Monday, December 17, 2018

Ramsay Centre Curriculum in Western Civilisation to be Used at University of Wollongong

Ramsay Centre Signing
The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization has announced it will provide the University of Wollongong (UoW) with $50M over 8 years to fund a BA in "Western Civilization". UoW is the first university the Center has reached an agreement with. I was at UoW a few weeks ago, looking at their excellent education, and research facilities, but that was in the field of engineering. UoW is less well known for arts, and it is not clear that the Center's curriculum, or its teaching methods, will be of benefit to the university, its students, or western civilization.

Arts is not my area of expertise, but I was curious as to what a degree in "Western Civilization" would involve, and what career this would equip the graduate for. The center helpfully provides an Indicative Curriculum for a BA Western Civilization, described as a "... integrated degree programs focused on seminal texts of the Western tradition". 

The educational technique mandated by the Ramsay Centre is groups of 6 to 8 students, instructed face-to-face. However, this format is unlikely to provide the most effective student learning. This will also prevent students who can't get to the campus often, or at all, from studying, and also severely limit the number of students who can study. While the Ramsay Centre is covering the cost of the tuition, there is still an opportunity cost for the student, who will be unable to progress as well as they could have otherwise. The Center might consider allowing blended, and online form of tuition, which would allow many more students, and a diverse range of students, to study.

The Center provides a brief explanation of how such an education could be useful. This asserts that entry and mid-level jobs will be replaced by automation, and the remaining workers will need continual on-the-job training. As a result, the Center suggests businesses will need interdisciplinary "innovators" with good communication skills.

While I agree that graduates will need good interdisciplinary, communication and innovation skills, it does not follow that this can be best obtained (or obtained at all), from a study of the history of Western literature and music. Also, I suggest the automation of entry-level technical and professional jobs is not a reason for abandoning technical education, but for more advanced technical education.

This is not to say BAs have no place in the 21st century. As the Center points out, their curriculum leaves room for other studies. UoW already offers BA majors in vocationally relevant areas, which would help make up for the limitations in the Center's curriculum, and teaching technique.

There may be some students who have an interest in western literature and music, who would welcome this curriculum. However, those students should be cautioned that, on its own, the Center's curriculum will result in very limited career prospects, and not make them much more employable in the 21st Century than a high school graduate. Recent high school graduates, who studied the Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum, will be better qualified for today's jobs, than through the Center's curriculum.

Our community needs a few specialists in the great books, but very few, who will become academics and teachers. The majority of students, should instead enroll in a program which leads to a career outside academia. They should, of course, balance their technical education, with some broad cultural knowledge, communication, and team skills. Students may also undertake studies in innovation, and I suggest should learn how to undertake lifelong learning. However, this can be accommodated within a professional degree.

Globe of the ancient world,
The Center's curriculum reminds me of the Istanbul Museum of The History of Science & Technology in Islam. This has wonderful displays of carefully preserved examples of Islamic scientific machines, and instruments. However, these are of historical interest only. The Museum makes a case for Islamic scholars influencing the modem world, but they are not part of the modern world. Similarly, the Ramsay Center makes the case that the modern world owes much to great works of the past. However, while history can inform the modern world, it has a limited role in shaping the future.

Taking an example from the Center's curriculum, learning how ancient Athenian democracy worked can inform today's debates on democracy. However, this will not protect a modern democracy from attacks conducted via social media. Such attacks are being mounted by scientists and engineers with advanced technical skills employed by nation-states. Someone with the Ramsay Center's education would be as useful defending western civilization in the 21st century, as a classical education was to military officers of the early 20th century on horseback facing a mechanized army.

1 comment:

  1. Re-posted to the Times Higher Education blog as "Can a degree in Western civilization prepare students for 21st century jobs?", January 16, 2019.