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Not just a culture war:

David Brophy and Nick Riemer, Not just a culture war: the Ramsay Centre and Sydney University, 19 September 2018

The best that can be said about the Ramsay Centre’s proposal to sponsor an elite course in Western civilisation is that it has revived a flagging discussion about the intellectual and political considerations that shape the humanities curricula of Australian universities. But instead of engaging in that discussion, defenders of the proposal have mostly sought to rule it out of bounds, dismissing the serious issues raised by Ramsay with claims that critics are merely fuelling a ‘culture war’, or peddling ‘conspiracy theories’.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (following our earlier op-eds in the same forum: ‘Ramsay course offers stark choice to Australian universities‘, ‘The West at the expense of the Rest’, ‘Why Sydney should reject Ramsay‘), our Sydney University colleague, Professor Peter Anstey from the philosophy department, asks us to ‘Ditch the conspiracy theories over [the] Ramsay Centre’.

According to Anstey, there is no shortage of messages of support for Sydney University’s partnership with Ramsay sitting in his inbox.

So far, though, in contrast to the 200 colleagues who have signed an open letter opposing any arrangement with the Centre, and those who have organised themselves into a new group with the same objective, Anstey is one of only two colleagues to have justified their support in print.

Anstey is quite correct to say that since the humanities are ‘chronically underfunded’, the Ramsay bequest would be ‘genuinely transformative’. That has never been in doubt. The question is what a Ramsay transformation would look like – and whether or not we should welcome it.

In our view, bringing Ramsay onto campus would represent a breakthrough in the ability of outside donors pushing ideological barrows to influence teaching and learning in Australia. In this respect, we cannot share Anstey’s confidence that the wider political dimensions of Ramsay’s ‘Western Civilisation’ campaign (which he dismisses as a ‘culture war’) will diminish over time.

Paul Ramsay himself intended his Western Civilisation program to create ‘a cadre of leaders … whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values … would help guide their decision making in the future’. Clearly, his intent was not for the course’s interventionist purpose to be lost. It’s hard to imagine the board members Ramsay entrusted with implementing his vision being too happy with that possibility, either.

Contrary to a convenient misrepresentation much beloved of Ramsay defenders, the study of the West is not endangered at the University of Sydney. As Anstey notes, Ramsay’s Western Civilisation program would build on the university’s existing strengths.

This observation reinforces a point that many have made as a critique of Ramsay: that it would consolidate the already dominant position of the West in our curriculum.

To appreciate this point correctly, it’s crucial that we situate the debate at the curricular, institutional level, and distinguish it from what can only be a fruitless discussion about the scholarly practices of individual academics. Confusing these two levels of analysis, Anstey argues that our criticisms of Ramsay impugn the ‘integrity and effort’ of those who teach on the West. This would make one of us a ‘self-hating’ scholar of the West, and the accusation would also implicate numerous colleagues across the faculty who share the view that the Ramsay Centre should be rejected.

At the individual level, Anstey is quite right to reject any claim ‘that choosing to teach Western civilisation is automatically to disvalue other civilisations.’ Studying the Greek and Roman classics doesn’t make someone a racist (we’d certainly hope not, since we both did this as undergraduates).

But at the institutional level, in practice, Sydney University does devalue the study of other cultures and traditions. There are vast regions of the globe whose study receives only the most minimal institutional support (the Middle East, for example), or none at all (Africa).

Given such glaring disparities in our curricular status quo, tilting the balance further in the direction of the West would be charged with intellectual and political significance, especially in today’s Australia, ‘a multicultural and hybrid society,’ as our open letter colleagues described it, ‘in a world traversed by serious geopolitical and social animosities’.

Most of Anstey’s claims for the pedagogical value of the Ramsay program sound to us like post hoc justifications. The arts faculty at Sydney has just been through a major curriculum overhaul. If ‘a close, detailed and critical engagement with a multidisciplinary sequence of influential texts’ is an important educational goal, as Anstey argues, then why is it only now, with the Ramsay cash on the table, that we are hearing about it?

Anstey is keen to avoid the charge that Ramsay students will be inducted into a hagiography of the West. ‘A course in Western civilisation,’ he writes, ‘would provide the conceptual tools for students to evaluate critically the very notion of Western civilisation.’

It’s probably true that some students will graduate from the Ramsay program critical of dominant narratives of Western civilisation. But with Ramsay director Simon Haines insisting that his centre ‘would not be wanting to hire somebody who is coming in with a long liturgy [sic] of what terrible damage Western civ had done to the world’, and with an external Ramsay representative on the university selection panel given a direct say in who will be appointed to teach the program, any appetite for critique of the ‘West’ that students leave the course with will be despite the design of the Ramsay curriculum, not thanks to it.

As evidence of Ramsay supporters’ disinclination to critique, we need look no further than Anstey’s op-ed itself. As the university’s chief academic consultant in the Ramsay negotiations, his efforts to portray critics of the Centre as harboring irrational anti-Western prejudices may serve as something of a foretaste of the intellectual climate that Ramsay will bring to our campus.

