Is Western Civilisation worth studying?

The back-story to this essay is the bequest of Paul Ramsay, businessman and philanthropist, to ensure that what he saw as the true gifts of what we commonly call Western civilisation were taught and appreciated. He felt that they were being forgotten, ignored — worse, ignorantly rejected, and by those who should above all recognise and respect them. So he put some $3 billion into a Trust some of which was to establish teachers and scholarships in Australian universities to ensure that what he wanted happened. He had in mind, I think, the ‘Great Books’ curriculum famous at Chicago.

It needs to be said that he was guided in making this bequest by one Tony Abbott, then Prime Minister of our country, and that both Mr Abbott and another former Prime Minister, John Howard, plus a former Labor Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, are all on the Board of the Trust. Mr Ramsay in due course died, and the Trust is now seeking to establish its courses and scholarships, notably at the University of Sydney and the Australian National University. The University of Sydney is thinking carefully about it, according to news reports. The ANU was thinking carefully too, and its thinking then is available here, but has now ended its discussions with the Trust. Since some $30 million is said to be available for the ANU, with 12 academic and professional staff positions all necessary to teach the Bachelor of Western Civilisation degree, and all to be funded philanthropically, this was a fairly self-denying line to take.

At issue, according the ANU’s Vice-Chancellor, is the autonomy of the University. What role would the Trust have in who was to teach the courses, and what say would it have about the content of the units of the degree? The Trust’s spokespeople say that the university’s autonomy was never in doubt, but the Vice-Chancellor said that ‘it is clear that the autonomy with which this university needs to approve and endorse a new program of study is not compatible with a sponsored program of the type sought.’ Since Mr Howard, somewhat nettled, has stated that he will publish all the correspondence, perhaps we will learn more in time.

What struck me in the couple of days before the Vice-Chancellor made his decision, when staff, students, the NTEU and old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all were protesting about this awful proposal, were statements of the kind that the proposed degree course was not needed, and that it would be divisive and political. Mr Abbott made his view clear: the new centre would not merely be about western civilisation but in favour of it. That drew an extraordinary response from the local NTEU branch president: ‘It would appear the Ramsay Centre seeks to pursue a narrow, radically conservative program to demonstrate and promulgate the alleged superiority of western culture and civilisation. Any association, real or perceived, with this divisive cultural and political agenda could potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU and the ANU more broadly.’

Teaching about Western civilisation is divisive? Even saying it may be superior to others? Wheee! And this is coming from within higher education, where argument ought to be central. So I thought I might put down some of the gifts to humanity that Western civilisation has provided. Why not start with the university itself? The Western version is not quite a thousand years old, and today’s ANU could probably point to its own Italian, English, Scottish, American and German antecedents. Today’s universities, wherever they are, and there are about 24,000 of them, have been heavily influenced in notions of scholarship and research, in what they teach and how they teach it, by Western examples. There’s a gift for angry staff and students to think about.

Let’s add a cluster of values that go with the idea of a university: the disinterested search for truth, which itself accompanies a humanistic, secular view of life, the view that problems facing human beings are inherently solvable, not necessarily now, but solvable nonetheless, and a continuing curiosity about the natural world. Where did these values come from? Well, Greek philosophers from about 400 BC started the process, the Romans added something, as did the European Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, as did the great growth in the belief that education for everyone, as far as is possible, is almost mandatory. Were it not for this long process embedded in the development of Western civilisation there would be no ANU at all, agricultural productivity would be where it was a thousand years ago, as would medicine, science, transport and communications. All humanity has benefited.

Let’s move away from higher education. Western nations have over the past millennium moved to separate the church, or organised religion, from the state, or government. The separation took a long time, and was often bloody. But it occurred, and in consequence we are free today to worship and think as we please, or not worship, if that is our wish. The result is an important personal freedom, a liberty that we simply take for granted. Its partner is a limited freedom of expression, which allows us within limits to say what we like, and allows newspapers and other mass media to report what is happening. They do not always get it right, and they have their own prejudices, but their output is greatly superior to news that is in the control of the state, or no news save that which is passed from person to person. That we have the mass media at all, is of course one of the triumphs of Western science and technology. That we can disagree with what they say is a triumph of the development of a view of personal liberty also enshrined in Western civilisation.

