Oxford. Cambridge. Harvard. Yale. Campion.
It’s a bold, ambitious goal, but Campion College in Sydney believes it can, and will, become Australia’s equivalent of some of the world’s greatest universities.
And how exactly does it plan to achieve this? By focusing on an education in the liberal arts, a time-honoured discipline of studies that has as its ideal the education of the whole person.
Courses of studies in the liberal arts have existed for hundreds of years, primarily in Europe and in the United States. The latter still has more than 250 liberal arts colleges and universities.
Some of the world’s greatest thinkers, such as St Thomas Aquinas, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, studied liberal arts. Even the recently elected Pope Francis completed a liberal arts degree in Chile before entering the seminary.
The only college or university that offers a liberal arts degree in Australia, Campion College was established in 2006 in the suburb of Old Toongabbie in Sydney’s West.
Despite still being in its infancy as an institution, there’s already a growing shift in Australia towards the type of education offered at Campion.
In 2008, one of Australia’s premier tertiary institutions, Melbourne University, made world headlines when it decided to implement a more thorough educational model now known as the ‘Melbourne Curriculum’.
Breaking with its own 155-year tradition, the university radically altered its academic offerings in an attempt to provide a broader education.
Prior to 2008, the university offered 96 undergraduate degrees. There are now just six core disciplines for Melbourne students to choose from, before specialising in their chosen field in postgraduate courses.
By making the change, Melbourne University acknowledged the necessity for the sort of education provided by Campion, according to College president Ryan Messmore.
“Here’s one of the most renowned, well-respected universities in Australia saying, ‘Look, we need to change the way that we’re educating people because we’re not grounding them in the core tools of thinking and learning,’” he said.
“It’s acknowledging that students today, in order to get a true education, need to be trained in these foundational subjects.”
Dr Messmore says Campion is unique as a higher education provider.
“We don’t narrow the field of study as other institutions do,” he asserts.
“We rather approach our curriculum in terms of teaching students how to think, how to write well, how to communicate well and how to problem solve. We view those as the core pillars of an education. A lot of other Catholic universities are offering degrees, but Campion is really offering true education.”
Dr Messmore believes most Australian universities mistakenly view education’s purpose as mere job training.
“Campion is revolutionising education in Australia,” he said. “Too many students look upon a tertiary degree just as a passport to personal privilege, but that kind of approach is far too narrow and unfulfilling.”
The Bishop of the Parramatta diocese in which Campion College is situated, Anthony Fisher OP, agrees.
“The tradition of the liberal arts is apt to help students be ‘educated for eternity’ and is something far more important than a career,” he said.
“Catholics believe in the unity of truth … Campion’s offering of an integrated tertiary degree that exposes students to theology, philosophy, literature, history and other disciplines – and their interconnectedness – enables students to appreciate this unity of truth.”
The new president
He’s the tall, young, charismatic American who has brought a new-found energy to Campion College.
Dr Ryan Messmore may have only been in charge for a few months, but his vision for the college has impressed many.
A convert from Protestantism, Dr Messmore took over as president at the end of 2012, replacing the renowned Latin-scholar, Dr David Daintree.
The 38-year-old has a rich intellectual background. He received Master’s degrees from Duke Divinity School in theological studies and from Cambridge University in philosophy, before completing his doctorate in political philosophy at Oxford.
Along with his wife, Karin, Dr Messmore set up the Trinity Forum Academy in Maryland, where he served as director between 2000 and 2006.
Before moving to Australia in August 2012, Dr Messmore was part of the Heritage Foundation – an influential think tank based in Washington.
His first contact with Campion came in 2011 when he visited Brisbane, where he met James Power Jnr, the son of the College’s co-founder.
“He told us about the vision of Campion and we told him about our experience at the Trinity Forum Academy and it became apparent that those visions of a small, Christ-centred learning community were overlapping a lot,” Dr Messmore recalled.
This shared vision eventually led to Dr Messmore’s application and subsequent appointment as College president.
He says it’s exciting to be in charge of the College.
“It’s a blessing to be involved with an organisation that really has an opportunity to change the culture,” he said.
“Campion really has the chance to do something big, to change the way that Australians think about education.”
From little things, big things grow
In its first year in 2006, Campion College had 14 enrolments. Over the past two years, it has had almost 80 new students enrol, pushing the student body close to 100.
It’s been a slow but steady growth, yet Dr Messmore says the size of the College is one of its advantages.
“We are intentionally small, because we believe that true education takes place through personal relationships,” he said.
“Our size allows our staff, our professors, and even the president, to know every student by name.”
The student-staff relationship at Campion is also unique. Many staff members join students at daily Mass, in sporting competitions, and at social functions.
Staff and students often eat together during the week, and Dr Messmore says he’s looking forward to having students visit his home to have dinner with his family. “There’s a unique opportunity here at Campion to have those relationships,” Dr Messmore said.
