into modern-day scenarios. And the results of this unique teaching method have been nothing but extraordinary. 

Education in a diverse world

The School of Liberal Arts (SOLA) was established at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2019, and its new degree – the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation – welcomed its first students in 2020. This was made possible by a partnership between UOW and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which aimed to create a unique, philanthropically funded educational opportunity to study some of the most important works ever produced. 

The foundation of the degree, steeped in an appreciation for the masterpieces of art, literature and philosophy of predominately Western provenance, sparked immediate controversy. The degree was accused of breaching academic freedom and curating a white-washed, one-sided version of Western tradition, which stands at odds with the modern, diverse world. 

BA Western Civilisation library

What does it mean to study 'Western civilisation'?

But as the UOW academics within SOLA often explain, the main objective of the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation is not to put the West on a pedestal but to offer students a chance to learn the tools of philosophical and critical scrutiny.

The online pamphlet for the course explains it simply: "We'll take you on a philosophical adventure, during which you'll reflect on questions about art, literature, science and religion while also investigating the nature of selfhood, truth, reason and wisdom. You will discover how great ideas and art can shape us – through our understanding of ourselves and the world – and how ideas can make a difference for good or ill."

A flagpole is not a place. Or is it?

In a 2019 TEDx talk entitled 'No Philosophy – No Humanity', Roger Sutcliffe, a University of Oxford graduate and a children's teacher of philosophy, asked the audience whether a flagpole was a place. About half of the people said yes, the other half said no. Then Sutcliffe shared a response from a nine-year-old that struck him as foundational to how philosophy operates: "To me, a flagpole is not a place, but to an ant, it is."

Philosophy is sometimes dismissed as an inessential and impractical subject. But according to UOW Senior Professor Daniel Hutto, Head of SOLA and specialist in philosophical psychology, learning how to think philosophically is one of the greatest ways to become your own person – self-aware and conscious, knowing your limits but not scared to reach for the sky. 

"Ralph Waldo Emerson said that we shouldn't just admire giants of ages gone-by. Instead, we should learn from them to discover our own giant within. At SOLA, no opinion is off-limits, yet we try to evaluate all possible reasons standing behind opinions. Since we don't teach our students what to think but how to think well, we don't shy away from difficult topics or dilemmas," says Professor Hutto. 

Professor Daniel Hutto, head of SOLA

Professor Hutto believes the BA in Western Civilisation degree allows the students to temper their intellect with a healthy dose of humility. 

Through a rare combination of self-study, structured seminars, small-group discussion and one-on-one mentorship, Seamus King and other BA Western Civilisation students have been learning about art, literature, ethics, logic, religion, science and politics, and have sharpened their critical thinking while discussing topics as diverse as the possibility of miracles and whether we can know anything in a post-truth world. 

“All the great works they’ve been reading provide the basis through which our students cultivate their minds. That’s the focus – how these young people change, each in their own way, through their encounters with the great works,” Professor Hutto says.

Crossing and blending traditions

Contrary to some media speculation, the program of the Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation is cross-disciplinary, operating across traditions. While its focus is mainly on the iconic creations of the Western tradition, it also initiates well-placed, high-quality conversations with non-Western thought and art. 

“We made sure that non-Western ideas have their well-deserved place in the curriculum. These ideas get examined in half – that is, eight out of sixteen – of the degree's core subjects. This way, we open our students up for positive, revealing and respectful conversations with diverse traditions of thought more securely than in programs that only make those connections in a few elective subjects", Professor Hutto explains. 

One of the first essays the BA Western Civilisation students read is a Guardian opinion piece by a British philosopher of Ghanaian heritage, Kwame Anthony Appiah, titled, 'There is no such thing as Western civilisation'

In his essay, Appiah argues: "I think you should give up the very idea of Western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time." 

Further into his essay, Appiah confronts the ‘golden nugget’ story, which imagines Western culture as the expression of an essence that has been passed down, from hand to hand, for centuries, as a kind of superior civilisational inheritance from Greece and Rome.

He also reminds the readers about all the entanglements between various socio-geopolitical traditions of the West, the East, and many places in between. For example, he underscores how, at one low point in the development of Western thought formerly called the Dark Ages, when Christian Europe made little contribution to the study of classical Greek philosophy and many of the texts were lost, all important Western works were preserved by Muslim scholars. 

West and East crossover

"Much of our modern understanding of classical philosophy among the ancient Greeks we have only because those texts were recovered by European scholars in the Renaissance from the Arabs," Appiah writes.  

Professor Hutto agrees. 

"We all know that during the Islamic Golden Age, they were soaring ahead in maths and science. And the later rise of Western science owes a lot to the scientific methods that were hammered out in Arabia. Showing how civilisations and ideas developed doesn't diminish any of them. It just allows us to question some assumptions we may have about one or the other," he says.