Let’s move even further away from the university. Western nations declare that there is ‘equality before the law’, meaning that no one, not even the most powerful person in the nation, is above the law. It isn’t perfect, and it never was. It is one of those aspirations like ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ that are imperfectly realised. But our jails have welcomed powerful businessmen like Alan Bond and political powerbrokers like Eddie Obeid. In our elections every citizen has an equal vote. Yes, there are other influences on that equality, like the party system, within which some bemoan the fact that their supporters are concentrated in a few seats, and therefore their votes are not equal. But it’s a great deal better than no elections, or rigged elections. Where did it start? In the same Greece of 400 BC, tempered by the Romans again, and polished by the citizens of Australia and the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries.

To teach about this is divisive? To celebrate it is wrong? Heaven help us. The ANU offers some seventy little courses in History, and one can achieve a major in that study with 48 points, or about eight of those little units (most worth 6 points). You have to acquire 24 of these points from two short lists, and one six-pointer there at least is about Europe, while another probably has a good deal about Europe in it. You could spend twelve of your remaining points on two courses in British history, and another twelve in a different set would give you two courses on Ancient Greece and the Roman occupation of Britain. Alternatively, you could study ‘Rock, Sex and War: Australia’s 1960s to 1970s’. How you could get a solid grounding in any aspect of History from this long list of options puzzles me. I felt the same forty years ago at Macquarie University, when it seemed to me that student choice had got in the way of real understanding. The staff liked it because many of them could teach their own speciality, very often what they had done their PhD on.

There may be good reasons for the ANU’s walking away from what looked to me like an excellent deal (as it did earlier to the University). But I come back again and again to the truly preposterous notion that there is something wrong with studying and celebrating the advances for humanity that have been largely the work of the unfolding of Western civilisation. Western values and the rules, attitudes and behaviours that have sprung from them, have meant their copying by other cultures. More, there is a ceaseless desire on the part of many outside the West to move into it so that they can benefit not only from the material benefits available there but the values that would nurture them.

I am with Mr Abbott on this one. Western civilisation is plainly superior to all the others, and we should celebrate it. That doesn’t mean being patronisingly lofty about other cultures (always a danger). But it should mean not being defensive about it, let alone being transparently hostile to it. These values are not passed down genetically. They need to be recognised, celebrated and defended, not denounced as being ‘divisive’. The fuss at the ANU suggests that Mr Ramsay’s bequest was not before time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Join the discussion 36 Comments

  • David says:

    I did a Phd that celebrated some achievements of western thought and practice. I studied at one of australia’s more prominent universities. I was awarded the Phd, only after years of struggle against supervisors who opposed all lines of thought that could not be found in standard marxist, post-modern scholarship.

    [‘David’ is a new commenter, and I have asked him to choose a new name when he writes again. There is already a ‘David’ and I don’t want confusion about who said what.]

  • spangled drongo says:

    “They need to be recognised, celebrated and defended”

    Exactly! Well summed up and reported, Don.

    When these universities are happy to deny their classic fundamentals in spite of the money being offered, that must be the ultimate cultural cringe.

  • JimboR says:

    “At issue, according the ANU’s Vice-Chancellor, is the autonomy of the University. What role would the Trust have in who was to teach the courses, and what say would it have about the content of the units of the degree?”

    Abbott, who claims to have been involved in the project since its inception, sheds some light on that:

    “A management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions.”

    http://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/04/paul-ramsays-vision-australia/

    • Tezza says:

      So the Ramsay bequest would have two voices on a panel otherwise made up of ANU academics and administrators. If that is too terrifying a prospect for the ANU to manage, they must be really pathetic, and they must really expect benefactor’s money for nothing.

      Put differently, there is an amazing sense of entitlement from the ANU: Ramsay gives it his money, and the ANU teaches and staffs whatever program it likes.

    • Bazza says:

      An interesting read. Thanks for the link.

      Also interesting is why Abbott believes Ramsay had no enemies.

