Professor Simon During (University of Queensland) on the Ramsay Centre Pedagogy

Reposted with permission from Simon During’s Facebook page:

The Ramsay Centre’s efforts to bankroll humanities courses in a bunch of Australian universities is understandably causing anxiety. But I went to meeting on Friday last week that gave me a slightly different understanding of what is involved, which I’ve been asked to post…so this is an overlong post…

First though, for anyone who might read this but who doesn’t know the background: the Ramsay Centre seems to want to fund what it calls “liberal arts” courses on the model of the US great books courses (especially as taught at St Johns College i.e. the model developed by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom). Lots of money involved: more than a billion all up. One problem has been that the Centre have also wanted a say in selection, curriculum, pedagogy in ways that academic autonomy and freedom can’t permit. Negotiations over that underway in three universities here. Another problem is that they are linked to the Aussie hard right, and well-known cultural crusaders in defence of “Western civilization” have leaped to their defence so that there is a quite intense left resistance to the whole thing.

But there are also narrower intellectual and institutional difficulties. The Ramsay Centre (which is not just run by committed Straussian cultural warriors I think) seems to want to introduce undergraduates to the Western canon (literary, philosophical and so on) without much mediation. Leaving aside the question of eurocentrism, it wants to avoid the various (not congruent) methods and approaches that the humanities have developed over the last couple of hundred years: historicism, sociologisms, biologisms, materialisms, politicizations of various kinds, cultural relativism… In fact core concepts like “culture” (in the anthropological sense) “function” “ideology,” “society” dont really play a role in how the Ramsay centre thinks. Instead students are supposed to soak in the “wisdom” of great texts by direct connection to them and via a pedagogy which is thought of as a three-way “conversation” between the texts, the students and the teacher (in that order). In practical terms they want to take students with high marks, and, minimizing electives, put them into small tutorial-style classes with sympathetic teachers and let them rip in ways their non-Ramsay Centre funded students won’t be able to.

So there are problems with this model independently of matters of governance and politics (and leaving aside even the extreme (perhaps overwhelming) difficulty the Centre or the universities will have in finding qualified academics to teach in this spirit).

Perhaps the key problem is that these courses have no relation whatsoever to research (someone at the meeting went so far as to say they wanted to protect undergraduates from humanities research as it now is). This means the Ramsay Centre model would enforce a teaching/research divide which is against most good universities’ and even US liberal-arts colleges’ policies and is anyway unenforceable to the degree that presumably all teachers will have to have PhDs, and presumably will continue to do research for promotion?

And in my opinion the Centre will find that many committed humanities students will want to learn about contemporary research and scholarship anyway, certainly if they wish to go on to Masters and PhDs they will want a good inkling of it. But that means a different, more conventional, pedagogy.

More importantly still though, the Ramsay Centre model means that the universities will be turning out undergraduates who are less educated than they should be. Because in my view at least, in the end what universities should be doing is introducing students to disciplines (or interdisciplines, or postdisciplines….), and the Ramsay Centre model takes no account of disciplinarity at all. That disavowal lies at its core it seems to me.

In the end what the Centre will end up providing, I think, are courses for students who have no real interest in the academic, disciplined humanities at all: future lawyers etc…And the question it poses is: what place is there in the Aussie system for that? The answer may not be none, but I would say there is no place for it in the researchcentric universities that we currently have….


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