John Howard on Why Australia Needs the Liberal Arts

Former Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard OM AC, sat down with Campion College President Dr Paul Morrissey to discuss the state of education in Australia, and why a traditional liberal arts education is so crucial to the future of the country.



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The full video is available on Campion College Australia's web site: John Howard Interview: Why Australia needs the Liberal Arts.


Dr Paul Morrissey: Mr. Howard, thanks for joining us today. It’s a real pleasure and honour to be speaking to you and for joining us for this small discussion on education in general and Campion College. Now, you’ve been in the Australian political scene for a long time, both at the forefront as Prime Minister as well as in a more peripheral sense. How would you describe the way an education has changed over the years and what are the greatest challenges that face us now?

Mr. Howard: Well, I think it’s changed in some respects for the better; I think a willingness to challenge, in an intellectual way, some preconceived notions which are no longer valid is to be welcomed and applauded. On the other hand, I think we’ve gone backwards in that we no longer understand the importance of fundamentals. There’s a tendency to deride what is derisively called ‘Rote Learning’. I think it was Bill Gates said, that he would not have succeeded in life, if it hadn’t been for a certain amount of rote learning. And that applies to all of us. There are certain things you have to understand to have a proper understanding of who we are as a people.

You’ve got to understand the basics of our history. You’ve got to understand the philosophies and the moral codes that have shaped us. Unless you have that, you don’t really know when what you believe in is being undermined.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Campion is at the forefront of bringing a classical liberal arts education to Australians. In your view, what is the value of educating people in the Liberal Arts in Australia, particularly young people. Why not just complete a vocational degree instead?

Mr. Howard: Well, it produces an empty individual, a purely vocational degree. It’s very necessary. We all have to understand the practicalities, but it’s also of even greater importance to understand what we believe in, where we came from, what history and what culture has shaped us. Unless we understand that, unless we have a capacity to argue for it, we don’t really understand when what we hold dear is being undermined. And one of the concerns I have about modern society is that there’s a tendency to feel that things are changing, but we don’t really know how to argue against that change.

I often hear people complain to me that such and such shouldn’t be happening but I don’t hear enough people, including many of the complainants, saying anything about it.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Now one of Australia’s greatest historians, Geoffrey Blaney, has said, we are our past and the future belongs to those who remember. Why do you think it’s important for young Australians to be educated in the history and ideas of Western Civilisation?

Mr. Howard: Because we came from the great ideas that are the foundations of Western Civilisation. We are part of Western Civilisation. We owe so much to the foundations laid – Greece and Rome. We owe an enormous amount to Renaissance thought. We owe an enormous amount to the history of the Judeo-Christian ethic. The moral code of the Judeo-Christian ethic has shaped Australia from its very beginning and that is a fact. And whether you adhere to that ethic or whether you like that ethic or you don’t, you can’t escape the fact that it has shaped us, and how can you understand who we are unless you know where we came from.

And the whole idea of emphasising the centrality of western Civilisation is not some exercise in triumphalism, but an exercise in realism. And unless we understand where we came from, unless we understand what our foundations are, we don’t have the intellectual weaponry to contest those who would take that away.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Would you agree that there is a crisis of reason today? And whether there is such a thing as objective truth in universities in the West today. Why is this problematic?

Mr. Howard: Well, I think there is in sections of our university world. I think it’s a mistake to, as it were, extrapolate from the extremely absurd example to the whole. There is still an enormous amount of intellectual rigour in our universities. But there is a growing tendency, if you like, to use the modern language, to cancel culture. There’s a growing tendency to over-apologise for past blemishes. We are a blemished society but we’re also a hugely successful society and when I think of what I always call the Australian achievement I think of the good bits. I acknowledge the blemishes.

It took us a long time to understand how poorly we had treated many of our first Australians but that’s been recognised. There is argument about how best you deal with it, but there’s not any argument anymore about the need to deal with it as an issue, but in the process of doing that, we should never lose sight of the fact that, and I hold this view very strongly, that it was probably the best piece of luck Australia had to have been colonised by the British. Because one way or another, the Australian mainland was going to be colonised by a European power in the 18th century and it was, it’s, well, the British.