      “He once told me that this was because a deal that the other person would never care to repeat, however profitable it might have been for him, wasn’t worth the cost in bad blood. For Paul, the most important asset anyone could have was his character and the quality that mattered above all others was loyalty. He was loyal to his extended family; to his friends; and to his staff. “Loyalty is number one for me,” he once said; even “more than intelligence”. The most striking element of any lengthy conversation with him was always the expression of gratitude. Paul was immensely grateful to the parents who had raised him; to the country that had given him so many opportunities; and to the culture that had shaped his thoughts and formed his values.“

  • spangled drongo says:

    ANU VC Brian Schmidt says there already 150 subjects one can study at ANU on Western Civ.

    It’s just that most of them are highly critical, even scornful and very unspecific.

    He wants the “academic autonomy” to carry on in similar, cringe-worthy fashion but get paid millions for the pleasure.

    But the Ramsay Centre wouldn’t buy it.

    They simply want a dose of honesty instead:

    http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/anu-responds-to-criticism-over-centre-for-western/9847018

  • Anne says:

    A brilliant article Don but I despair that all of the public discussion of our current culture war will be filtered out before it reaches the shuttered academic enclaves at our universities

  • Art says:

    As a university student at Carnegie Mellon in the US in the 1960’s, I greatly appreciated the one year intensive course in Western civilisation that was required for all science and engineering degrees. Although many of my fellow students (especially the engineers) grumbled about all the work it required, several years later most found it to be as important as our technical degrees because in addition to its scope, ithelped train us in the process of making decisions based on incomplete and often contradictory information.

    However as the decades passed giving time to read history more broadly, I was appalled at the blinkered world view it engendered with the ignorance of the history, cultural and technical advances of China, India, Persia, Japan, Indonesia and the Arabic world as well as ignoring the destruction and misery that the spread of Western “civilisation” inflicted upon other cultures. For example, a great deal is made of the Italian Renaissance period that got its start from travellers returning from Moorish Spain, but that culture was duly trashed by Ferdinand & Isabella and subsequent rulers . It also ignored Central Asia as a cauldron for much that happened in world history as illustrated by Peter Frankopan’s masterpiece: “The Silk Roads – A New View of the History of the World”

    Certainly one can applaud a resurgence of the teaching of WC at Australian universities but to do so at the triumphalist exclusion of the rest of World Civilisation, as might be expected, does no service to those wishing to understand and cope with the world as it is today with the resurgence of the Eastern part of Eurasia.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Art, Western civilisation was not alone in inflicting misery on others. Human history, from all cultures, is full of inflicted misery. And no one is proposing a ‘triumphalist exclusion’ of the rest of the world. Where did you get that amazing furphy from? Go and read the history offerings from the ANU. Diversity is there in abundance. Western civilisation in any core sense is not there at all.

  • Art says:

    The proposed degree was a Bachelor of WC, Don. That would imply a narrow focus, much more narrow than one might hope from a first degree. I was not replying to the catalogue of ANU but rather the concept of a narrow degree. Moreover, the discussion I have heard on the proposed centre, plus people such as Howard & Abbott on the board would also imply a triumphalist bent. In no way did I imply that WC had a monopoly on untoward behaviour. The history of human civilisations shows a widespread aptitude for such.

    • spangled drongo says:

      “…but rather the concept of a narrow degree.”

      Art, are you saying that WC is not a broad subject?

      Or that ANU couldn’t make it one?

      • Art says:

        WC is indeed a broad subject but as a first degree, I should think it needs the context of what is happening in the rest of the world both as a driver and receiver.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I would assume that the degree would require the student to undertake other units that were not on the principal theme. That is standard practice everywhere for a first degree. For example, the history major I mentioned was only part of an arts degree. We don’t know what the details might have been, because the university has walked away from the proposal

          • Bazza says:

            “Overview of the Degree: The proposed undergraduate degree, titled ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation,’ would offer text-based courses for yearly cohorts of sixty students. Thirty students each year would receive $25,000/year scholarships. The proposed program comprises 16 core courses, typically taken over three years, which will cover “great texts,” art and architecture from Western civilisation. The degree will be ‘elite but not elitist’; the ATAR required for entry will be 97.“

          • spangled drongo says:

            Well. surprise, surprise, hey baz?

