Director and Faculty, Parents and Friends, Graduates:

I take it as a great honour to have been invited to speak to you on this your Graduation Day.

I congratulate each one of you for your courageous foresight in taking on Augustine Academy’s extraordinary and visionary liberal arts programme, at a time in your lives when there are so many competing claims on your time and energy, when you have few role models who have blazed a similar trail, when so many of your peers must be completely bemused, completely uncomprehending of the reasons behind your bold strategy.

I also want to congratulate your families and sponsors, any of those who supported your decision to study with Augustine Academy, helped you find the strength to strike out in a brave new direction, and generously backed you financially

For a hammer to strike a nail effectively, it must first move in the opposite direction. It’s an interesting paradox. The best way to do something well and thoroughly and forcefully is to move away first – to see better, to check your aim, to gather momentum, to strike the target powerfully, to drive the nail home.

But you’ve realised that. You’ve been told, and you’ve accepted, that to become men and women of the world who distinguish themselves not only in the professions they eventually choose, but in the whole exciting span of their lives, you have to back off and prepare yourselves first.

At a meeting with IBM executives in New York in January 1984 Barry Jones (at that time Federal Minister for Science) asked, ‘what type of people are you looking for?’ Their reply surprised him: ‘the same people we have always looked for – honours graduates in English or Philosophy who are good at playing chess’.

That the story is true I have no doubt. I wrote to Prof Jones when I was President of Campion to ask him to confirm it, and he did. The story had an interesting sequel for me. Shortly after I wrote to him I had a visit from a member of the board of an American liberal arts college, who was himself a senior IBM man, and who testified to the truth of it from his own experience! Specifically, he said that his background in philosophy enabled him to learn new computer languages relatively easily, while colleagues with no training in logic could discern no common patterns and struggled with each one.

The point is that if a young person is taught well to communicate and to think, he can be trained, and re-trained, to do anything else. And to do it better than one who has had no basic training in those essential humane skills. There is ample evidence to support this, and discerning young people like yourselves are increasingly aware that they have been short-changed.

During the 70s of last century the term ‘Mickey Mouse subjects’ was coined to describe certain arts and semi-scientific subjects that universities were then starting to make available to undergraduates in response to rapidly increasing enrolments. This trend was driven by the universities that were starting to see themselves as retailers of knowledge: to stock their shelves with an attractive range of pre-cooked and easy-care products made very good business sense. In this strategy they formed an uneasy but workable liaison with the political left. The left’s agenda has always been a radical restructuring of society towards the advent of a Marxist and post-capitalist future. A marriage of convenience.

Could anyone forty years ago have dreamed of the extent to which this trend would come to permeate the university sector as it does today? The emphasis used to be on studying the best and the most important, but so many syllabuses today confine themselves to righting perceived wrongs or applying with hindsight the moral principles currently in fashion.   This does not mean that social justice is now or was then unimportant. It is hugely important. But it is not a substitute for learning to read, write and think.

During a recent sojourn at the University of New England I was struck by the number of undergraduates I met who told me that they were studying criminology. Were they driven, I wondered, by zeal for the detection and punishment of crime? Or was their impulse merely one of curiosity about the psychology of criminals, or perhaps even the feasibility of themselves getting away with a career in the rackets and avoiding some of the pitfalls into which Eddie Obeid, for example, has fallen? I have no idea, but I am certain that the nation has no need of the number of would-be criminologists it appears to be producing. I am not saying that the study of criminology is useless. It is completely understandable that criminology should be available to professionals at a postgraduate level, but surely only on the firmest possible foundation, after first completing a sound training in the essentials of reading, writing and reasoning that are at the root of humane studies.

It is perhaps unfair to hammer criminology, for it is no worse an instance than dozens, even hundreds, of others ‘specialisms’ generally available in the varsity marketplace. What they all have in common, in contrast to more traditional academic programmes, is that they seek to narrow rather than to broaden. Gender and Women’s Studies may be acceptable at a postgraduate level, but they can have no integrity when erected on a base other than classical Sociology; polemical courses on racism and other such other causes are not the primary business of English or History departments, and will have no bottom unless well founded on profounder studies.   The awful truth is that young people are treating universities as cafeterias, choosing very unbalanced diets, and what is worse, the universities are pandering to them, meeting their supposed needs and, of course, encouraging them. Business is business.

Literacy is in decline, but the greatest loss of all is history. Ignorance of history, even of comparatively recent events, or their submersion beneath various fatuous forms of identity politics, is a modern human tragedy. Evidence for this is not hard to find: ask any group of young graduates who were the major combatants in World War I, or why the Royal Arms are displayed in every little country courthouse, or whether tertiary education was available, at no cost, before Gough Whitlam, and you will get a less than complete answer. But they will all be able to assure you that ‘equality’ (whatever that means) is a basic human right and assert any number of meaningless platitudes.   G K Chesterton laments the modern habit of looking at the past ‘only from the modern end’. Those brought up without awareness of history, he says, ‘rebel against they know not what, because it arose they know not when; intent only on its ending, they are ignorant of its beginning; and therefore of its very being.’[1]

Postmodernism, with its aversion to the notion of objective truth, cringes before the enormity of the task of understanding the world. It masquerades as a kind of Socratic scepticism, which is what makes it attractive to so many. You’ve probably heard the definition of pessimism as ‘optimism with the facts’.   It’s clever and amusing. But it’s also deeply cynical for it exposes the sad truth that for many people in our privileged western world life is cruel and meaningless, that the beauty and wonder have gone out of learning, and that in the end everything is hopeless. This has led, as inevitably as the needle turns to the pole, to a sense of frailty in the face of the universe. Good vision, that.   But a wrong solution.   Wrong if it leads, as it almost always does, to premature specialization. Far too many children leave school never having learned to read, write, speak persuasively and think straight, before going on to university to become criminologists, sports psychologists, dieticians – or teachers!   The introduction of continuous assessment from the 70s onwards meant that education could be chopped up into even smaller units and modules for ease of digestion – and subsequent oblivion.

I have spoken from the perspective of the liberal arts, because that’s where I come from. But don’t feel you simply have to enrol in English or Philosophy next year, or take up chess. The Barry Jones story merely illustrates a broader truth. Everything I’ve said applies to people who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists or engineers, hairdressers, cab drivers or criminologists. The divide between the Arts and the Sciences, that has been forced upon us by the structures and strictures of education, is a false one. Scientia, science, means just knowledge. The great scientists of history have had sound prior training in the liberal arts. St Albert, Da Vinci, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein were men of broad learning and cultivation. Wherever you go next year and in the years to come, whatever you do in whatever career you choose, you will be better and stronger for having been at this institution, for paying due respect to the liberal arts as essential components of your formation, and for recognizing the primacy of the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking cogently and thinking as the bedrock on which to build everything else.

I wish you joy and fulfilment in all you do.