Anstey argues that the debate can only move forward on the basis of ‘evidence and trust’. As a philosopher, though, he must be well aware that these two are often in tension. Our own commentary on Ramsay has been scrupulously evidence-based: we provide the ‘close, detailed and critical engagement’ Anstey values with the writings and speeches of Ramsay Board members, and Ramsay’s indicative curriculum.

Anstey offers nothing comparable. In fact, the thrust of Anstey’s critique is to rule out this kind of evidence-based discussion of the Ramsay Centre’s mission. He claims that terms like ‘xenophobia’ and ‘supremacism’ have been deliberately introduced as ‘trigger words’ designed to bias the discussion from the start. Anstey doesn’t argue this with reference to our critiques. He simply cites the fact that such words serve this purpose as the indubitable finding of the discipline of ‘behavioural economics’.

In making this claim, Anstey only betrays his own desire to set a priori limits on the debate, and indeed, on discussion of ‘Western civilisation’ itself. Anstey says that the Ramsay program ‘would provide the conceptual tools for students to evaluate critically the very notion of Western civilisation’. But if his reaction is anything to go by, in Anstey’s classroom some forms of critical evaluation risk being summarily dismissed as mere ‘trigger words’.

Our use of terms like ‘Western supremacy’ reflects conclusions drawn from the writings and speeches of Ramsay Board members. We would’ve thought that engaging with this body of work was part of any reputable university’s due diligence before starting negotiations with a Centre. On the face of it, Anstey seems to share this view: he says we ‘need to be confident that we share sufficient objectives to make the proposed partnership work’.

But how does he propose to do this without a frank and informed discussion of what the Ramsay Centre’s objectives actually are?

The truth is that Anstey’s not interested in any such discussion. This becomes obvious as he ties himself in knots towards the end of his piece:

To reject the offer of funding because of the possibility that some members of the Ramsay board might have an agenda over and above the education of young Australians is, ironically, to allow the possible interests of others to curtail our academic autonomy.

The twisted logic here is remarkable: to protest against a partnership on the basis that it would infringe our academic autonomy is itself an infringement of academic autonomy! In other words, it’s not the ideological agendas of donors that threaten intellectual freedom, but the critics who point these agendas out. Academic autonomy will be best preserved, we can only conclude, by silencing such criticism. It’s an argument that will appeal to vice-chancellors and deans across the country eager to meet their fundraising KPIs.

It’s also highly telling that Anstey treats the idea that someone like Tony Abbott ‘might’ have an agenda as only a vague possibility. Ten days ago, wearing his new ‘Indigenous envoy’ hat, Abbott went on Sky to argue, among other things, that early school education in remote Aboriginal communities has to privilege ‘the national language’ – English – over Indigenous languages. This educationally disastrous policy, which denies Aboriginal children the right to be taught in their mother-tongue, follows from Abbott’s partisan position ‘in favour of Western civilisation’.

Ramsay presupposes that, far more than just the ‘national’ language of various modern states, English is the language of a ‘civilisation’ wholly superior to Indigenous Australian culture. This gives Abbott’s assimilationist policy recommendations a powerful extra rationale: banishing Aboriginal children’s native languages as the medium of school instruction emerges, white man’s burden style, as the educational duty of a superior ‘civilisation’, rather than as the racist dispossession it actually is.

We trust that Anstey is simply naive about the obvious social legitimation that Sydney University’s embrace (and inevitably, marketing) of the Western Civilisation course would confer on policy initiatives like this. Other Ramsay supporters are certainly quite open about their Western supremacist position. Edmund Capon, for instance, begins an attack on us by stating that he ‘unequivocally disagree[s]’ with the claim that universities should ‘stand up unequivocally to European cultural supremacism’. Despite the ‘tolerance’ that Capon tells us he has cultivated, and the respect for China he claims to hold, it’s evident that the supremacy of Euro-culture poses him no problems at all.

Both Anstey and now Capon express outraged incredulity at our suggestion that the Ramsay Centre might have something to do with racism, xenophobia, Western supremacism, or, indeed, any ideological position other than an innocent commitment to the study of the European canon. For them, to borrow a phrase from Terry Eagleton, ideology is like bad breath: it’s only ever what someone else has. This betrays a surprising aversion to critical thinking. A philosopher like Anstey, especially, shouldn’t be so reluctant to entertain the possibility that general categories like ‘ideology’ or ‘racism’ might have a particular application to our current reality.

In this light, Anstey and others’ dismissal of our concerns about racism as ‘culture wars’, ‘clickbait’, ‘trigger words’ and ideologically driven ‘conspiracy theories’ reveals a dismaying anti-intellectual blindness to the true significance of education. What undergraduates are taught, and how their study options are presented to them, inevitably inform their engagement with the world around them. Universities have become so intent on demonstrating the vocational utility of the humanities that they ignore what is easily their most important ‘real-world’ effect – their role in shaping students’ emerging understanding of themselves and their society. Acknowledging that, and so abandoning the comforting illusion that curriculum questions aren’t inherently political, is the first requirement of a responsible debate on this issue.