By David Brophy (History)
First Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12/9/2018
When we acknowledge country at the University of Sydney, we often add a line about respecting the traditions of learning that existed in Australia prior to the arrival of Western civilisation, which very nearly wiped these traditions out. We still have a long way to go to realise the meaning of this formula in practice, but the acknowledgement is a start.
These words will ring increasingly hollow if we move forward in negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, whose mission is to restore an explicit hierarchy of civilisations to the way we teach and learn in Australia.
The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, is talking tough, insisting that we won’t allow outside donors to introduce political bias into our classroom; that Sydney University will be in full control of how Ramsay’s curriculum is taught.
But even if the Ramsay Centre gives up the right to supervise our classrooms—a key sticking point at ANU—this is far from the only way in which it threatens our institutional autonomy and intellectual freedom.
Details emerging from Monday’s highly secretive faculty board meeting show that Ramsay will have a say on hiring committees. The ever-present risk of losing the funding will loom large in the minds of those who take the new jobs.
And whether or not the Ramsay Centre ends up micro-managing course delivery, its program will structurally privilege the West at the expense of the Rest. Paul Ramsay’s bequest will fund an elite course of study only for the highest achievers, with prestigious scholarships, and small, seminar-style discussions throughout the entire degree. These are all conditions denied those who study anything else.
The Western tradition deserves this pride of place, centre chief executive Simon Haines believes, because it represents humanity in its highest form. As he put it, “You become fully human by being initiated into a rich social and cultural identity, and a civilisation is the richest of all social and cultural phenomena. And ours is arguably the richest of all civilisations.”
Ramsay’s three-year curriculum is similarly designed to impart the “West is best” message, without chief executive Haines having to write our lectures for us. Moving from Greek and Roman classics through to capitalism and the industrial revolution, the Ramsay pedagogy embodies a view of Western global dominance as the outcome of a series of path-dependent “achievements”. This Whiggish view of history is of course one way of looking at the past. But it is only one.
As a specialist in Chinese history, I frequently engage my class in the debate about the factors that led to the “great divergence”, when Asia’s position in the global political economy declined, giving way to Western dominance. Some scholars attribute this to a particular Western genius. Some put it down to the profits of slavery and the windfall of colonial resource-extraction.
I’m more than happy to let this debate take its course, in my classroom and elsewhere. What I’m not happy to do is host the debate in the shadow of a prestigious, well-endowed, elite program, which signals that our university itself is taking sides in it.
Intellectual freedom, in Spence’s view, requires that Sydney University itself should observe strict neutrality on questions up for debate at the institution. But there’s no more pressing question for scholars in 21st-century Australia than how to conceive of the historical relationship of the West to the non-West. To allow outside money to settle this question for us is to abdicate our responsibility as an institution.
When Europeans laid the foundations of our arts curriculum, they never imagined studying other societies the way they studied themselves. Europe saw itself as uniquely progressive and dynamic, and therefore entitled to colonise the rest of the world. Disciplines such as history and philosophy sought to explain these qualities.
We’ve come some way since then. “Western studies” is still the default mode of many disciplines, but the triumphalism is gone. My own field of Chinese history has emerged from the traditional Orientalist view of China as stagnant and unchanging. Sydney University’s public commitment to “inclusion and diversity” entails that we continue to work towards a humanities education that finds value in the experience of all humanity, not simply that of its white minority.
The Ramsay Centre wants to undo this work. Its mission is not only to shore up the West’s dominant position in our curriculum, but to take us back to the days when that position was proudly justified in terms of the West’s inherent superiority.
The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is not a charity. The political risk involved in siding with it at a time of rising racism in Australian society is significant, but so too is its threat to our core business as a university. To invite it onto campus is to sell our intellectual freedom to the highest bidder.