Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity … but far more it requires confidence, confidence in the society in which one lives.
—Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (1969)
Is it better to live under a wise aristocracy or in a reckless democracy? Certainly, most of us hope to live in wise democracies. And we can easily point to corrupt aristocracies, or even argue that corruption is the ultimate fate of all aristocracies, no matter how well-conceived. But those answers evade the question, which is no philosophical set piece but a recurring problem in practical politics. One need look no further than Brexit, Trump and the European Commission’s actions against Poland to find living cases of liberal elites calling for the suppression of the democratically expressed will of the people. The etymology of “aristocracy”, after all, is “rule by the best”.
And while it’s easy to score cheap points ridiculing the mandarins of contemporary liberalism, democracy is chock-full of moral dilemmas that no political science textbook can answer, no philosophy lecture resolve. A strong grounding in the facts of history helps, but is only a prerequisite for political wisdom. True education for democracy is a challenge of civilisational proportions.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant, now on sale.
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“Civilisational”, because democracy transcends mere political science. Many countries with perfectly democratic written constitutions are not democracies at all, while the United Kingdom has developed a durable and robust democracy without ever having a formal, written constitution. Democracy also transcends sociology, with societies as different as South Africa and South Korea eventually finding their way to at least some version of democracy. But there is one thing that all contemporary democracies have in common: strong roots in Western civilisation.
Non-Western countries like Japan may have deep, meaningful cultures that are every bit as sophisticated as Western culture, but without exception their democracies come from the West. When Japanese students want to explore the philosophical roots of Zen Buddhism, they look to their own history, and to China, and thence back to India. But when they want to explore the roots of their parliamentary democracy, they go back to Montesquieu, Magna Carta and the Greeks. Democracy has been adopted in and adapted to many cultures, but it is uniquely a product of Western civilisation.
The words culture and civilisation have been used, confused and abused in many different combinations, but their common English meaning should be clear. Italian culture is very different from French culture, but Italy and France share a single civilisation. They eat different foods and speak different languages, but they read the same books. Western civilisation is the Germano-Roman civilisation that arose on the ruins of the western half of the Roman empire, in the areas that were formerly Roman but which later passed under the yoke of Germanic conquerors.
It may have taken a long time, but the fusion of two cultural traditions—Germanic freedom and Roman order—eventually produced a new civilisation that was much more than the sum of its parts. In his epic 1969 television documentary and book Civilisation, the art historian Kenneth Clark identifies the birth of Western civilisation with the return to building in stone in early medieval France after a hiatus following the collapse of the Roman empire. For Clark, the early Germanic tribes were little more than raiders and pillagers, possessing a distinctive culture but no civilisation to speak of. Building in stone represented, if nothing else, a commitment to settling down in one place—and fighting to defend it.
In a neat coincidence of Western history, the first stone structure built by the medieval Franks was a baptistery in Poitiers, the same place where in 732 the Frankish leader Charles Martel turned back an Arab invasion and ensured the independence of Western Christendom from Muslim domination. In the sixth century, Clark’s “confidence” meant the confidence to build; in the eighth, it meant the confidence to defend. Throughout the Crusades, the voyages of discovery, and the colonial era, it meant—for good and for bad—the confidence to expand. In the two world wars and the Cold War it meant the confidence to persevere, and to overcome.
Today, there are no external threats to Western civilisation. There is much talk of a rising China, but few people seriously believe that China will invade and subjugate the Western world, and even fewer want to trade in their Western democracies for totalitarian party-states. As perhaps it had been for Rome, the only real threats to Western civilisation come from within. We have elections, but are they meaningful? We have politicians, but are they leaders? We have policies, but are they moral? Western civilisation is here to stay, but what kind of civilisation it will become is, as always, up for grabs.
Education for democracy
As an indispensable mechanism for intellectual reproduction, education is the foundation of every civilisation. By 1873, the US state of Massachusetts already had more than two hundred years’ experience of educating its youth at the public expense. Originally introduced to thwart the designs of “that old deluder, Satan”, Massachusetts’ public schools later took on the more secular, republican mission of education for democracy. The idea that democracy requires an informed electorate is pure common sense, and as America evolved from a country of the pulpit into a country of the pamphlet, education for democracy meant learning to read.
