The University of Sydney’s latest marketing campaign titled ‘Unlearn’ beggars belief but provides a striking example of how successful the cultural-left has been in subverting the academy. Forget about Cardinal Newman’s ideal of a university education being committed to wisdom and truth and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
While education has always involved questioning accepted truths and challenging the status quo you only need to watch the campaign’s accompanying video to realise that what is intended is more about enforcing a politically correct view of the world on students than wisdom and truth.
The video centres on issues championed by the cultural-left, including indigenous land rights, same-sex marriage, world peace, imprisoned refugees and Islamophobia and students are told they have “To be brave enough to question the world, challenge the established, demolish social norms and build new ones in their place”.
It should not surprise that the University of Sydney no longer champions what the poet T. S. Eliot describes as “the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom”.
Since the cultural revolution of the late Sixties and Seventies the more conservative liberal view of education has been attacked and undermined by a rainbow alliance of cultural-left movements including: Marxism, Neo-Marxism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, feminism and post-colonial and LGBTQI theories.
While often in conflict and disagreement, what all hold in common is the belief that there are no absolutes as knowledge is simply a socio-cultural construct that reinforces the hegemony of the ruling class. A liberal education, instead of being inherently worthwhile or beneficial for its own sake, is part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’ that capitalism uses to reinforce ‘false consciousness’ and to disempower already marginalised groups.
As noted by the American academic Christopher Lasch, as a result of the cultural-left’s long march through the academy, the university curriculum instead of embodying a “universal transcendent truth” is attacked for disguising the self-serving power of “white Eurocentric males”.
In history, for example, instead of acknowledging the strengths and benefits of Western civilization, students are taught that Western civilisation is oppressive, misogynist, racist, sexist, elitist and guilty of a myriad of politically incorrect crimes ranging from speciesism to environmental destruction.
One only needs to note the fate of one of Australia’s most significant historians, Geoffrey Blainey, who during the mid 1980s was hounded out of Melbourne University for daring to question the rate of Asian immigration and the impact of multiculturalism, to appreciate how successful the cultural-left has been in taking control of the academy.
Omid Tofighian from the University of Sydney provides a current example of the cultural-left’s critique of a liberal education within the Western tradition. Tofighian argues that the existing university curriculum must be challenged as it privileges “Eurocentric concepts” and “replicates and reinforces the concept of whiteness”.
The concept of “whiteness”, so Tofighian argues, leads to “different forms of domination and marginalization – such as racism, sexism, classism, historical injustice and prejudice based on religion”.
How literature is now conceived and taught in our universities has also become a victim of the cultural-left’s long march. The classics associated with the Western literary canon, instead of being valued for their moral and aesthetic value and because they have something enduring and profound to say about human nature and the world in which we exist, are defined as socio-cultural products.
The English academic Terry Eagleton in his 1983 book Literary Theory: An Introduction, in addition to arguing that there is nothing inherently worthwhile or valuable about the literary canon, argues that “Departments of literature in higher education, then, are part of the ideological state apparatus of the modern capitalist state”.
The Safe Schools LGBTQI program, where gender is defined as fluid and limitless and children are taught that being male or female enforces a binary code that is “heteronormative”, represents a more recent example of how literature is now being deconstructed and critiqued by the cultural left.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is guilty of privileging heterosexuality, fairy tales like Cinderella are attacked for defining a happy ending as marrying the Prince, and children’s books like Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree for not portraying girls as dominant and in control.
As detailed by Gary Marks, from the Australian Catholic University, cultural-left theories like postmodernism are based on the belief that language and texts, whether literary or not, have no inherent meaning as they are simply instruments employed by ruling class elites to enforce domination and control.
Supposedly, Western, liberal democracies are riven with inequality and injustice and, as a result Marks writes, “postmodernism assumes that these inequalities are extreme and unchanging and it is the task of postmodernism to expose how these inequities are maintained by deconstructing language and text”.
Deconstructionism and postmodernism also deny the referential quality of language and lead to the situation where it is impossible to argue that the author exists or that his or her works can have an agreed meaning. A situation, as described by the Australian academic Brian Crittenden, where “… the author (writer or speaker) does not exist – or, at least, has no privileged position on the question of what he or she meant by a particular use of language. The text (in whatever form it comes) is open to unlimited possibilities of interpretation (or deconstruction)”.
In opposition to the cultural-left’s rainbow alliance of theories that now dominate the academy it is vital to acknowledge and celebrate the strengths of a liberal education. The argument that all knowledge is a socio-cultural construct based on power and privilege and that texts have no agreed meaning is contradictory and self-defeating.
The belief that truth is relative or simply the result of power relationships makes it impossible to objectively identify what is true and what is false or what more closely approximates reality. A commitment to rationality and empiricism only works when there is agreement about what constitutes what is right and what is wrong.
To equate education with indoctrination and imposing a politically correct ideology on students is also misplaced. A liberal education, on the other hand, is based on the pursuit of truth and the need for an open and free dialogue where often conflicting ideas and concepts are allowed to be voiced.
A liberal education, in addition to being impartial and balanced, is also one that is inherently moral and that draws on the established disciplines that can be traced back via the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Renaissance to ancient Rome and Greece.
As noted by Matthew Arnold, while acknowledging and respecting the past, a liberal education is one that evolves and changes as it is committed to turning “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits which we now follow staunchly but mechanically”.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of the Culture of Freedom