Flexing moral judgement muscle

A popular quote trying to capture a key thought of Aristotle says: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit." 

Through the practice of having small classes that allow everyone to critically engage with challenging texts, the BA Western Civilisation students have been pushed to think for themselves and fight for their ideas, but also to rethink them multiple times while answering many, sometimes piercing, questions from their peers and teachers. This way, through the course of the degree, they’ve practised the virtue of humility – this humble trait of appropriately owning one's ignorance, mistakes and limitations. For them, it wasn’t a crushing experience, as they were allowed to find flaws even in the greatest works that they studied.

“We’ve sometimes called our students ‘intellectually fearless’, but it should not be mistaken for arrogance, as courage is only a virtue when appropriately tempered with humility,” Professor Hutto says.

Jonathon Hanson, another BA Western Civilisation student, started his UOW degree after studying law and practising as a solicitor in Brisbane. He says he was impressed by how much effort went into crafting the program.

Jonathon Hanson BA Western Civilisation

Jonathon Hanson appreciates the degree challenged him to think for himself.

"When we were introduced to Appiah's essay early on, I thought to myself: 'Good, we won’t be sparing ourselves from serious interrogation’. And this was very much the spirit in which we continued. Each week, my assumptions were exposed and tested as I came to grips with the insights and failings of minds sharper than my own,” Jonathon says.

He remembers how in their first year they were reading Aristotle and Willard Van Orman Quine’s ponderings on truth, logic and paradox. Jonathon recalls experiencing a great deal of difficulty reconciling his affinity for those philosophers with an admiration for Nāgārjuna, a preeminent thinker of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, whose works they read right after. 

“This degree continually unsettled me, and I am better for it,” he says.

At the beginning, Seamus King confessed to having had some doubts about whether the degree wouldn’t be tainted by some form of elitism. But to his surprise, it was far from it.

“Being able to break all the ideas down, point out problems with them and then see how we can learn and improve upon them makes you very open-minded. I think it made us care more about the world. There’s no way to uphold any rigid ideas if you realise no idea is sacred.” 

A luxury or necessity?

As the SOLA students make their way out of the University gates, their philosophical training will make them ready for the harsh reality of their day-to-day lives. Professor Hutto believes they’ll make society proud.

Still, in our modern, complex world, some may regard spending the bulk of a university degree reading through hundreds of classical books and discussing theoretical social, cultural and political dilemmas to be a luxury. But that's a privilege not a single one of the degree's students has ever taken for granted. 

Another graduate, Rhiannon Kernot, has already found work in recruitment, but thinks she might come back to UOW to study for the Master of Business. She says she's forever indebted to her BA Western Civilisation degree for teaching her to deeply question the world around her and challenge her place in it.

Rhiannon Kernot BA Western Civilisation

Rhiannon Kernot has always loved literature but the degree also taught her to question the world around her.

"During my studies, I enjoyed reading this particular book, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. There was something poetic about turning into a cockroach to relearn the world in this new form. Obviously, I haven't turned into a cockroach, but in a similar way, I've been exposed to so much change and growth."

The degree didn't water down the power of the classic works studied. Every student had their favourite books or texts that they’d draw upon in their life beyond University. 

Jonathon says he enjoyed reading Aristotle's Ethics and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Seamus, a massive fan of social critique, valued the experience of clashing with Marxist ideas. Rhiannon admits she'd never be able to read such a diverse array of texts if it wasn't for her UOW degree. 

"There were so many. Lysistrata by Aristophanes made me laugh. I could never decide if I loved or hated Marx, but Spinoza changed my metaphysical outlook on the world. And Darwin made me reconsider how I came here," she says. 

Seamus King BA Western Civilisation

Seamus has just been accepted into a medical degree and wants to specialise in Indigenous health. 

As his studies progressed, Seamus King's appetite for intellectual exploration became satiated, and he reconnected with his dream of becoming a doctor. Freshly accepted into a medical degree, he hopes to specialise in Indigenous health and work in a rural setting or emergency medicine. 

"I'll always carry all my UOW experiences forward. It opened me up to the relational aspect of studying and made me more community-oriented. You can't study a liberal arts degree and not enjoy talking to people from all walks of life," Seamus says.

Similarly, for Jonathon, it was the notion of ‘the self being embedded in community’ that left a lasting impression. As he moves into adulthood, deciding whether to go back to law or pursue a passion for strategic and defence studies, he says he can never forget the many wonderful conversations with fellow students and SOLA staff.

“Every semester, there were more and more pieces added to the puzzle, and it was overwhelming at times. But then, gradually, a coherent picture began to take shape. Still, I’m leaving SOLA acutely aware that – in the most Socratic sense – I know that I know very little.”