Reading was then taught by rote, with teachers leading the students in chanting lessons in unison in what might today be called the “Shanghai method” of learning. Chanting in unison works well as far as it goes, which is not very far. In the small town of Quincy, just south of Boston, some particularly intrepid members of the school board decided to drop in on classes to see how their students were doing. The ratepayers were pumping $19.24 per student into the town’s schools, and they wanted to make sure they were getting their money’s worth.
In place of the usual end-of-year exams given by the teachers, the burghers and businessmen of the Quincy school board decided to examine the students themselves. What they found showed the dangers of leaving education to the educators. The students could read passages from their lesson books, but they couldn’t read pages from the newspaper. They could recite the alphabet, but they couldn’t spell words. They knew the rules of English grammar by heart, but were unable to use them to write simple sentences. One member of the school board, later to serve as president of the Union Pacific railroad, said that the schools were mistaking “the means for the end”.
That end was literacy, and the radical program they introduced was the reading of real books. In fact, they gutted the entire curriculum (except for mathematics) and replaced it with reading and doing. (They admitted that they were stumped by the challenge of motivating students to embrace the study of arithmetic.) Not only grammar and composition, but history, geography, philosophy and the natural sciences were to be taught by bringing students into contact with real books.
At the end of three years, the “Quincy Experiment”, as it came to be known, reported dramatic improvements in students’ true reading abilities coupled with higher test scores on the old rote standards—at a cost reduction of more than 20 per cent, to just $15.68 per pupil (which was perhaps what the school board valued most). It really was a rare case of “more for less”. The superintendent they hired to reform the schools, Francis “Colonel” Parker, went on to lead the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, where he taught Chicago’s public school teachers about the Quincy model and further developed it into what we now know as student-centred learning.
The educational theorist John Dewey taught at the University of Chicago and was deeply influenced by Parker’s methods (his children even attended Parker’s practice school for teacher education). Dewey is the giant of American educational theory, the prophet of “progressive” education. Critics today often associate progressive education with students writing self-reflective essays and making papier-mache pyramids, but that is to forget the nonsense that came before. After Quincy and Dewey, rote drills at the blackboard disappeared for more than a century (though they are now coming back on the computer).
Dewey promoted student-centred learning as the antidote to the authoritarian model of education in which teachers shovel facts into students’ empty minds. The one bedrock principle of progressive education is that education is preparation for life in society—in our case, for life in democratic society. The subjects are important, but secondary. As Colonel Parker showed in Quincy, you could learn practical grammar better by reading the speeches of Daniel Webster than by sitting through a grammar lesson. That’s nothing less than a return to the pedagogy of the old English grammar schools, where you learned to write well by reading the letters of Cicero. Dewey wanted that kind of education for everyone.
At the university level, progressive education meant reading the classics. In 1904 Dewey left Chicago for Columbia University in New York, where he helped inspire the development of a core curriculum centred on the reading of great books. The Columbia core was actually the brainchild of Dewey’s Columbia colleagues Frederick Woodbridge, a fellow pragmatic philosopher, and John Erskine, an English professor and classical pianist who later went on to be president of the Juilliard School. After the First World War (and in response to it), these professors pushed through a reorientation of the first-year experience around the idea that students should not just learn about Western civilisation, but experience it for themselves through the reading of great books.
Over the last hundred years, American universities have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the idea of reading the great books of Western civilisation. Except at Columbia and a few small colleges like St John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, the reading of great books has been relegated to self-selective honours programs. Western civilisation, if it is offered at all, is taught as a one-semester lecture course. The classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom blamed the abandonment of great books for “the closing of the American mind”, in his 1987 best-seller of that title. As Bloom wrote on the frontispiece of his book, “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students”. Three decades on, those souls are poorer than ever.