We owe a lot to that British heritage but we’ve been very clever. We’ve kept the good bits of our British heritage. We’ve kept the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and large parts, not all, of our sense of humour, sport and the like, but we’ve rejected the bad bits. We never wanted to embrace notions of class distinction or an aristocracy because we knew they weren’t fit for this country not fit for purpose.

One of the things I really admire about Australia, if I can put it in that slightly detached way, is that we have a great sense of balance in this country. We have a bigger combination of public and private in education at the school level than any other comparable country. Thirty-four percent of our school-aged children are educated in the non-government sector and I say that as somebody who was very pleased to have received my education in the New South Wales government system, so, the good thing is that we mix the two well. There’s still argument about whether and in what quantity different forms of education should be held, but fundamentally, we are comfortable with this blended system.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Yeah, I think you’ve captured really well there, the great blessing it is to be in a country like Australia. And the singular way in which as a country we’ve as you said been able to bring the best of the past to our own unique place in the world and our own unique identity. Now, turning now to Campion College.

We’re in the middle of a capital work construction program of an Academic Centre. This is our biggest ever project and will include a large new library, dining hall, lecture theatres, classrooms, and four additional residential halls. We’re very excited and hope this will establish Campion as a leading institute in the Liberal Arts in Australia. Would you say a word about why you believe this is a project worth supporting?

Mr. Howard: Well, it’s worth supporting because it’s based on a sound ethical and moral foundation. It’s driven by a belief that the great shaper of codes of behaviour and ethics in Australia is the Judeo-Christian ethic. It’s a great inheritance. Not in a way that is unquestioned all the time. The nature of intellectual inquiry to question, but it’s driven in that direction and it’s based on that foundation. And I think it gives it a purpose and it’s that purpose that attracts students. And what I like about Campion is that it will bring together a growing body of young men and women, some of them not so young that will be guided by that ethic, and it will not drown out or replace intellectual rigour and circumspection. In fact, if you’ve got a strong ethical and moral code, you’re more likely to be circumspect than if you don’t. Your mind is less prone to flights of irrelevance.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Thanks, Mr. Howard. I mean, your support is truly appreciated and one of the things we’re most excited about is the new library, which will house what may be the most significant Liberal Arts collection in the Southern Hemisphere. And while more and more universities and even public libraries are taking their collections online, we believe it’s important to preserve the physical texts themselves in an easily accessible way. What are your views on this?

Mr. Howard: Well, I still read a physical paper – newspaper. I mean I read newspapers online but my basic newspaper reading, which is still three or four papers each day, is a physical experience. Now that’s perhaps reflective of my age. I’m 82. I’ve always read newspapers but there’s nothing quite like walking into your own little library at home and even though you do it, what, a half a dozen times a day looking up at the books and running your finger over the spines of them just to make sure they’re still there. And to remind yourself of it is physical books and to look up and to see four or five volumes on the same subject each with a different theme, the same person, each with a different story, is quite an experience.

Dr Paul Morrissey: How can Liberal Arts graduates help restore the culture in Australia?

Mr. Howard: The greatest contribution they make to restoring the culture is their act of first seeing the importance of a Liberal Arts education. Because once you’ve absorbed the essentials of a Liberal Arts Education, you retain a capacity to keep adding to your knowledge but you never lose the basics. And Campion, as indeed the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, it’s all about teaching in a holistic way our origins. What we owe to Greece and Rome, what we owe to the Judeo-Christian inheritance. What we owe to the Renaissance. What we owe to the Enlightenment, preferably Scottish version.

All of those things are very, very fundamental to a proper understanding and it’s an inquiry that never stops. You keep adding to it and when we talk of the great texts, we obviously think of the ones that are revered by history and centuries of reading and usage but we also think of modern texts that have acquired it.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Well, thank you Mr. Howard for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure discussing education with you, and we really look forward to welcoming you to the new Academic Centre when it opens.

Mr. Howard: Well, it’s pleasure. I believe in the institution. I think it’s providing vibrantly different but very relevant pathway to learning and knowledge.

Dr Paul Morrissey: Thank you, Mr. Howard.