“The students have been very welcoming to me and to my family, and they give us a lot of energy and excitement about Campion.”
One such student is 19-year-old Robert van Gend from Toowoomba in Queensland, who has just started second-year studies at Campion.
He says the College has far surpassed his expectations.
“Campion met everything I expected, as well as adding me to a big new family of the best young people in the country,” he said.
“I wanted to learn to think critically and also to learn about the roots of the western world. I studied mostly maths and science subjects at high school, so I wanted to delve into the humanities at an institution that is grounded in the truth.”
Life after a liberal arts degree for Campion’s 83 graduates has seen many undertake further studies, while others have gone straight into the workforce.
2011 graduate Siobhan Reeves began a Master’s in international relations in 2012, and is currently in Timor Leste (East Timor) assisting with research and program analysis at an international healthcare NGO.
Miss Reeves said Campion College provided her with the opportunities to develop a variety of skills.
“Three years at Campion does change the way you view the world, and the role that you can play in it,” she said.
“It made me eager to seek out ways in which I could make a positive impact upon the world, no matter how small that impact might be.”
2010 Campion graduate and now strategic relations manager at the College, Michael Mendieta, said the degree in the liberal arts he received has set the stage for a successful career.
“Campion provided me with a broad education in history, literature, philosophy, theology and science, giving me the skills to think logically, write persuasively, and research effectively,” he said.
Putting faith front and centre
Campion College prides itself not only on offering a true education, but also on keeping Christ at the centre of its endeavours.
With daily Mass on campus, a chapel that residential students can always access, and numerous devotions such as the Stations of the Cross and the Rosary taking place regularly, Campion has a strong spiritual life.
Dr Messmore said being an authentically Catholic institution was a vital part of Campion’s mission.
“Our identity, mission, goals, the decisions we make are all anchored in our Catholic faith,” he said.
“Christian truth will guide the way we teach, and the decisions we make, and the goals we set, and it will dictate the rhythm of life here on campus.”
As part of the Parramatta diocese, many of Campion’s students are involved in diocesan activities, and several members of the college schola assist the Parramatta Cathedral choir on Sundays.
Bishop Fisher said Campion is a valuable part of the diocese.
“Campion College has quietly but assuredly created a Catholic intellectual and cultural environment in the heart of my diocese in Western Sydney,” he said.
“The presence of an institution in my diocese that aims to prepare students from all across the country – and sometimes overseas – to live life well enough to earn eternal life in Christ contributes to the life of the Church in Western Sydney in intangible but valuable ways.”
Dr Messmore said the College staff had an important role to play in the faith formation of the students.
“The first day after I took office, I gathered the staff and the faculty together and I told them that we need to model among ourselves what we want our students to do and what we want them to become,” he said.
“If we want them to take their faith seriously, they need to see us taking our faith seriously.”
Bishop Fisher said he admires Campion’s strong Catholic foundation.
“Because of its Catholic ethos, it immerses its students with the long and glorious Catholic liturgical, spiritual and intellectual traditions. This is something for which I am most grateful,” he said.
The College community acts virtually like a parish, and several students have embraced religious vocations after their time at Campion.
Campion chaplain and theology lecturer, Fr Luke Holohan, says their vocation discernment reflects the College’s desire to see all its students fulfil their God-given purpose in life.
“The fact that two students have entered the convent and that another has been accepted into an order for priestly formation says a great deal about the strong spiritual life of the College,” he said.
“They found Campion to be the kind of environment that actively fosters such vocations and assists them in their discernment.
“It is also obvious that the students here cherish their Catholic faith and want to share it with others.”
‘We can change the culture’
The future may bring many changes to Campion College, but it intends to remain committed to providing an education in the liberal arts.
“We may offer postgraduate and Master’s courses in the future … but we will always remain dedicated to the bachelor of the liberal arts, which is the bread and butter of why Campion exists,” Dr Messmore said.
“We will always safeguard and focus on the core degree that separates us from all other universities in Australia.”
The College’s goal to build and then maintain a student body of between 350 and 400 students will be achieved in the near future, Dr Messmore says.
“In ten years’ time, Campion will have hit the mark of 400 students. We will have new residential facilities, a new library, a new chapel, and an Oxford or Cambridge type of quad constructed on campus,” he said boldly.
“We will be producing between 100 and 150 alumni each year who will go out and serve in influential positions in every career field – law, medicine, business, journalism, media, and international relations.”
It is this ability to produce future leaders who can be influential in society that excites Campion’s president the most.
“Our students will be able to exercise a reflective, responsible leadership in positions of influence, and within a generation we will see real cultural change as a result of that,” he said.
It’s a bold dream, but Campion College itself was a bold dream when it began. Time will tell, but if Campion achieves its goals, there is no doubt that Australian culture and society will be far better off for it.