            After spending all that money and effort to make students aware of their history and culture, the Ramsay Centre want a study of Western Civilisation that is not anti western civilisation.

            You don’t think that condition applied to the Confucian and the Islamic studies?

          • spangled drongo says:

            Don’t look now but I think double standards and hypocrisy are thriving when it comes to ANU’s “academic autonomy”:

            “A prominent Jewish lobby group has accused the Australian ­National University of having been “Islamised”, claiming its ­acceptance of foreign funding for a Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies was inconsistent with its reasoning for scrapping plans for a course in Western civilisation.

            Dr Adler, a former deputy medical secretary of the Australian Medical Association, echoed the sentiments of various politicians who have accused the university of double standards following the revelation that its Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies had accepted millions of dollars in donations from the United Arab Emirates and the Iranian and Turkish governments.

            There’s a fundamental question that needs to be answered here: why can ANU resolve their issues of academic autonomy in some areas of study but not when it comes to Western civilisation? There’s an inconsistency there.”

            https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/anu-has-been-islamised-claims-jewish-lobby-group/news-story/e880a9050ab005df6fd1191bff10dd61

    • margaret says:

      I think a BA could quite happily include a specialisation in Western Civilisation but an actual Bachelor of Western Civilisation is not useful in the world we now live in. In fact it’s offensive and divisive to think it could be a degree in itself.
      Of course, Western Civilisation has its indelible imprint in English Literature and also American and European literature courses if not in history courses these days. However I don’t pretend to know what is offered anymore. And who reads the classics or fiction in this forum anyway?

  • Peter Lang says:

    Don,

    Is there as anyone in Australia under 70 years of age who would be competent to teach Western Civilisation (Greek, Roman, English/British, European, American and Australian history)?

    • spangled drongo says:

      Maybe they realised they might have to employ Jordan Peterson.

      • BB says:

        My education was not in the humanities nevertheless I have much disquiet about what seems to be happening in our universities. I very much recognise the great value the civilisation which I live in provides.

        I know quite a bit about Jordan Peterson and that is why am commenting. I expect he would not be at all surprised about what is happening in the ANU. He speaks of the humanities in the Canadian universities at thinks it has became so rotten that it should be defunded. So there is nothing to fear he would be very unlikely to take the position.

        • spangled drongo says:

          I agree, BB, but you must admit he would be one of the few who could sort out the problem if given free rein.

          However that’s the last thing ANU would want.

  • spangled drongo says:

    But I am sure there are other Universities in Australia that will embrace the opportunity.

    The new VC of the U of Tas, Dr Rufus Black, recently said, “Not knowing our cultural past is like not having a memory of growing up. Our loss of cultural knowledge is probably a lot worse than that….With historical perspective comes meaning. There is nothing more grounding than having a sense of belonging to a story much larger than our own.”

    He sounds like he is aware of the nihilistic beliefs of postmodernism and would like to do something about it.

  • Gordion says:

    Universities cannot be trusted with benefactions to which conditions are attached. They will always find a way to slip the shackles and subvert a founder’s intentions, or the later trustees will fail the founder (think of some of the stupidities of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford in the 1990s and 2000s), sometimes in cahoots with the university and always in pursuit of some transient modish dross.

  • Ray Andrews says:

    What a superb essay

  • spangled drongo says:

    One small bulwark of western culture is torn down while the same effective result in aboriginal culture is promoted and perpetuated:

    “Priests in the ACT will be legally required to report any admissions of child sexual abuse they hear during the Catholic sacrament of confession.

    The ACT Legislative Assembly on Friday passed legislation requiring priests to break the seal of confession and report abusers.”

    https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/act-confession-law-has-legal-complexities/news-story/4fe468215faa2128e40ccfe69d5acaff

    • BB says:

      I always thought our local government err council were idiots. I’m not a Catholic and not a religious believer but as I understand it the confession is between the believer and God. The priest is a conduit committed in absolute terms not to break the contract. You could look at it as being a demand for Godto break the seal of confession. Lots of luck with that.

      Maybe it is just infantile posturing!

