The Cultivation of the Liberal Arts (II)

I took a liberal arts degree a long time ago but still remember it very well. At the University of Sydney in 1966 my course in history made me read Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Maitland and Tocqueville. In English literature our reading list came from Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Austen, Dickens, Yeats and Beckett. In philosophy it was Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Armstrong and Smart, plus two demanding sub-courses in scientific method and logic—and all of this was just first year. It was the most exciting and exhausting year I had ever spent. Not only was I required to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—which I still think the greatest work of prose ever written—but had lecturers telling me what to look for and what not to miss. I could hardly believe my luck.

In those days, professors and heads of departments were not consumed by administration but made a point of giving lectures to first-year classes. David Armstrong did this in philosophy and Sam Goldberg did it in English. In history, we had a visiting professor from Oxford no less, the great John McManners. You couldn’t find an experience like this anywhere but in the university. We were enormously privileged.

Today, liberal arts students are not so lucky. At the University of Sydney most finish their courses largely ignorant of the great canon of Western literature that once formed the bedrock of academic degrees. Instead, they are indoctrinated in left-wing, anti-Western theory from the gurus of cultural studies, critical theory, radical feminism, neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, hermeneutics, literary theory or whatever else happens to be the latest intellectual fashion.

The university’s current Deputy Vice-Chancellor and long-time Dean of Arts and Professor of History, Stephen Garton, built his career by emulating the studies of madness and sexuality written by French post-structuralist, anti-humanist and gay theorist Michel Foucault. At the University of Melbourne things are much the same. The former Dean of Arts and long-standing head of the school of history, Stuart Macintyre, is a Marxist who wrote the authorised history of the Communist Party of Australia. The following passage from his Concise History of Australia (third edition, page 149), gives a good idea of the kind of anti-Australian, neo-feminist theoretical guff that now passes for scholarship in liberal arts education. On Federation, Macintyre writes: 

The Australian nation was shaped by the fear of invasion and concern for the purity of the race. These anxieties converged on the female body as nationalist men returned obsessively to the safety of their women from alien molestation, while doctrines of racial purity, no matter how scientific, rested ultimately on feminine chastity. Women participated in this preoccupation with their own materialist concept of citizenship, which took emancipation from masculine tyranny as a necessary condition of their vital contribution to the nation-state. A woman’s personal and bodily integrity thus served as a further condition of her admission to civic status.

For this plodding yet impenetrable prose, Macintyre is praised to the skies by other history professors. Alan Atkinson of the University of New England says on the cover blurb: “It’s a splendid piece of work and it belongs to a noble tradition … It conveys throughout a joy in writing history—a joy especially in struggling with the soul of the country.”

How could what was, indeed, a once noble tradition sink so low? In the 1970s and 1980s, the Left captured most of the liberal arts faculties of the public universities and have been running them down ever since. In some cases they succeeded by ruthless politicking. At Melbourne, Macintyre and his colleagues drove from office the former Dean of Arts and Australia’s greatest historian, Geoffrey Blainey, by a sustained campaign involving student protests, denunciation in the media and sending him to Coventry. Elsewhere, the most successful tactic was to capture faculty appointment committees. This way, the Left could gain control of whole departments by appointing a majority of people exactly like themselves or, at the very least, by vetoing appointment of anyone likely to actively oppose them.

Once their numbers reached a critical mass, the Left consolidated their power by promoting their own members to faculty deans and funding newly concocted fields such as gender studies, media studies, genocide studies and Sydney’s anti-Semitic Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. They could even topple their old governing bodies. The underhand campaign by the Labor-stacked Senate of the University of Sydney to depose Leonie Kramer as Chancellor, discussed in Greg Haines’s review of Kramer’s memoirs in this edition, was not isolated but only the most public of these machinations.

What then is to be done? I don’t believe there is any hope in the foreseeable future of changing this situation. The Left dominance of the liberal arts is not confined to Australia and indeed is probably worse in the United States, where the same tactic of staff capture has long prevailed. In the globalised higher education industry, it is not possible to take on the world.

I agree with Peter Coleman’s review of Luciano Boschiero’s book that, within Australia, the best hope lies with small Christian colleges offering their own degree programs. This is partly because, thanks to John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, the Christian tradition contains the best articulation of the true ideals of a university, as they have been held from the medieval to the modern era. Any college with these ideals in its mission statement will not be easily diverted from them, provided it remains small enough for the founders to monitor the content of the curriculum and the performance of the teaching staff. But the bigger they get, the more they will be tempted to diversify their courses to attract greater student numbers.

Once they do this, they will find the state a willing source of funding, provided they agree to the terms and conditions now in place for all institutions of higher education. But, as Peter Murphy argued in his exceptional article in our May 2013 edition, there is a Faustian bargain involved here, as the public universities have found to their great cost since the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s. “Eventually,” Murphy wrote, “a large proportion of every dollar that flowed to the universities was consumed in a miasma of policy, process and procedure.” Research and teaching time was inevitably the loser, to the point where the most talented teachers and researchers found it impossible to do what they came for. Murphy offers a range of essential reforms that the current public system needs before it can restore teaching and research to their proper places.

In the United States, two-year liberal arts colleges, many of them founded and still operated today by Christian organisations, offer bachelor degrees that articulate to the major universities, especially to postgraduate institutions responsible for conferring professional and vocational qualifications in medicine, law, architecture and the like. However, they are just as susceptible to leftist indoctrination as large public institutions, as demonstrated in a new study of the elite Bowdoin College in Maine by the US National Association of Scholars, What Does Bowdoin Teach? According to the Wall Street Journal, its curriculum is dominated by “an intellectual monoculture dedicated above all to identity politics”. Nonetheless, I have long thought a structure of this kind, but with a rigorously traditional content, would provide a potentially better model for higher education than most Australian universities now offer.

On the other hand, I would argue that Peter Coleman’s endorsement of the idea of placing the Christian revelation at the centre of a program in the liberal arts is an unnecessarily limiting goal, even for institutions with dedicated Christian objectives. As well as the ideals of Newman and the Oxford Movement, the liberal arts should pursue the goals advocated by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: “getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”. The higher education curriculum developed by the Scottish Enlightenment, and institutionalised in Australian education in the nineteenth century—and taught at the University of Sydney in the 1960s, before the rot set in—was dedicated to this pursuit, and is long overdue for revival.

This is not to argue for a strictly secular program of the kind William Charles Wentworth wanted for the University of Sydney. Since the shock of September 11, 2001, it has become apparent to many that we need to take the connections between religion and civilisation more seriously. In particular, no one can properly appreciate Western civilisation without understanding its debts to Christianity: the separation of church and state and, as a consequence, the notions of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and loyal opposition; the concept that all people are equal before God, which eventually gave us equality before the law, universal human rights and put an end to slavery; the advice to forgive your enemies, which banished the endless cycles of revenge that plagued all tribal and clan-based societies; and the concept of original sin, which generates humility and warns us of the folly of pursuing utopia. Higher education could only benefit from a revival of all these principles.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant

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