A College in the Lived Tradition of the Faith in Australia

A College in the Lived Tradition of the Faith in Australia

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Photo Credits: Jenna Barlow & Michael Mendieta

Opened in 2006 as Australia’s first liberal arts tertiary college, Campion College was named after the 16th century Oxford scholar and martyr, St Edmund Campion. The Saint has long served as a patron of lay Catholic educational initiatives in Australia, beginning with the Campion Society in the 1930s.

Less than ten years later, this college in Sydney’s west is expanding under the leadership of the College’s president, Paul Morrissey. Here, Dr. Morrissey and Dr. Matthew Tan discuss Campion’s unique offering and why it is thriving in a tough higher education market.

REGINA: Starting a Catholic college in the teeth of a market where post-secondary education is widely available is a very unusual venture in Australia. What inspired you to do this?

DR PAUL MORRISSEY: There were a number of inspirations behind the idea to start a Catholic Liberal Arts College in Australia. The first was a society of Catholic lay persons in Sydney called the Campion Society, which over the years came to the conclusion that there was an urgent need for a liberal arts education in Australia, only there was none. So the College slowly evolved out of that vision over some 40 years. Although there were already Catholic universities in existence, Campion was started to offer a genuine alternative in Catholic Higher Education. Australia has two Catholic Universities that have campuses across the Country but no smaller Colleges that attempt to integrate a humanities curriculum. Campion is very much modeled on the small Catholic Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.A. but it does have an Australian flavor in its curriculum.

DR PAUL MORRISSEY: Campion will always be a small College and deliberately so. It is a niche market to be sure but there is, I believe a market for this type of education although it is certainly a challenge getting the message out to the wider community.

REGINA: With university education widely available at affordable (to Americans) prices, what makes you think there is a market for what you are offering?

MATTHEW TAN: There are two factors. The first is that there seems to be an increasingly systematic erosion of the humanities in Universities, as universities gradually strip funding from these departments in favour of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. While these disciplines are valuable in themselves, they are good at teaching student how things are done, and do not of themselves provide the moral resources to think about why they are done or if they should be done. It is the humanities that do that.

The second is that what is left of humanities programs in many Universities has been left in a very fragmented state, with subjects being very highly specialised to suit those of the individual lecturer. We think this is creating a considerable niche for students who want a humanities based education that is also integrated. Campion College offers both of these. We are currently the only tertiary institution that specialises in the humanities – we teach in History, Literature, Theology, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, Science and Mathematics. Part of our teaching mission is ensuring that what we teach in our individual disciplines is integrated with other subjects within the disciplines as well as other disciplines. A testament to that is a recent report in the Australian Financial Review that ranked Campion College's history program as the equal third most comprehensive history program (in comparison with the standard set by Oxford and Cambridge Universities) in the country, surpassing a number of very well established universities with much larger faculties.

We think what we provide that many institutions cannot is an ability to think critically and analyse across multiple areas of specialisation. This is a skill set that is now becoming recognised as a crucial missing link in a number of professions like teaching and medicine, and even some industries like information technology.

REGINA: Was better academics one reason for starting Campion?

MATTHEW TAN: There certainly are fine academics within the current university framework. You might find that, looking at the history from the beginning of the project to establish the College, the primary motivator was providing the type of integrated humanities based education that was never before present in Australia. But the integrated nature of the program required a unique set of academics, ones that were able to converse across several disciplines at once. This of course means getting academics with not only diverse academic backgrounds, but also a proven ability to harmonise those backgrounds within their own teaching areas and those of others. You will find our lecturers will have formal postgraduate or doctoral qualifications in multiple disciplines, or have extensive experience in teaching or research in more than one discipline (I have taught in law, politics, history, anthropology, theology and philosophy). Another key factor is a strong solidarity within the faculty that enables a cross-disciplinary cooperation in both teaching and research, so that ideas from one discipline can enrich another.

DR PAUL MORRISSEY: There is certainly a view that as Universities in Australia increased dramatically in size and began to focus more on vocational education there was a less academic approach to higher education. Campion College certainly takes seriously the proposal that the primary benefit of learning is learning itself.

REGINA: We know that in Australia poor catechetics in the last 50 years have resulted in widespread ignorance about the Faith — its teachings, history, culture, etc.

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  Yes, one could say that there was some disenchantment with Catholic education in general in previous decades. Campion was founded in this context but also, one must add, within a more broader context of the Church’s awareness of the problem in religious education and an institutional commitment to improve it.

REGINA: Dr. Tan, you have spoken about Campion’s ‘respect for the lived tradition’ of the Faith. What does that mean, in terms of students’ daily experience there?

MATTHEW TAN: It is important to remember that the Church was one of the most important institutional contexts for the development of the liberal arts tradition, especially in the Medieval period, and there is no way Campion College will forget that heritage. A visitor will notice at once that we have a visibly Catholic identity. For starters, our campus is founded on an former Marist Father's seminary. Though it is not compulsory, every student studying here will notice the day is always bracketed at distinct points by a rich liturgical life, with the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass in both Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, weekly confession and regular retreats.

But the more decisive sign of Campion's respect for a lived Catholic tradition set by the Medieval Church is integrating our liturgical life in a robust program of academic study. The college wants to follow St. Anselm's pairing of belief and understanding, and it does so primarily through its integrated approach to teaching, not just between the disciplines of study, but also in the religious and cultural life of the college.

Another facet of this endeavour is that I also direct the Centre for the Study of Western Tradition, which acts as a forum for innovative research in the disciplines that make up the liberal arts, and bring them into a fruitful engagement with pertinent issues of the day, particularly in Australia. In so doing, we hope to show the liberal arts is not an “other worldly” affair, but a valuable resource in dealing with concrete issues today. One example of such research would be a day conference in November which will bring lawyers, politicians, historians and legal scholars to reflect on the relevance of the Magna Carta after 800 years.

“Because we are very small the reaction in the wider community is hard to judge. There has certainly been an enthusiastic response from within the Church, including from prominent members of the hierarchy such as Cardinal George Pell, and also from members of society concerned with the state of Higher Education in Australia. We have also enjoyed some considerable support from members of government and the legal profession. Australia’s greatest living poet, Les Murray is a keen supporter of the college.” – Paul Morrissey

REGINA: Can you describe what your major challenges have been so far?  Major rewards?

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  To be a completely private college means that there is always the challenge to raise funds. The other big challenge is student recruitment. The major reward has certainly been the success of many of our alumni in contributing significantly in society and the Church.

REGINA:  How many students have been involved in your various courses thus far?

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  We have graduated 130 students. Around another 50 students have completed part of the program. Currently there are 90 enrolled students.

REGINA:  How do your students and Dr.s typically become involved with Campion? 

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  Most of the students to come from Catholic circles sympathetic to our project, however we do have non-Catholic and some non-Christian students attracted to the program and it is certainly our desire to accommodate more such students.

REGINA:  What are your housing arrangements?

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  We have student dorms and well as rental houses in the surrounding area. But the best way to learn more is to visit our website

DR PAUL MORRISSEY:  The Foundation recently purchased the 10-acre campus at Old Toongabbie, which it had leased during the early years of the College’s operation, and we are looking at expanding the Campus. Our residential accommodation needs expansion. There are also plans for a new chapel, library and academic spaces. We are also looking at expanding our offerings to include post grad research degrees as well as more vocationally orientated Masters programs.

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