News & Events

25 March 2019

To blame Ramsay for Christchurch atrocity is facile vilification

By Simon Haines
March 25, 2019 — 12.00am

The tragedy in Christchurch has understandably produced a variety of responses, most of them characterised by horror at the appalling evil inflicted on innocent people at prayer. But there was opportunism and cynicism too. The massacre was enlisted in the continuing campaign to prevent the University of Sydney entering a partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

Nick Riemer has been a vocal critic of this partnership since it was first mooted. To date his principal argument has been that the goals of the centre are an exercise in white triumphalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The centre seeks, through partnering with universities in creating “great books” programs, to encourage a holistic and balanced understanding of the civilisation which has done so much to shape the world in which we live.

Last week Riemer went much further. He wrote in a column in these pages that “this is all the more reason to reflect on how the Ramsay curriculum validates the world view behind the massacre”. That is a truly extraordinary claim and it should be emphatically rejected, even by others who for whatever reason oppose a partnership between the centre and University of Sydney.

We have all been shocked by the terrible slaughter in New Zealand. Our responses should be compassionate and measured. The victims should be mourned, and those who have lost loved ones comforted. There is a special obligation to avoid the type of sordid political point-scoring that emerges in the Riemer column. By all means attack the Ramsay Centre. That is one of those priceless rights we have been given by our civilisation. But don’t smear its proponents with the monstrous claim that what they seek, in some way, prompted the murder of 50 innocent people.

The Ramsay Centre’s speaker program also came under scrutiny. This program is completely separate from our university partnerships. It is a varied program and includes individuals from different backgrounds who have in common interesting and sometimes controversial things to say about different aspects of Western civilisation.

We have heard from a novelist, a historian, a sociologist, a medical scientist, a columnist and a university president, and will hear from other highly credentialled academics and authors this year. None of them is speaking to us from a party-political perspective. Several of them, however, are well known public figures who run their own commentaries on current events, as they have every right to do. We would urge readers to look carefully for themselves at the credentials and comments of our speakers before trusting the distorting and tendentious snippets offered by Riemer and others.

We and our close friends across the Tasman are fortunate in that we can rely on one of the great pillars of Western civilisation, the rule of law and our justice systems, to ensure that the perpetrator of the dreadful crime in Christchurch is brought to justice.
Meanwhile, our cherished freedoms, including those of religion and speech, which need to be respected at all times, are especially important in such crises as this, when they are most under pressure. This is not a time for facile and irresponsible vilification.

Professor Simon Haines is the chief executive officer of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald – click here to read the full article here

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27 February 2019

Cross-disciplinary path to broader learning

Integrated great books programs fill a major gap

There have been various reactions to the idea of Ramsay Centre funded degree programs getting a foothold in our universities. At first glance the most sensible argument against a new program focused on the great books of the West is that our universities already teach many of these books and epochs.

What need is there then for a specific degree in Western civilisation? After all, as Dirk Moses, professor of modern history at Sydney University, has said, the content of European culture is the default mode of Western universities.

This is certainly true of most of our major universities, most of the time. Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Locke, de Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Marx, Mill, Freud – all usually find a place in various departments.

Shakespeare is studied in the English department and Plato’s Republic may still even be read in its entirety in some philosophy departments. Homer and Virgil will appear in the classics syllabus, and Machiavelli and de Tocqueville will no doubt be found over in the history and politics departments, while the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral may well feature in the school of art history, and Don Giovanni in a school of music.

What you will not find, however, in any university in Australia, is a program that attempts to integrate these works into a coherent whole.

There are no integrated, chronologically ordered programs in our major universities that require students to read great works across the disciplines of history, literature, politics, philosophy, psychology, religion and science, and to be immersed in art, architecture and music from that chronological history of thought, beliefs and practices.

This is a major gap in our research-oriented, disciplinarybased university system that desperately needs to be filled. This is where integrated great books programs come in.