From academic freedom to classroom tyranny
American higher education wasn’t killed by papier-mache pyramids. It was killed by the teachers, with the full co-operation of the corpus delicti, the student body itself. Although progressive education is often popular among primary school teachers, who are understandably drawn to a philosophy that encourages them to introduce play into the classroom and get paid for it, it has a mixed reputation among secondary school teachers and is positively loathed in the academy. University teachers abhor a style of learning that lets students draw their own conclusions from independent reading, for two reasons: it challenges the teachers’ authority, and it’s a lot of work.
In Western civilisation today, universities have replaced the church, the temple and the mosque as the final arbiters of knowledge and wisdom. Academics arrogate to themselves the sole right to decide what (and how) their students should learn. Their very titles of “lecturer” and “professor” imply preaching the word of truth from the podium, the latter-day pulpit of secular society. University teachers, their professional associations, and their unions vehemently maintain that academic freedom is inviolable, that it licenses them to lecture and profess as they see fit, and that, even in publicly-funded institutions, it shields them from oversight by anyone other than themselves.
Such a broad construction of academic freedom might be somewhat questionable in a publicly-funded research institute like the CSIRO. It is absolutely unconscionable in a university, where academics are not only scholars, but teachers. As Socrates understood twenty-five centuries ago, teachers are ultimately responsible to the societies in which they teach. History has long since condemned the Athenian assembly for ordering the death of Socrates, but Socrates himself accepted (and executed) the verdict. Teaching is a public trust, not a private sinecure. University teachers hold in their hands the future of society itself.
That doesn’t mean that governments should impose political litmus tests on university teachers, as the Nazis and Soviets did, and as China and Saudi Arabia do. It means that society—all of society, broadly construed—has an interest in what and how its children are taught. This is neither a revolutionary (nor a reactionary) idea. In Australia, the government, businesses and the professions are already deeply involved in shaping what students are taught. The government heavily subsidises education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the “STEM” disciplines), medicine, nursing, teaching and (some of) the arts. Law firms and bar associations intervene in the minutiae of the legal curriculum, medical associations in the medical curriculum, nursing associations in the nursing curriculum, accounting associations in the accounting curriculum, and so on.
In the humanities and social sciences, it’s the students who determine what is taught, by voting with their feet (and dollars). Sometimes there is a stand-off, with university departments insisting that students conform to a particular ideological position if they want to study a particular subject. It can be tough going for a conservative student in culture studies, or for a socialist studying finance. But departments that drive away students eventually lose their licences to drive at all.
Whether or not you agree with the contents of a particular university curriculum, you can rest assured that class enrolments are essentially market-driven, even in the humanities and social sciences. Especially in the humanities and social sciences. In professional schools, students may be forced to take particular subjects in order to have the opportunity to fulfil their larger career aspirations. If you want to be an engineer, you have to take calculus. But the only job that requires anyone to take culture studies is … the job of teaching culture studies. With full sympathy for those few conservatives who aspire to teach culture studies, their plight probably does not rise to the level of an important policy problem. Given the relative financial rewards involved, we might worry more about the few socialists who want to teach finance.
What gives academics real power over their students—and society—isn’t the authority to set the curriculum. It’s the authority to decide how it is taught. Academics love to hear themselves lecture, and cost-conscious universities indulge that desire. Even when academics hold discussions, they are usually little more than lectures in disguise. And in the humanities and social sciences, students are mostly evaluated on the basis of essays, which are in effect lectures in reverse: the best way to get a good grade is to tell your teachers what you know they want to hear. As a result, Australian classrooms are dominated by one and only one point of view: that of the teachers.
The dominance of the teachers arises not by accident, but by design. Even those few teachers who are deeply committed to intellectual openness can’t get students to seek out their own answers when the only questions the students know about are the ones posed by the teachers themselves. Teachers also provide the only approved tools for answering the approved questions: textbooks, lecture notes and (Holy of Holies!) peer-reviewed journal articles. Thus “critical thinking” (in education jargon) is put into practice as the application of discipline-specific tools to discipline-specific problems.
