Opinions, Column

On Homecoming and Holistic Education: A Lorikeet Among the Eagles

The marquees are going up, the brisk autumnal air is creeping in, and the Aussie delegation is left to shiver into the colder months (less slip, slop, slap, and more brr … brr … brr … ). Even the red and yellow leaves echo the colors of the day. In other words, homecoming week recently took place at Boston College—and spirit is in full swing.

But that school spirit so joyfully displayed at BC is all but unimaginable back in Australia. To the Aussie mind, being a student is just one of many things you do. Blokes will pop into uni for a morning lecture, then head out for an afternoon shift at work, before maybe catching up with mates down at the pub in the evening. I go to the University of Melbourne—but the ‘UniMelb spirit’ or the ‘UniMelb bubble’ doesn’t really exist. By contrast, here, as documented by past Heights writers, many students’ weekday lives are bounded by the streets of Chestnut Hill. Where UniMelb’s admissions website discusses “career outcomes” and “degree[s] with global reach,” BC’s speaks of “the formation of the whole person” and questions of “character”: the university as encompassing more than just academics. 

In the United States, college football is a staple from coast to coast, replete with tailgating, cheer squads, and designated stadiums. In Australia, players jump into the footy draft straight after high school—leaving university players to be watched by their mates, not a TV crew!

It’s not just a sporting thing, either. Take student government, for example. Here at BC, you have UGBC—whose last budget reached $362,450—much of which goes to student initiatives, dinners, and balls. UGBC works within bounds set in a quasi-paternal way by the college itself. Student governance is a way to achieve the University’s aims: to aid in holistic education, both intellectually and socially. And, its activities almost never have repercussions outside the University—candidates are not affiliated with or endorsed by major political parties. Its very name—undergraduate government—offers a vision of the college as a microcosm of the country, its own miniature civilization of young minds being shaped and molded into leaders of tomorrow.

Back home, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) couldn’t be more different. For starters, there’s the name—it’s a union, connected to the trade union movement (duly-belted refrains of Solidarity Forever here remain optional …). Its last annual expenditure totaled a whopping $8,194,425—over 22 times its UGBC equivalent! Proudly independent of the university itself, UMSU manages all clubs and societies, runs a welfare program (from food banks to legal aid), and even influences federal and state education policy. With elections aligned to federal factions and producing notable Aussie pols, it’s serious business. Indeed, as famously shown in the documentary The State of the Union, UMSU’s predecessor fell apart in an electoral fraud and media suppression scandal by way of a $44 million property deal gone south. It goes beyond bus trips, balls, and bonhomie. To its supporters, UMSU is a brave advocate standing up for student interests when the university doesn’t or can’t—to its detractors, it is full of union thugs as drunk on power as their full-time counterparts. Whichever you agree with, it couldn’t be more different from the almost paternalistic U.S. approach.

But why? Why on earth would two British settler colonies have diverged so drastically on the purpose and form of higher education? Well, to answer that, we must go back to the United Kingdom. You see, in Oxford and Cambridge (or, as a certain fictional pommy snob would put it, ‘the universities … both of them’), the terms “university” and “college” have particular meanings. Those two universities are comprised of constituent colleges—the colleges organize housing and welfare, as well as small group seminar teaching, while the university arranges lectures, exams, and awarding degrees. 

Seven years after the colony of Massachusetts was founded, Harvard got its start in 1636. It was seen as equivalent to the Oxbridge colleges, not the universities—the academic commune where students lived together, not the administrative hub. Perhaps its founders even envisioned, once enough colleges had been formed, connecting them into a university. But, with a paucity of colleges over the coming years (what a 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica called a certain “colonial poverty”), the holistic college-based part of Oxbridge education became central—with America offering college as the cornerstone of an integrated education system It was a great experiment to forge a learned society.

By contrast, Australia, born of a penal colony, took a long time to conceive a university. Its first, the University of Sydney, did not get started until 1850, some 62 whole years after the first colony was founded. Indeed, my home university was explicitly founded as secular, non-residential, and for both undergraduates and graduates—an Oxbridge University sans colleges, if you will. Perhaps because of its late development, uni was never as central to education in Australia as in the United States—where five of the first six American presidents attended university, only two of the first six Aussie prime ministers did. Indeed, as late as 1996, we had a prime minister who left school at age 14 (for an American equivalent we must go back to the 1800s!). Adulthood came upon leaving school—there was no notion of paternalistic guidance of students at uni. And, at that, university was an additional extra, not a marker of qualification to govern or an initiation into a club of future leaders. 

That’s not to say that education has never been a dividing line back home. Especially in Melbourne, that idea of holistic education and alumni networks (as a BC alumnus suggested to me recently, “once an Eagle, always an Eagle”) is well alive. So, the old joke goes, if you meet a Melburnian, they’ll ask you two questions: which footy team you barrack for (God forbid if you don’t …), and then, which high school you went to. The first question I’ll save for a future column (once I get a better grip on American football: On Footy Fanatics and Fluid Gameplay, perhaps?), but the second is very telling. 

So renowned is the old private school mentality in Melbourne that HM The King remains a proud Old Geelong Grammarian! Like elite American colleges, it is these schools that dominate the football draft and the papers’ scandalous headlines. As late as the 1990s, old school tie rivalries ran so strong that State Premier (and former Scotch College boy) Jeff Kennett punctuated a fiery exchange on hospital funding with the Melbourne Grammar School–educated Deputy Leader of the Opposition John Thwaites by declaring, “It does seem that Melbourne Grammar boys do cry after all!” However puerile, it’s the sort of insult not hard to imagine being slung by BC or BU alumni! 

But if schools are the divider, then the university in Australia has become an imperfect leveler. After all, it has been well-proven that the crash-landing of uni—the swiftness with which you learn to ‘adult’ and put in the hard yakka without school support networks or pastoral care—often deflates a little bit of ego and adjusts even the haughtiest private school kid to the expectations of the real world. Perhaps that’s the reason so many retain faith in Australian universities to help bridge socio-economic and class divides, viewing them as “an institution for the poor” more than “ivory towers” detached from the world outside their walls.

And that’s an upshot I reckon is worth thinking about. BC is a wonderful place, but it can be very easy to be stuck in the bubble here, letting the clear-hearted mission of the college draw lines in the sand. Maybe it does—but “setting the world aflame” first asks us to know and be of that world. So, my Eagle friends, let me ask you to try something. Take those steps beyond the comforts of college. As nice as living in the bubble is, don’t let it be the thing that defines you to the outside world. Be sure that when you leave the Heights, you still contain multitudes and are ready to march fearlessly on, proud of what you experienced, but prouder still of what you hope comes next.

And if all else fails … then at least know that whenever I’m sitting back at home in Melbourne, and the kookaburra up the tree outside my desk stops laughing for a moment, I may well hear the resounding echoes in my mind’s ear, singing forth as the glories attest:

For Boston, for Boston,
Till the echoes ring again!

November 5, 2023