One argument against such courses is that they are too general in their focus. For some specialists, the idea that Cervantes doesn’t just belong to students in the Spanish department, or the Old Testament to students studying religion and Hebrew, is anathema. The university, as they conceive it, is principally a place for specialised knowledge and research.

But this is contrary to the best tradition of liberal education, which seeks to initiate students into a broad awareness and critical appreciation of their own cultural heritage across disciplinary boundaries.

At the oldest English universities, this ideal survives in the advice often given to students that they should attend the best classes at university, across the various schools, irrespective of the degree for which they are reading.

In the US, a different and more coherent attempt to realise the vision of a broad education emerged in the 20th century with the rise of the Great Books movement championed by John Erskine, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. This gave rise to the Columbia core curriculum and was the inspiration for “the new program” at St John’s College, Annapolis, among dozens if not hundreds of other great books programs across the country.

Today, all students who graduate from Columbia College have read Homer’s Iliad, Sappho’s lyrics, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, the Koran, Luther’s Preface to Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, among so many other works. In addition, they have all studied the major movements of Western art, architecture, music and science.

Unfortunately, the same level of broad cultural literacy cannot be assumed in most students graduating from a single Australian university, not even in those emerging from humanities faculties.

This is not only detrimental to an Australian student’s understanding and critical engagement with the riches and complexities of Western thought, art and political practices. It also slows down their progress in the studies they do undertake.

Moses has argued that many teachers in the humanities are today “deeply concerned about students’ cultural literacy. It is a brave new world teaching, say, European history, to students with little or no knowledge of Western intellectual and cultural traditions, the Bible, literature and history.” To help rectify this, Moses says he would welcome extending the great books program at his own institution, the University of Sydney, which currently covers only a small number of texts and is available to only a select group of students.

There is no reason why universities generally cannot look at practical ways of making such programs available to all students, including those outside the humanities and social sciences.

Isn’t it eminently desirable that the next generation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, town planners and computer programmers have a broad cross-disciplinary grounding in the humanities?

As Google outreach manager Sally-Ann Williams said a few years ago in these pages, some insights and innovations are “only possible at the intersection of disciplines”. Great books programs allow the disciplines, in a very immediate way, to speak to each other, and for students to join the conversation.

And they proclaim loudly that no single discipline – whether in the humanities, social sciences, computer sciences or hard sciences – has a monopoly on the truth.

To problem-solve in a dynamic world, we need the agility that comes with being conversant with multiple perspectives across the humanities and sciences.

Such programs need not be as large as the proposed 12-16 course Ramsay-funded program, which – large though it is – still leaves room for an outside major, in Asian or indigenous studies, for example, or a second degree (in law, for instance, or engineering).

A six-course program, focusing on some seminal books, science, art, architecture and music from the ancient to the modern worlds, would be straightforward enough to establish, and would comprise at most a quarter of a standard threeyear degree, still leaving plenty of room for specialisations and professional qualifications.

Such programs would bring together students and teachers from across the university, providing them with a common enterprise and a core body of humane learning, irrespective of their own chosen specialisations. This knowledge belongs to them all.

Private philanthropy could be sought for the running of such programs. With gifted teachers devoted to Socratic class discussion drawn from across the university – who, like those in the Columbia core, would necessarily teach as generalists rather than specialists – the sky is the limit.

Anyone who has taught in such a program – or has seen them in action at places like St John’s and Columbia – knows how exciting and rewarding they can be for all involved.

Stephen McInerney is the executive officer (academic) at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

The Australian, by  Stephen McInerney

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13 February 2019

Ramsay degree fast-tracked for 2020

The University of Wollongong yesterday became the first in Australia to begin marketing a Ramsay Centre-sponsored degree in Western civilisation, promising a start date next year after fast-tracking the degree through the university’s approval process.

Details of the Western civilisation degree went up on the university’s website last night, along with a slew of endorsements that Wollongong has obtained from internationally recognised scholars.

Vice-chancellor Paul Wellings defended the decision to fast-track the approval of the course via a clause in the university’s course and subject approval procedures, which allow him to green-light a new course if certain conditions are met. It bypasses the usual ­scrutiny by the university’s academic senate.