  • BB says:

    Don I appreciate your insights as your probably are aware there has been a lot of comment in the Australian. One of the journalists argued that corporatisation was having a huge effect on universities. If a university takes on a particular course of study then they have to consider what effect it may have on other sources of funding. The point was made that there would be conflict between a study of Western civilisation and other funded studies the University conducts. I expect you have experience in this area do you think the idea is a valid one.

  • Peter Lang says:

    Don,

    I should have started with “thank you for this excellent post!”.

    One thing you left out of your list (Greek, Roman, Enlightenment, etc) was the Industrial Revolution. That was lead by Britain and Europe (especially Britain partly because they introduced patents). The Industrial Revolution is one of the greatest things Western Civilisation gave the world. Consider: where would we be now if not for the Industrial Revolution?

  • spangled drongo says:

    Good to see Clive Hamilton from Charles Sturt U coming out and saying what needs to be said:

    “Thirteen Australian universities have Confucius centres, which are part-funded and staffed by the Chinese Ministry of Education, known as the Hanban. The NSW Education Department is ­reviewing its relationship with the Confucius Institute amid concerns of “inappropriate influences”.

    “They are there to teach ­Chinese language and culture as essential components of the ­academic environment, yet the agreement struck between the Hanban and the universities is kept secret,” Professor Hamilton said. “Any university that agrees to host a Confucius Institute has sacrificed an element of academic freedom.”’

    https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/uni-staff-blasted-for-ramsay-opposition/news-story/f68d0598bfe439a05a5c7d2a02f0b825?link=TD_www.theaustralian_most_popular.a7b5cf41220afe23&utm_source=www.theaustralian_most_popular.a7b5cf41220afe23&utm_campaign=circular&utm_medium=THEAUSTRALIAN

  • spangled drongo says:

    Prof John Carroll says of the Ramsay Centre’s proposal for a course on Western civilisation, “It is vitally important for the country that it succeeds.”

    “The rage against a culture that has lost authority has percolated more and more widely through left-green political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have now been subjected to Marxist ideology, teaching them about the West’s cap­italist exploitation of other peoples, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper middle class.”

    https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/human-epic-is-about-more-than-university-power-struggles/news-story/b5ef1ef49b2bd69910b0bd1b70524169

  • Michael Dunn says:

    As always, an interesting article.

    I attended the ANU in the early 70s because of its strong offering in Australian history, but am very grateful I studied Dr J Ritchie’s course on Victorian England. After all, how can you make any sense of Australia if you know nothing about the UK and ultimately Western civilisation?

    Thank goodness we are now having a serious debate about what undergraduates need to know about the past and whether Universities have gone too far with the ‘black armband’ view of Western civilisations.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Is Western civilisation disappearing:

