A College Fit For Harry Potter

With Masters and PhD degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, it’s no surprise that Sydney Dad-of-three Ryan Messmore takes seriously the education of his own children.

With sons Joshua, 10, and Christopher, 8, he has already read Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, Aesop’s Fables and The Hobbit. They’ve also polished off the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis and The Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett.

Now that’s impressive.

“My wife Karin and I think if they hear and repeat good writing and literature it will help them become better speakers and writers,” the American-born academic says.

But it’s not all high-brow learning. When the couple planned to break the news that the family were moving to Australia, they took the boys and three-year-old daughter Katie to an Outback Steakhouse!

“We wanted them to be able to associate the move with something Australian,” Dr Messmore explains. “It did improve things on the night, but overall the initial reaction wasn’t so positive!”

Dr Messmore arrived in Sydney from Washington DC in September last year to become President of Campion College, the only Catholic Liberal Arts College in Australia, near Sydney.

He has grand plans for the six-year-old college, which he wants to model on the elite British universities he attended. He also wants to challenge parents’ attitudes to their children’s education, and their fixation with their kids getting good jobs.

“The trend in Australia seems to be education as job training,” Dr Messmore says.

“For most parents the focus is, ‘What’s my child going to be able to do with their degree?’

“Parents want to see a financial return. I’m a parent and I understand the desire for children to receive gainful employment, but I want more for my child than just a job.

“Children are so much more than bank accounts needing to be filled up with income. I want my children to be well-rounded, curious and confident people who enjoy life and thrive in social and intellectual spheres. I want them to love learning.”

Dr Messmore’s ambition is simple; he wants to make available in Australia the model of education that Oxford and Cambridge employ.

“At one time, students would sleep in cots at the foot of the don’s beds,” he explains. “The student and don lived their life together and it was a real apprenticeship of learning.

“I’m not advocating that students sleep at the foot of my bed, definitely not, but I have always thought that true education needs to have that personal component.

“I’m very attracted to the idea of universities being made up of smaller colleges where students live together and you have a real learning community. Students know their tutors and can discuss papers with their professors.”

Campion College doesn’t pretend to be like other universities. For starters, it is small, with just 95 students. And being a Liberal Arts College, there’s not a host of study options. Students study the ‘classics’ – philosophy, history, literature and theology. Latin is optional.
‘Formal Halls’ are held every Monday evening, where there is a high table, students wear academic gowns, Grace is said in Latin and live classical music is played. Think Harry Potter and the dining hall. A guest-of-honour often speaks on a topic of interest.

Students can join the Fencing Club or the Classics Society. Or they might prefer the Aristotle Reading Group.

After graduating from Campion with a Liberal Arts degree, students usually go on to a graduate degree such as law or medicine.

Dr Messmore believes it’s a winning formula. For him, it’s all about how you approach education, whether you see it as career preparation or something broader.

“In my eight months in Australia, what I hear time and time again is that young people are forced to make career decisions in high school and end up living at home and taking a consumer approach to university, travelling in and out,” Dr Messmore says.

“Two years into their degree they’re not enjoying it or aren’t well suited to that career choice, so they become discouraged. They either walk away and feel it’s been a waste of time or money or stick it out and are unhappy.

“I think there’s a better way. I’m not saying the liberal arts is for everyone, but if students were to have that foundational college experience, that would really open up a much broader range of options for them.

“A classical education forms young people to become contributing members of a community, and that takes into account their intellectual capacities, spiritual formation and social development. It addresses the full person.

“It’s about how to engage in critical thinking, how to discern an argument, to innovate a solution and make associations that others are unable to see. They’re the kind of employees that employers say they want. It’s a time tested approach and what Oxford and Cambridge have been doing for centuries.

“My hope is that parents will recognise the differences between the educational approaches.”

Born as a triplet and raised in a Protestant family (he and his family converted to Catholicism four years ago), Dr Messmore met his future wife while at Duke University in North Carolina.

“I was teaching a course on the Theology of C.S Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia and she was one of my 15 students,” he explains.
“I waited until the course ended before I asked her out for dinner. I thought she was physically beautiful, but she also had a way of tilting her head that made me feel she was tracking what I was saying. That boosted my confidence and only attracted me more!”

The pair married in December 1997 and shared a vision to start a residential learning community. Dr Messmore headed to Cambridge to complete his second Masters degree and, back in the US, he and Karin were school teachers.

Then, out of the blue, a call came from the ‘Trinity Forum’, inviting the pair to run a nine-month course for 12 college graduates about how they could incorporate faith into their life and work.

“The students shared the same house as Karin and I,” Dr Messmore recalls. “We studied the deep questions; What does it mean to be human? What is a good society? It was a wonderful time for Karin and I and we also travelled across England and Europe, bathing in architecture and western civilisation. We were very privileged.”

Five years later, Dr Messmore headed to Oxford to do his PhD in Political Theology. The couple planned to move to Oxford but Dr Messmore had also been offered a job at a think tank in Washington DC, so he opted for a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ doctorate, spending six weeks in Oxford followed by six weeks at home.

“We were having our third child, and Karin said to me, ‘You can only do this if you promise to be here for the third trimester’,” he explains. “So I finished my final stint in Oxford in the second trimester!”

The relationship with Campion College began a few years ago, when Dr Messmore attended a conference in Brisbane and met some College Board members. They were looking for a new President, and invited him to apply for the five-year term.

“It’s been good, although there are days when we feel more foreign than others,” Dr Messmore admits. “At the start it was crazy in terms of work hours, but now if I’m busy I come in early and protect my evening family time.

“It’s overwhelming, and there are so many challenges, but I’m on a mission to change the debate around education in this country, and that keeps me going.”