Whether cultural literacy and a humanistic education can solve the litany of problems identified by Chris Kenny ("[d]eclining educational outcomes, entrenched indigenous disadvantage, parliamentary dysfunction, deep budget deficits and economic sclerosis") is an interesting question. This list of problems is surprisingly limited. At any rate, is solving them too much to expect from graduates of a "Western Civilization" program? What did culture, the arts, philosophy and the natural sciences do to prevent Nazism, asked Theodor Adorno and Berthold Brecht after the war. Highly educated people have committed all sorts of crimes throughout history. Human decency does not require a university degree.
Certainly, the humanities have an important role to play, as Joy Damousi, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, expressed in terms of identifying policy challenges, assessing ethical dilemmas,and engaging in their historical contextualization and evidence-based analysis. The lack of resources for humanities infrastructure, especially digital platforms, is the challenge here. Of course, the IPA and Ramsay Centre entreat a different view of the humanities, one that engages in "positive formation" of young people, a central concept of Roman Catholic education. Because our universities are not seminaries, she sees the hobgoblin of political correctness everywhere. In fact, what she calls positive formation most people would recognize as politicization, namely Tony Abbot's educational philosophy of advocacy over analysis.
For many acaemics, our real problem are university marketing and communications units that dream up vacuous advertising slogans like "unlearn" and refer to our students as customers; that is, a managerialism that runs universities according to market rather than to educational imperatives. Ironically, as Melbourne University historian Trevor Burnard noted, the IPA utopianism of subjecting the world to market principles entails cutting back on the humanities curriculum because of fluctuating "customer" demand. Students are more interested in media studies, global politics, and the history of totalitarian regimes than in a Western Civ canon, and we are forced to fashion the curriculum accordingly. A genuine conservatism would see the dangers of such relentless economic rationalisation of our cherished institutions rather than continue to wage culture struggles from the Cold War.
Some common ground could be found if the right-wing commentariat reconnected with authentic conservative values. It might surprise them to learn that many of us within the humanities are also deeply concerned about students' cultural literacy. It is a brave new world teaching, say, European history, to students with little or no knowledge of Western intellectual and cultural traditions, the Bible, literature and history. I for one would welcome extending the great books program that the University of Sydney already offers for a small cohort of elite students. Columbia University and Yale University are exemplars.
It is noteworthy, though, that they differ from the Ramsay approach. When a donor insisted on hiring input into a Western Civilization course he proposed to Yale, the university wisely declined his millions and established its own autonomous program. Columbia's famed "core curriculum" also supplements the Western canon with a global component. Students study the Koran, and are taught to appreciate that civilizations are not timeless, stable entities but are co-constituted by interaction.
These features of the US approach are lost Bella d'Abrera, director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the IPA, who also extolls the virtues of the core curriculum at the "University of Colombia," as she callsColumbia University in New York. (The [National] University of Colombia is located in Colombia, a country in South America). Singing from the same song sheet as her friends at News Corp, she resorts to the same lazy slogans in assailing Australian universities despite correction from Burnard (so much for her claim that only the IPA embodies the Enlightenment practice of evidence-based rational argument).
These slogans are also empirically wrong. It cannot be plausibly argued, as d'Abrera does, that BA enrolments have declined because of a Marxist curriculum dominated by class, race, and gender themes. Our curriculum has been relatively stable, while history enrolments in Australia, as in the US and Canada, declined dramatically only after the 2008 global financial crisis and the anxiety caused by government's threat of $100,000 degrees. At any rate, race, class, and gender are not the only themes in our teaching and research. (Does she really think they are irrelevant or trivial categories of human experience?) And you won't find much Marx (or class, race, gender) in philosophy departments. As it turns out, enrolments are booming in media studies, international politics, and global studies: students are making choices within the BA away from the traditional humanistic disciplines, driven as they are by their global horizons and employment concerns. But hang the facts. What matters for d'Abrera is whether the Ramsay treasure trove can head her way or to Campion College where a proper academic job may be beckoning. So who is undermining the negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and the University of Sydney?
Notably, these North American Western Civ programs devote significant resources to small class instructions, an investment that is difficult to envisage in our mass, public universities because it makes no economic sense with the current funding model; hence the attraction of Ramsay's money. Were the Ramsay Centre to sign on to the North American approach at, say, the University of Sydney, I suspect internal fears about autonomy and politicization would be significantly allayed. After all, only a minority of its staff signed a petition against the negotiations (so much for the claim about stultifying conformity).
There are few grounds for thinking that Ramsay's board will permit that outcome, however, when The Australian and conservative politicians continue to believe, despite all evidence, that ANU staff and student opposition (ie political correctness) scuttled the deal rather than its violation of the university's autonomy and Tony Abbott's partisan speech. Or when they have convinced themselves the various research centres on China and the Middle East exert a nefarious influence on university priorities; they don't, whatever the partisan views of US national security professionals enlisted when the stocks of local talking heads have been exhausted.
And when the distrust of state universities has reached such hysterical proportions that even the adults in the room at that newspaper, like Greg Sheridan, write there is no point in the Ramsay Centre flushing "its money down the drain of the grossly illiberal and stifling orthodoxy that rules so much of the cultural life of our existing big universities." Give it to the Western Civilization programs at the IPA or the Centre for Independent Studies instead, he says. Retired La Trobe University sociologist John Carroll agrees that the universities are lost to the cause of their integrationist vision of Western Civilization.
So does conservative convert Mark Latham who, with characteristic vituperation, concluded his analysis of the Ramsay controversy by declaring that "Australia urgently needs a government willing to clean out the university system, to place it in the hands of people who believe in the virtues of Western civilisation. Drain the swamp." The frustrated sense of defeat at the hands of an imagined Orwellian university left allows these culture warriors to experience their attacks on the Constitution of Liberty as defiant acts in the defence of liberty.
Finally, there are no indications that rightwing columnists differ in their imagination of political correctness from the extraordinarily broad definition proposed by regular guest at The Australian, the Australian Catholic University research fellow, Kevin Donnelly: namely equal rights and dignity for women, Indigenous people, and other minorities. Promoting them, he writes there, is akin to the strategy of "Big Brother" in restricting "how people think and interact by controlling language and denying free speech." In other words, proscribing racism and sexism is a politically correct, totalitarian policy of cultural engineering and thought policing that denies the West its manifest civilizational superiority.