In addressing friends and benefactors at a dinner in March of this year to mark the opening of Campion College, Australia's first Catholic college of the liberal arts, Pierre Ryckmans related the story of an encounter between a faculty dean at one of Australia's major universities and a scholar in the same faculty.
"In the course of a heated argument", he recalled, "my friend [the scholar] suddenly asked the Dean: 'In your opinion, what on earth do we need universities for?' The effect of this question was quite astonishing: a dead silence fell at once ... The sad fact is that some of the people steering our universities appear not to have a very clear idea of what a university actually is."
The eminent American teacher, scholar and poet, John Senior, under whose influence hundreds of students and their families were received into the Catholic Church in the 1970s, knew that the answer to the question "What is a university for?" relates to an even more fundamental question: "What is the end of education?"; and that the answer to this depends, in turn, on one's answer to the most fundamental question of all: "What is the meaning of life?"
Addressing his students and readers, Senior confronted them with the following:
"In your education, past and future, in the pursuit of happiness, in marriage, friendship, in vocations, recreation, politics and just plain jobs, if you can find them - in the long run, you will have to ask what the whole thing is: What are all those activities and commitments part of? What is the integer? If you forget everything you learned at college - most of it you will - remember at least this question - it will be on the very final examination which your own conscience will make at the last hour of your life: In your pursuit of horizons, of horizontal things, have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart up to the stars - to the reasons for things, and beyond, as the great poet Dante says at the top of the tower of his poem: To the love which moves the sun and all the other stars."
In a radical departure from the mainstream of modern tertiary centres of higher education, Campion College (located in western Sydney), now in its first year of operation, is founded on a belief that the Truth can be known, that only the Truth can set us free, and that this Truth - "the love which moves the sun and all the other stars" - is communicated to humanity by the Catholic Church.
The College's motto, Educare ad Aeternitatem ("educating for eternity"), beautifully encapsulates the relationship between what is taught in lectures and seminars, and the origins and end of human life: the eternal Word of God.
In providing a three year program in the liberal arts, which includes core units in history, literature, philosophy and theology, the College's curriculum draws on the great tradition of the liberal arts as handed down from antiquity and perfected in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
As the founding document of the College states, "The Campion curriculum is designed to develop the minds of students, through a vital blending of natural reason and the Catholic faith. It entails systematic study across a broad array of subjects, which cultivates genuine freedom of mind by opening it to the discovery and embrace of truth".
Faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, from which the College derives its sense of unity and purpose, Campion forms part of a growing trend, most apparent in the United States, of liberal arts colleges that are committed both to the Church and to traditional approaches to learning.
To give an example: take a stroll around the beautiful wooded grounds in a typical week at the College and you will find young men and women reading the Great Books. While many of their contemporaries know only that Homer is a character on The Simpsons, the students of Campion - in lectures, tutorials and even over lunch - are able to converse intelligently, with passion yet without pretension, about the Iliad and the Odyssey. "Which work is greater and why?" "How is Odysseus different from Achilles?" "In what ways does Penelope exemplify an ideal of femininity?"
The approach to learning at Campion, across disciplines, is simple: the teacher's role is not to fill the minds of students with endless facts and then ask them to regurgitate these; it is, rather, to bring the students into the presence of the "best that has been known and thought in the world" (in Matthew Arnold's words).
As was the case with some of her American counterparts, including Christendom College and Thomas Aquinas College - both of which now number their enrolments in the hundreds - Campion College has had humble beginnings. With God's grace, the support of our many generous friends and benefactors, and with the positive and enthusiastic response to the program of our first students, strong foundations have been laid in this first year for what will, we hope, grow into the premier institution of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Students at Campion may choose either to live on campus or externally. The College offers a range of merit and needs-based scholarships. Information on these and other aspects of the College can be found at the College's website www.campion.edu.au.
Prospective students are encouraged to direct their inquiries through firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone the College on (02) 9896 9300.
Dr Stephen McInerney is Lecturer in Literature at Campion College.