    JANET ALBRECHTSEN THE AUSTRALIAN 12:00AM June 12, 2018

    Racism is alive and well at university-backed performance
    On Saturday afternoon, about 30 people waited to enter a theatre in the centre of a big, cosmopolitan city for a
    matinee session of a modern dance performance. A voice in the lobby invited people of colour, brown people,
    indigenous people and members of the Asian dias pora to enter the theatre. The white people were forced to stay
    behind, denied entry on the basis of their skin colour. The same people were then harangued for their skin colour by
    four young women aiming a volley of accusations at them about their white privilege.
    After this, the people with white skin were invited into the theatre, but only if they first signed something
    acknowledging agreement with a particular set of views.
    Some did so and entered the theatre. Others walked away. One man and his partner, bewildered by what was
    happening, decided to wait for later dance performances that did not involve a colour bar or ideological bullying.
    This is not dystopian fiction. This is Melbourne, Australia, on June 9, 2018, according to the bewildered man who
    went along to watch Where We Stand. It is part of the Victorian College of the Arts’ 40th anniversary of dance, at
    Space 28, a theatre on its Southbank campus. He considered contacting Melbourne University, which is respon sible
    for the VCA, and the Australian Human Rights Commission because, surely, this is rac ial discrimination that
    infringes some of our laws. Then he decided against butting up against turgid bureaucracies, choosing instead a
    quick dose of sunlight as a better disinfectant.
    Fresh from being shamed for his skin colour, this is what he told me on Saturday evening: “We were both
    fascinated and appalled to be living in our own episode of the Chinese Cultural Revolution experience.” The man,
    who wants to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash, described the performance art that occurred in the lobby
    where “each girl would then take it in turns to declare her racial pedigree, somewhat reminiscent of the Nuremberg
    (race) laws, and then her preferred pronouns before declaring her attempts to overcome her white privilege and
    what these teenagers thought we should be doing to overcome our privilege”.
    Apparently, if you are not actively overcoming your privilege, then you are an oppressor.
    “I don’t blame the girls involved in the piece, they are young and self-righteous,” he said of the humiliation heaped
    on white people in the lobby.
    “I do blame the University of Melbourne for allowing racial selection on campus in any shape or form. I am
    gobsmacked that any university would preside over an event where entry is based on skin colour. I naively thought
    this was a line that even the regressive left wouldn’t cross.”
    He also noted the irony of those young women in the lobby laying unfounded accusations against others while The
    Crucible was playing upstairs at the VCA theatre. It’s a play by Arthur Miller about young women accused of
    witchcraft, a modern take on the dangers of fundamentalism and ideological bullying.
    The man mentioned an older lady, maybe 70 or so years of age, in the lobby who also refused the offer of
    admission on condition of signing the acknowledgment. He thinks she was Dutch, possibly a grandparent who had
    come to see someone perform. “She was visibly shaken by the experience,” he said.
    Isabella Whawhai Mason, the creator of the show, provided a long explanation to The Australian, saying, among
    other things, that this “ritual” in the foyer is part of the performance. “Realistically, there are simply 2 different
    shows for 2 different audiences.” Add some missing detail — one show for people of colour, one show for whites
    — to understand what’s wrong here.
    Alternatively, turn it around: a show that excluded people of colour from entry while whites took their seats would
    be correctly condemned as racism. But here it’s just art? That is not a rational position.
    This new form of artistic apartheid is not an unintended consequence of identity politics. Dividing people according
    to skin colour is an entirely deliberate pursuit by academe, bureaucracies and sections of Australian politics. Worse,
    identity politics isn’t just an anti-intellectual pursuit that stops us challenging a stubborn orthodoxy.

    Decades of race-based policies and politics are harming indigenous people, and indigenous children in particular.
    The woeful outcomes are measured each year in the Closing the Gap report. There are tiny improvements in some
    places, to be sure, but a stubborn gap on basic life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous people
    surely means we must admit that race-based policies are failing the most vulnerable.
    Child protection should top the list of colour-blind policies to protect young children from neglect, violence and
    sexual abuse. Yet on the weekend, Bill Shorten promised more race-based politics and policies here too. Note that
    the Opposition Leader and the elites whose votes he is chasing live far, far away from indigenous people leading
    Third World lives in a First World country.
    Race-based identity politics in the 21st century is toxic because it is untethered from the fine aims of the civil rights
    movement of the 20th century. Back then, activists fought for equal rights for people regardless of colour, creed or
    sexuality. Today we have returned to a dark place of defining people according to inherited characteristics such as
    skin colour. Isn’t that what racists do?
    Those young women at Southbank on Saturday afternoon used skin colour and one set of ideas to determine who
    entered that theatre and who remained in the foyer. And their embrace of race and ideological conformity in the
    21st century is hosted by Melbourne University and the Victorian College of the Arts. Shame on them.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    People occasionally send their comments to me by email, as in this case. I thought it was worth posting here. I’ve slightly edited it to remove ID-like detail. Readers should note that I did not say that the course should celebrate Western Civilisation, but that we who benefit from it should not only understand what it means and how it arrived, but also celebrate it. Without it, most of us wouldn’t be here to take part in the discussion. Others have made a comparable jump.

    ‘I did my honours degree at ANU doing courses in many ways related to Western Civilisation. Beyond Ancient History and Latin, I also took courses and Greek and Roman Art and Architecture, General Archaeology, British Archeology, Europe and the Atlantic World, WW2, A history of Terrorism, Western Racism, Anthropological course on religion, and (when I had run out of any other options and damn I hated it), Masculinity. There may have been more that I can’t remember.

