At about the same time as Matthew King of the National Tertiary Education Union was fuming over Tony Abbott’s article in Quadrant’s April edition in praise of the Ramsay Centre’s offer to fund a Bachelor of Western Civilisation degree at the Australian National University, on the other side of the world a secret conference of twenty-five academics at Oxford University were discussing matters that did not portend well for the proposal.
The academics met at Oxford’s ancient Christ Church College to discuss the politics, economics and ethics of Western colonialism. Called together by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, their special guest was the American academic Bruce Gilley of the Department of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon, who had recently been the target of academic censorship and threats to his career.
Keith Windschuttle’s column appears in every edition of Quadrant.
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In 2017, Gilley published an article, “The Case for Colonialism”, in the academic journal Third World Quarterly, arguing with copious data that former European colonies who embraced their Western inheritance subsequently did better than those who spurned it. Hence the prevailing academic orthodoxy of anti-colonialism imposed grave harms on the former subject peoples and continued to thwart Third World economic development and a fruitful encounter with modernity.
In response to this academic heresy, half the journal’s editorial board resigned, and campus outrage and student mob pressure soon led Gilley to withdraw his article from the journal, which deleted it from its website. Because he had tenure, Gilley could not be summarily dismissed by his university but he was soon placed “under investigation”. All this was on the back of earlier successful US student protests about courses on Western literary traditions at both Yale, where English courses on Shakespeare and Donne allegedly created a culture “especially hostile to students of colour”, and Stanford, where an attempt to reintroduce a broad survey course on the Western history of ideas, similar to that proposed by the Ramsay Centre, was knocked down by student petitions and protests.
At Oxford, Professor Biggar held his conference in utmost secrecy, with no announcement about its existence, no advertising and no social media promotion. Several attendees insisted their identities and attendance be kept secret. One of those who gave a paper under his own name was Professor Jeremy Black, whose views on the current academic debate over the British Empire, and the student violence that erupted over the issue in London earlier this year, were published in Quadrant’s June edition.
One of those invited to the secret conference was Sumantra Maitra, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, who interviewed Biggar for the Australian online magazine Quillette. As academic activist tactics spread on campus, Maitra wrote, secrecy seemed to be the only way to continue research without the worry of mob violence. Biggar told him: “If I want to hold lectures or seminars on the topic of empire, I will do so privately, since I cannot be sure that my critics will behave civilly.” One young scholar only attended the Gilley conference “on condition his name nowhere appears in print, nor his face on any photograph, lest his senior colleagues find out and kill his career”.
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On the other hand, Biggar noted, the overall effect of the row over his investigation of empire and ethics has been to strengthen his own views. “I now know, which I didn’t before, that the UK press (and presumably their readership) is overwhelmingly supportive of what I am trying to do.”
There was once a time when fashions in American and English university politics took years, or at best months, to be emulated by fellow travellers in Australia, but now it happens overnight. Hence, the timing of the Ramsay Centre’s proposal to the ANU was inopportune, especially when Tony Abbott’s April article showed that one of the inspirations for Paul Ramsay’s ideas was the Rhodes Scholarship, which had long sent to Oxford young students with leadership ambitions from around the world.
In 2016, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement that had already sought to pull down statues of the allegedly racist Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, was taken up by students at Oxford and Harvard. The Oxford Union voted to demolish Rhodes’s statue in Oriel College, and the university authorities would have acquiesced but for the threat by some private philanthropists to withdraw £100 million in donations. At Harvard Law School in September 2017, a similar movement called “Royal Must Fall” failed to topple any American statues but succeeded in having a plaque erected acknowledging the role of slavery in the history of some of its original benefactors.
These influences were all present in the opposition to the ANU accepting the Ramsay degree. National Union of Students president Eleanor Kay claimed: “Western Civilisation is often used as a rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures.” Matthew King of the NTEU called the Ramsay proposal “a narrow, radically conservative program to demonstrate and promulgate the alleged superiority of western culture and civilisation (whose) divisive cultural and political agenda could potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU, and the ANU more broadly”. As a result, ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt capitulated.
Since then, a public petition from 150 academics at the University of Sydney expressing much the same sentiments has effectively disqualified that institution from applying to conduct a Ramsay-type degree too. It gives me no satisfaction to say that this confirms the warnings in this column in May 2017 that the academic situation in Australia was even worse than Britain and America and that none of the humanities faculties at our major public universities were fit for the task. All had been captured by anti-Western theories of cultural studies, neo-Marxism, gender theory and post-colonialism.
How this leftist domination came about was explained well by Niall Ferguson in an interview with Dave Rubin on the Rubin Report, YouTube, on June 1. Ferguson is a conservative historian who became an academic celebrity in 2002 with his book and television series Empire, largely in praise of the British Empire. His recruitment by Harvard University soon after seemed to proclaim a revival of the conservative position within the academic world. However, these days Ferguson is very pessimistic about the future. Here are extracts from the interview:
In the course of my career what has happened is that one history department after another has moved steadily and relentlessly to the monochrome Left, and to be seen as a conservative historian has become steadily harder and harder … There will really be soon a handful left of conservatives at institutions like Harvard and Stanford, and Harvey Mansfield will probably be the last one at Harvard, and that to me is deeply depressing, deeply troubling …
In a typical department each year somebody retires or dies, but they’re always replaced with somebody working on, let’s say, gender history. So your colleague was lecturing on something like the history of the Soviet Union—Richard Pipes, who was at Harvard and who just lately died, one of the great historians of the Bolshevik revolution—you don’t ever see someone like that replaced with somebody like him. They’ll always be replaced by somebody working on gender history or native American history …
That process whereby there was no replacement of conservative historians was a more or less annual event. I got accustomed to being in a real minority, a minority of conservative historians. I got accustomed to losing pretty much every vote, being in the minority on every committee. You get acclimatized to it, and then one day it suddenly hits you that you are practically the last one left …
What happened is, and it’s happened in most departments in most universities, inexorably the Left took over and an implicit rule, a tacit rule, was imposed that one does not hire Right-leaning historians, nor does one hire their graduate students, so they too, people who have been my graduate students, find it difficult to get hired. So it is essentially a process where the institution gets taken over, one committee at a time …
On the Right, the previous generation of historians—and this was also true of philosophers, and people working in other fields—did not fight very hard or effectively to promote their successors. The Left was better at ensuring that its protégés got the appointments. Ultimately, academia is a committees game. It’s all about getting to be the chair of the department, to be in charge of the committees. If you control the process you control the selection, you control the recruitment …
It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that in reality in academic life, as in other walks of life, patronage is everything and you can be as talented as you like, if you are not in the right patronage network then you’re done. I think pretty soon there just won’t be conservatives in university departments.