That may not always be such a bad thing. Students study engineering to learn the tools of the engineering profession and how to apply them to practical engineering problems. Fair enough. But few people study philosophy to become philosophers, or political science to become political scientists. They study these subjects because they want to think more deeply about the world, or perhaps because they want to serve their country—or lead it. The tyranny of the lecture hall holds nothing for them.
If you want students to learn about civilisation, host a screening of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. You won’t find a better lecturer practising today. But if you want them to become civilised, they have to experience civilisation for themselves. And the best way to do that is for them to read great books.
From Quincy to Canberra
On Friday, June 1, the Australian National University withdrew from talks to host a bachelor’s degree in Western civilisation sponsored by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Predictably enough, press coverage of the collapse focused on the Westernness of the Ramsay program. But that was never at issue. The Ramsay Centre issued an indicative curriculum for the degree in late 2017, and all universities bidding to host it bought into the Ramsay Centre’s list of books.
Tellingly, one of the sticking points in the talks between the ANU and the Ramsay Centre was the ANU’s desire to call the degree “Western Civilisation Studies”, against the Ramsay Centre’s insistence on “Western Civilisation”. Another was the ANU’s attempt to pin the Ramsay Centre down on academic freedom with language that made it a “shared” commitment, not just a university commitment. Together these positions meant making society the instrument of the academy’s goals, instead of the other way around. Judging from his public comments, the ANU’s Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt seemed not to understand the difference.
The difference in both disputes is that the ANU wants the Ramsay Centre to pay for its academics to teach students about Western civilisation (something the ANU says it is doing already), whereas the Ramsay Centre wants Australian students to experience Western civilisation for themselves. The ANU wants to maintain its teachers’ freedom to teach how they choose, whereas the Ramsay Centre wants to introduce a new way of teaching into Australia. The ANU wants to keep its students’ minds firmly under its control, whereas the Ramsay Centre wants to free Australian students to think what they will, under the influence of some of the most profound thinkers who have ever lived.
Like the Quincy students of 1873, today’s Australian students know how to recite, but not how to read. The Ramsay Centre program would get them reading. More than that, it would get them thinking—for themselves. The point of the Great Books approach to Western civilisation is not the greatness of the books that the students read. It is the Westernisation and civilisation of the students who read them. That’s “civilisation” as a process: students become civilised by reading great books for themselves. And the civilisation that values thinking for oneself as the highest goal of education is uniquely the Western one.
When other civilisations have students learn their classics, they tend to emphasise rote memorisation. Imperial Chinese students were examined on their ability to quote passages from the Confucian classics, and Communist Chinese students are examined on quotations from Chairman Mao. Even the English-language portion of China’s famed Gaokao exam focuses on the recitation of standard phrases that are widely ridiculed as “Chinese English”. In Muslim civilisation, it is considered a mark of great learning to memorise the entire Koran, earning the scholar the title of Hafiz or Hafiza. For Westerners, however, memorisation is a parlour trick, useful mainly for game shows and school exams. It is not considered a sign of wisdom.
Independence of mind is a good thing, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as for the goslings. An Australian “Western Civ” degree can’t be some kind of conservative counterpart to a Chinese Communist Party curriculum, where students are taught the virtues of the British Empire and learn quotations from the work of Edmund Burke. For good or bad, the empire isn’t coming back, and anyway Burke was a Whig. Students should read the imperialist poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, but also the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. And they should do it without being told in advance what to think. They’ll make up their own minds, and by doing so shape their own—our own—civilisation.
If you live in a house made of oak, you are more likely to study the origins and properties of oak trees than those of bamboo, however useful and versatile a material bamboo may be. Australia’s oak is Western civilisation. Along with “white Australians” (whatever that might mean), Aboriginal Australians and Arab Australians live in that same oak house. First Fleeters and the children of Vietnamese refugees share it with recent immigrants like me and my Chinese students. Western civilisation belongs to all of us and none of us, and we all share a responsibility for its upkeep. The reading of great books is the kind of home improvement that has the potential to open all of our minds.
Salvatore Babones is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Sydney and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, published last month by Wiley.