    I can’t speak with any real authority or understanding about the arguments relating to the university’s autonomy. My only real reservation about the idea is that the course would celebrate Western Civilisation (damn American spell check). I don’t think that advocating a point of view should be the role of a university course itself. On the contrary, I think university is a place where everyone’s views should be challenged, including the Tutor/Lecturer/Marker/Professor. The best mark I ever got at uni (97) was for a presentation where I directly challenged the point of view of one of the professors. I even invited him to the presentation so he could hear my argument (I didn’t bring him round, but I got the sense he was impressed at my impertinence). In fact, the PC elements I experienced at ANU were exactly people who refused to be challenged. A course that implicitly advocates one point of view might not let me argue against the nature of the course itself.

    Which is what I would do if I did the course. I do think it a minor tragedy that the course will not happen, because I would certainly do it if I were there. I’d be such a pain for the tutors – but that would be because I loved it. If it were me I would go beyond the Romans and the Greeks (most of the time when we talk about civilizing Greece, we’re really just referring to Athens). I would start with the Sumerians and Mesopotamians and Proto-Indo Europeans – the beginnings of Western agriculture and the people who spread so much language and ideas throughout the West. But that brings us to what we mean by West anyway. It seems to me that the problem we have in discussions about Western Civilisation is that we are essentially talking about cultural ideas, but giving them a finite geography. And culture pushes through to others who want to have it, geography be damned. Often even when they don’t want to have it. That’s why I would use wheat-based agriculture to define the beginnings of Western Civilisation. Agriculture is often seen as a civilizing origin (though it is interesting to note that Watkin Tench several times referred to the Aborigines he encountered in 1788 as a civilisation — I always marveled at that), and it, plus the Proto-Indo Europeans better sum up the notion of being Western to me. The West would therefore be a huge circle, encompassing Europe, North Africa, and Asia as far as India (Eastern Civilisation would then form a circle going the other way, also stopping at India, whose culture and religion seem to coalesce with the West’s).

    Having said all that, some of my experiences at ANU do give me some sympathy for those who want what they see as an alternative point of view to the new narrative. Classics was fine. If you want to study Ancient Greece, it’s probably because you love it, and that means being able to identify with people who created the Iliad and democracy, as well as being woman-hating, slave-owning pederasts. This gives you the ability to take issues like slavery, pederasty and the like and debate them in a challenging way during a tutorial without arousing outrage from all around you. But that wasn’t the case in most of the other courses I took. My general experience was that the further removed from you the history or deed was that you were studying, the more tolerant people were to discuss it in an open minded way. But the closer in time and place the subject was to the student, the more rigid their views would become. In Roman art and Architecture, which was mostly composed of art students and not classicists, I enraged one student by comparing Serapis, who was intentionally and knowingly created to be a unifier hybrid of a Greek and Egyptian God, with Jesus, even though the comparison was sound. I was told I shouldn’t say that as some people believed in Jesus. In an Australian History Course, I (half jokingly) said it’s hard to make a new nation without killing somebody, and was asked if I was a sadist. Most of the time admittedly these were students and not teachers, but their mood tended to be that of my accuser. There are many other examples that come to mind.

    Anyway, I think it is a shame that the course won’t be taught. It would be great. And I think Western Civilisation is pretty sweet, as far as it goes. Let it be celebrated, but not as a course. My fear would be a course that didn’t allow me to challenge whoever I wanted, including the nature or structure of the course. I don’t really understand the ins and outs of whether this would have been possible.

    Quick endnote – every year I was there the Classics department’s budget was lowered. People would sometimes come in and appeal to us to help them as Shakespeare was not taught at ANU as a subject. The ANU as I understand has focused itself on science and technology as it helps them maintain the position as a top university as well as bringing lots of foreign students (there were a lot of Asian people at ANU when I was there, a lot). The fact that the VC is Brian Schmidt, a physicist and astronomer, may be another indication of this. So I’m not sure the ANU is actually that interested in Western Civilisation at all at the moment.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Yes, I’m sure that all U budgets that have supported studies of Western culture and the classics are being reduced. They consider there is much more need to lavish their capital on subjects that are far more PC.

      And PC even governs science these days.

      In this case, however, money wasn’t a problem so we can only hope that honesty, rationality and common sense prevail for what is, as you indicate, arguably the most important subject a U can teach.

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