Western Civ vs. Western Civilisation-ish

ramsay logo IIAustralia’s public universities, home to no less than nine Confucius Institutes funded by the Chinese government, seem strangely reluctant to accept Australian foundation support for the study of Western civilisation. More than 200 of my colleagues at the University of Sydney have signed an open letter condemning the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation’s plans for a ‘Western Civ’ degree as ‘quite simply, European supremacism writ large’.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Australian National University has turned down Ramsay funding outright. In rejecting Ramsay’s proposed program, the ANU claimed that it already taught ‘some 150 undergraduate subjects addressing Western civilisation themes’. The ANU also bemoaned the fact that Ramsay would not accept its preferred name of ‘Western Civilisation Studies’.

What’s in a name? The ANU’s list of 166 courses on Western civilisation includes 43 language courses, 35 in history, 26 in philosophy, 22 in culture studies and literary criticism, 20 in social science, 15 in art and music history, two in business and one in law that ‘study’ Western civilisation — nearly all of them undergraduate lectures or graduate seminars.

But only three subjects on the ANU list actually resemble the kinds of great books courses that form the core of American-style Western Civ programs: one in ancient law, one in political theory, and one in modern theatre. These are the only three of 166 that engage undergraduates in intensive discussion based on direct experience of the great works of Western civilisation.

The Sydney 200 similarly emphasize that Western civilisation is ‘already intensively studied and taught’ at Sydney Uni, but fail to recognize that Western Civ programs are not about the topics studied. They’re about the way the topics are studied. Western Civ is a learning style, not a subject list.

Existing courses at Australian universities teach students about famous ideas, both Western and non-Western. The Ramsay Centre is proposing something new in Australia: courses in which students will engage directly with the great philosophical, literary and artistic traditions of Western civilisation, not just learn about them second-hand from their teachers.

This kind of education requires special resources, but it also requires a special mindset. Teachers have to learn to ‘let go’ of the curriculum and trust their students to make up their own minds. The promotion of independent thought requires a leap of faith that most academics find very challenging.

That leap of faith was the very foundation of Western Civ at American universities. Inspired by the educational philosophy of John Dewey, American great books programs were founded on the idea that ‘students should approach the works directly, not through secondary articles and books about them’.

Australian schools and universities instead embrace a critical thinking approach to education, in which students are expected to marshal evidence from scholarly sources in support of their arguments. Students routinely crib for the SCE by memorising quotes to buttress their arguments. The best students carry these slavish habits into top ATAR university law programs.

If it fulfils its promise, the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civ program will instead attract top Australian students to explore values and meaning, not academic argumentation. John Dewey taught a century ago that such education for democracy was more important than education for skills. He’s just as right today.

The Sydney 200 haughtily assert that decisions about education ‘are for academics to make, not billionaires or former prime ministers’. They forget that democracy is not realized in the ivory tower, but in politics, in society and — yes — even in business. Tony Abbott was right to say that that the Ramsay Centre is ‘not just timely but necessary’. Education is too important to be left only to the educators.

10 thoughts on “Western Civ vs. Western Civilisation-ish

  • Jody says:

    Nothing short of this will suffice, I’m afraid:


    • sbabones says:

      Funny you should say that … just wait until September! Salvatore

    • Stephen Due says:

      Too true. Early in the video the narrator says: “civilisation depends on confidence”. Which puts the problem facing the West in a nutshell. The West lacks confidence in its own cultural heritage. This is largely due to ignorance.

      • sbabones says:

        I really am amazed that both of you have made this connection, because my forthcoming Quadrant article opens with that very quote: “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). So don’t go taking credit for it when the piece comes out! 🙂 Salvatore

      • Jody says:

        Correct. And a lack of understanding of many people about aspects of the past. For example, I’m reading Prof. Niall Ferguson’s latest book “The Square and the Tower” and it appears ‘elites’ have been running things (very separate from aristocrats and monarchs) for a very long time. Ferguson discusses the “Illuminati” who were influential European intellectuals and merchants who influenced society, in groups and largely behind the scenes, going back hundreds of years. So, talk about today’s ‘elites’ and what a burden and threat they are simply ignores history!!

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Oh yes there have always been elites.

    But the point of the enlightenment and the writings of David Holme onward was to open up the society generally . That destroyed the power of the elites.

    Elites only survive by manipulation of knowledge and it’s spread.

    That is the only commonality between elites of yesterday and today.

    Today’s elites, the managerial classes, the academics, the politicians, the bureaucrats and the employees and managers of large, both national and international, corporations manage knowledge whether it be ‘news’, ‘history,’ ‘teaching’ or ‘law’.

    Trump is putting an end to this.

    This. Is why he is so hated … by the elites … and admired by everybody else.


    He is a real leader who has the authority of ‘real knowledge’ and the stature of ‘wide experience’. These attributes are attempted to be held by today’s elites, all of whom lack wide experience and real knowledge. They rely on ignorance and lies.

    Civilisation relies on confidence derived from truth.

    Yes Stephen D it does and the confidence has been eroded over the past 70 years by ‘the educated’ western managerial elites.

    Read James Burnham.

    Look all of you are complaining about the state of our ‘leaderdhip’ And it’s uselessness, and how it is undermining our civilisation.

    Reard James Burnham he predicted all this in 1945 and 1949.

    He presented a solution.

    It was this: the working people and the entrepreneurial classes would combine to dismantle the managerial classes and their edifices.

    If you see what Trump is doing in Washington to the bureaucy, the media and the political class and on the world stage to the outdated edifices like NATO , the UN and the existing diplomatic ‘fixations and relationship, you’d readily understand the changes he’s making.

    He’s returning democracy to its owners, the people David Hulme and all the others intended to be the owners.

    • sbabones says:

      Thanks Keith, couldn’t have said it better myself! I think you’re really going to enjoy my next book, coming out in a few months. It’s called “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts”! Salvatore

  • whitelaughter says:

    Hmm, in addition to the usual suspects, I wonder how much of the opposition is due to the rort of lecturers assigning their own works as text books? The most appalling example I crossed at ANU was a linguistics text written in the ’70s by the then dept head claiming to be about ‘modern’ Aussie slang – the only one of which I’d heard of was “chiacking” (which was current during WWII, but now long gone), all the others had died out before I was born. Pointless textbooks are basically a form of graft, demanding kickbacks from students in return for passing them. And having students study the classics would bypass that form of corruption.

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