Fi­nally, West­ern civil­i­sa­tion finds cham­pi­ons on cam­pus

Rea­soned voices are push­ing back against the hot­heads

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - JANET ALBRECHTSEN

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

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