Finally, Western civilisation finds champions on campus
Reasoned voices are pushing back against the hotheads
Only time will tell whether this week marks the turning point when cool reason defeated hotter heads at the University of Sydney. Those trying to secure more diverse views on campus and greater choice for students to study the great books of Western civilisation are not pulling their punches any more. Too much is at stake.
Sydney University was once a place for robust debates and diverse views. It is, or at least was, the embodiment of thousands of years of human progress and learning from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire; from the spread of Christianity and the artistic, political and economic discoveries of Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This is the rich, messy and splendidly complicated heritage of intellectual freedoms that underpin our liberal democracy.
As part of a $3 billion bequest by businessman Paul Ramsay, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is offering to fund a threeyear degree where students study 30 of the great texts, from Homer and Chaucer to Marx and Virginia Woolf. The proposal includes about 40 scholarships of $30,000 to young students. The curriculum has not been finalised, nor has a memorandum of understanding been signed.
This has not deterred a small group of loud and irrational malcontents at Sydney University who are determined to stop negotiations dead in their tracks.
For months now, they have turned a debate into a one-sided diktat that the university must say no to Ramsay. They have spread wild claims, piled high with misrepresentation and misinformation. Unloading their doublebarrelled loathing of the Ramsay Centre and Western civilisation, they have pitched themselves to other staff and students as moral guardians holding back barbarians from the university’s gates.
This week more reasoned voices pushed back against the real vandals, the hotheads inside the gates who run scared from diverse opinions and competition by concocting conspiracy theories to scupper a Ramsay-funded degree. James Curran, professor of modern history, is one of those voices of reason.
“I’m speaking up now because of my concern that those more strident voices of opposition have unfortunately abandoned cool realism and calm detachment in responding to the Ramsay proposal,” Curran told The Australian on Thursday. “My bottom line is: a course such as this will complement much that is already being taught in the humanities at the university, not least the Faculty Scholars program.”
Curran says there is no evidence the intellectual autonomy of the university will be compromised. He also rejects claims the degree harbours a “three cheers for the West” ambition.
He challenges claims by professor of politics John Keane, who, says Curran, has been quot- ing “the British race patriot rhetoric of wartime prime minister John Curtin, implying that to support Ramsay is somehow to be advocating the recrudescence of the White Australia policy, or that it involves some kind of nostalgic harking back to or longing for the British Empire”.
“What?” says Curran with incredulity. “I am not sure where this kind of interpretation comes from. Thankfully Australia long ago dispensed with its British race character and instead wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced a new language and policy of tolerance and diversity.”
Curran says this country has an “ancient, rich and precious indigenous heritage” and that modern Australia, for good and ill, derives from a Western tradition that we have adapted to our environment and experience. He points to our interaction with the civilisations of the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere around the world.
Curran is speaking out after a meeting late last month where academics stridently opposed to Ramsay lined up on stage all shaking their heads in one direction. “Say ‘no’ to Ramsay,” they said, one after the other.
Professor of English literature John Frow said Western civilisation had “become code for a racially imagined culture under attack from racially imagined oth- ers”. Academic Shima Shahbazi said: “The Ramsay Centre is structurally, institutionally, morally and epistemically violent to other knowledges, modernities, democracies and more importantly the indigenous history of the land.” University of Western Sydney associate professor Alana Lentin claimed the Ramsay offer would compound the “wilful, knowing white ignorance that is leading us down the road to fascism while Liberals mindlessly bleat about the marketplace of ideas”.
In his open letter of October 3, Keane described Western civilisation as brimming with resentment. “It feels unshakeably arrogant, male and white,” he wrote. He said it was being “championed by fools (Boris Johnson) and arsonists (Nigel Farage)” and “these loudmouthed champions of Western civilisation are killing off its last remaining credibility”.
This is the stuff of political rallies. But remember these same academics are educating our children, the next generation of leaders and citizens.
On Wednesday at 10.04am, provost and deputy vice-chancellor Stephen Garton fired off an email to Keane, copied to members of the arts faculty and other staff. His exasperation is palpable. So is his determination to check a minority of politically charged and ideologically blinkered academics who want to scuttle an epochal funding offer to Sydney University. Garton’s 2000-plus-word response, along with Curran’s public intervention the next day, are pivotal developments. Finally, facts are gaining ground over emotion and fabrication.
In his response to an email Keane sent a week earlier, Garton’s confronts the “leaps of logic” and the “myths that frame some of the misrepresentations” running rife at the university. He addresses Keane’s “conspiracy theory thinking”, which is “lacking any evidence whatsoever”.
Garton objects to Keane’s “pejorative language of lucre” — a word that alludes to filthy money. You will find the word in the Bible, Titus 1:11, admonishing those who teach “things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake”.
“Is it lucre when we raise funds to support indigenous scholarships or research on childhood obesity?” Garton asks Keane.
“The logic of the argument … escapes me. Does this mean we shouldn’t accept funding for renal cancer because it is not also for bowel cancer, that we shouldn’t accept a chair in Celtic studies because it is not more broadly European studies, that we shouldn’t accept funding for a position in Near Eastern archeology because it is not also classical archaeology, that we wouldn’t accept it for medieval history because it ignores medieval philosophy?”
He assures Keane and other academics that the draft MOU will safeguard academic autonomy but laments that nothing will satisfy them except outright rejection of the proposal. Deploying his background in medical history, Garton likens some of their anxiety to “a type of Victorian miasma theory”.
“The frame of reference here is an implication that if we breathe any Ramsay air at all we will immediately become infected and diseased,” he writes.
“I have far more confidence in the intellectual robustness and resilience of our colleagues than that.”
As to the claim by loathers of Western civilisation that core texts such as Plato, St Augustine, Locke, Chaucer and Shakespeare are “old-fashioned”, Garton admonishes their “dismaying dismissal of much that is good in what we do”. He defends “many of our finest colleagues” who teach such texts using depth, not breadth.
“To explore one set of intellectual traditions or one canon of texts does not devalue other traditions or textual canons,” writes Garton. He dismisses as equally irrational claims the new course will compete with other courses. “How a program with a very small commencing cohort (30 to 60) can threaten disciplines like history and English is equally puzzling,” Garton writes. “Are these disciplines really that vulnerable? If students are leaving these disciplines then they have more to worry about than Ramsay.”
Garton points out that existing teaching of the Western tradition is done in a piecemeal fashion. “None of it is stitched together as an overall program as the university does with, say, Asian studies or American studies.”
This point is critical to learning the real story of human progress. During a visit to Australia earlier this year, the historian and author of The English and Their History, Robert Tombs, said: “The West ravaged continents, burned heretics, invented the gas chamber and the atom bomb, and almost destroyed itself in two world wars. But when woven together the separate parts of Western civilisation explain how we learned to end slavery, defeat totalitarianism and grew ashamed of war, genocide and persecution.”
It is, says the historian who has taught at Cambridge for more than 50 years, “an action-packed adventure story, not a philosophical treatise”. And that is how it should be taught at school and university.
Malcontents have pitched themselves to other staff and students as moral guardians