Western civilisation and its discontents

The age-old dispute over Western civilisation courses has bubbled up again in Australia. It could do more harm than good to cash-strapped humanities courses, writes Steven Schwartz

June 28, 2018
Greek poet
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What's in a name? Among the reasons offered by the leaders of the Australian National University for rejecting a multimillion-dollar gift to the humanities was a dispute about the name of a proposed course. The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation wanted the course to be called “Western Civilisation” while the ANU preferred “Western Civilisation Studies”. 

If this reminds you of John Cleese trying to explain the difference between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian, then you are old enough to remember that we have been here before. In 1988, civil rights campaigner, Jesse Jackson, led Stanford students in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” Stanford dropped the course, and other universities followed suit. Except for a few diehards that still teach the “Great Books” (Chicago, Notre Dame, Columbia), courses in Western civilisation have faded away.

Fast forward to the present. Humanities academics live in perpetual fear of being tossed overboard as leaky finances force universities to jettison disciplines just to stay afloat. So, on that blissful dawn, when the Paul Ramsay Foundation announced that it would use part of its $3.3 billion endowment to revive the humanities in Australia, universities rushed to register their interest.

The foundation established the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and chose John Howard – a former prime minister from the conservative side of politics – to chair its board. The centre created an “indicative curriculum” that begins with Homer and ends with Foucault, making stops at Dante, Shakespeare, Marx and a broad smorgasbord of worthy books, musical works and fine art along the way. Around one-third of the course was unspecified, to enable students to pursue electives in other areas.

The centre proposed that all subjects be taught in small tutorials so that students and academics could discuss their readings in depth; it offered to provide generous scholarships for students and stipends for academics to make such personal teaching possible.

It did not take long for disquiet to emerge. ANU Student Association president, Eleanor Kay, feared that Western Civilisation was a “a rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures”. Kay did not explain how thinking deeply about Marx and Foucault, not to mention Bartolomé de las Casas, the 16th-century campaigner against colonialism (who is also on the centre’s reading list) could make someone a racist. It is possible that she has not had the opportunity to study these texts – which, of course, is the whole point of the Ramsay Centre’s initiative. 

Another former prime minister and Ramsay Centre board member, Tony Abbott, stirred matters up by saying that “the key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”.

Malcolm King, the ANU academic union branch president, interpreted Mr Abbott’s remarks to mean: “The Ramsay Centre seeks to pursue a narrow, radically conservative program to demonstrate and promulgate the alleged superiority of Western culture and civilisation.” Mr King was also concerned that the centre would “wield considerable influence over staffing and curriculum decisions”. The ANU leadership agreed. Citing “irreconcilable differences over the governance of the new program”, the university pulled out of negotiations. 

Not everyone was buying it. Critics noted that the university was happy to accept donations for its Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, so why not one devoted to Western civilisation? They believed the university caved into political pressure from academics and students.

The Ramsay Centre has turned to the University of Sydney to see whether it would accept its Western Civilisation programme. The omens are not auspicious. More than 100 academics published a letter opposing the acceptance of scholarships, which they construed as unfair: “The Ramsay program represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large: it signals that the study of the European cultural tradition warrants better educational circumstances than that of others.” By this logic, the university should reject any donated scholarship lest some students have better “circumstances” than others.

For now, the millions of dollars targeted to go to the humanities will remain in the Ramsay Centre’s bank account. Humanities departments will continue to struggle, and the Great Books will collect dust. The ANU says it has struck a blow for academic freedom. Perhaps…but at what cost? 

Steven Schwartz is the former vice-chancellor of Brunel, Murdoch and Macquarie University and former executive director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. He is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney.

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