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Is Western Civilisation worth studying?

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 14 June 2018

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.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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