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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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‘A Large and Liberal Education’

— I was pleased this week to receive a copy of a new collection of essays and speeches called ‘A Large and Liberal Education’: Higher Education for the 21st Century by Donald Markwell. Markwell was for many years the Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and is now Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Western Australia.

The volume covers a broad range of educational topics, but it places special emphasis on residential colleges and residential college life within collegiate universities.

In an essay titled “The fellowship of friends: Sir James Darling and the collegiate ideal,” for example, Markwell draws on the writings of an influential Australian educator who made

a strong case ‘for communal living at one time or another in one’s development’, and specifically for university colleges.

First, Sir James said:

…a College provides a place of laughter and fun, a womb of friendships, a chance for endless discussions about the realities of life, a stimulating community to which to belong.

Second, Sir James said, a college offers tutors who give personal academic attention to students. ‘At Oxford,’ he said,

I was fortunate to enjoy the sole attention of a tutor for one or two hours each week. Here I learned that there is nothing more important in education than intimate contact with first-class minds. The contact with University lecturers, however brilliant, is inadequate.

These were the words of a man who had served on the University of Melbourne Council from 1933 to 1971. It appears that, in the early 1950s, when Ron Cowan was also on the University Council, Darling and he both argued there that ‘a good university experience was not possible in a large institution’.

If the rapid and unprecedented expansion of universities has seemed at times to obscure the role of colleges, it is precisely because of the growth of the mass university that the personal benefits of collegiate education are becoming all the more important, and will, I think, be recognized as such if we in the colleges can truly show that we do enhance the all-round education of our students.

There are those who think that new information and communication technologies will make the campus university redundant, and presumably residential colleges also. While we aim to use such new technologies in helping our students, and to enable them to use the technologies as well as possible, it seems clear to me that the high degree of personal interaction – student with tutor, and student with student – that a college involves will always be of immense benefit to students.

Third, in his 1981 speech, Sir James said that, in a college, ‘there is tradition’:

This is an old fashioned and almost anachronistic value, and it can become a restriction of proper development. On the other hand, there is much to be said for belonging to a body which has a history and which is bigger than oneself – a body which places demands of high standards and service on its members. Curiously, the College means more to me than the University and much more than the school – perhaps because it is more personal and intimate. Only the regiment of soldiers can compete with this kind of loyalty.

The full citation for the volume is:

  • Markwell, Donald. 2007. ‘A Large and Liberal Education’: Higher Education for the 21st Century. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing & Trinity College. [ISBN 978-1-74097-150-8]

More information, along with a printable order form (pdf), is available on the Trinity College publications page. This would be a fine addition to any library of educational literature, especially one that appreciates the value of residential college life around the world.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021