Professor Wellings said it had been important to complete the approval process for the degree quickly because of the tight timetable to complete the prospectus and course materials, advertise to potential students, select the 30 scholarship holders, and be ready to launch in 2020.

The Western civilisation degree met the criteria for fast-tracking, he said, because it was financially sustainable (being underpinned by Ramsay Centre funding) and was academically ­coherent (which was attested to by internationally recognised scholars).

“Both those two tests are met and those are the main criteria,” he said. “We’ve used a perfectly normal pathway for the university.”

Professor Wellings said he had signed on a number of similar fast-tracked course approvals in the past two years.

Last night the university also released its signed memorandum of understanding with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which will fund the degree.

The MoU avoids the academic freedom issue that derailed the Ramsay Centre’s ­negotiations last year for a Western civilisation degree at the Australian National University.

ANU said then that the Ramsay Centre had declined to commit itself to the “principles of academic freedom”.

Professor Wellings said the issue of academic freedom had “not really” come up in Wollongong’s talks with the centre. The Ramsay MoU was consistent with other similar agreements, he said.

“There’s nothing in that MoU with the Ramsay Centre which is exceptional in any way. I don’t recall any other MoU which I have signed which has ever mentioned academic freedom,” he said.

Wollongong’s executive dean who will oversee the new course, Theo Farrell, said a provision in the MoU that permitted visits from Ramsay Centre representatives to observe the classes, inspect facilities and attend social functions underlined the academic independence of the degree from the centre. “Visits will be for observation and social functions — not for any formal teaching evaluation — so they will not impede UoW’s academic independence,” Professor Farrell said.

The MoU also provides for two qualified academics nominated by the Ramsay Centre to sit on selection panels to hire staff to teach the new degree.

Professor Wellings said the Ramsay representatives would be in a minority. “It’s not uncommon for universities to have people from outside their institutions in the appointment process,” he said.

The 30 students to be selected annually for a $27,000-a-year scholarship for the Western civilisation degree will be chosen by a panel that will include representation from the Ramsay Centre as well as university academic staff and other nominated representatives, according to the MoU.

When the course is fully up and running, the Ramsay Centre will pay for 10 academic staff and two support staff, as well as 30 student scholarships commencing every year, at a cost of about $7.5 million annually.

Credit: The Australian Newspaper – click here to read the full article

 

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13 February 2019

Lively journey across Western ideas and art

The University of Wollongong says its new Ramsay Centre-sponsored bachelor degree in Western civilisation is inspired by the idea of a conversation in which: “Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak (their) mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.”

The 1952 quote, from American philosopher Robert Hutchins, is cited by the university in the material released last night on its website to promote the new ­degree.

It says in the document on curriculum design that the course will take students on “on a chronologically ordered philosophical adventure through the major periods and epochs of intellectual and artistic change in the West”.

“At each stage of their journey, students will engage first-hand with exemplary masterpieces of Western thought, art and architecture (and) bring them into dialogue with the some of the greatest exemplars of non-Western traditions,” the university says.

Students will take 16 core subjects, including a capstone unit on Australian democracy, as well as doing a major selected from a list including: archeology and ancient history; creative writing; languages; history; indigenous studies; sociology; English literature; philosophy; politics; international relations; and global sustainable development.

The students can also choose to pair the course with another to do a double degree, or do honours in Western civilisation to help them develop more advanced research and critical thinking skills.

The university is at pains to make clear that Western civilisation students will “be introduced to non-Western and under-represented voices and perspectives”.

“To take one example, students will be exposed to alternative readings of Western classics, such as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018), which is lauded as an outstanding feminist retelling of the Iliad,” the curriculum design document says.

The university says it has taken inspiration from Yale-NUS, the liberal arts college in Singapore that is a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore.

At Yale-NUS “students study not only Plato and Aristotle but also, in the same course, Confucius and the Buddha — and ask why their systems of ethics might be similar or different,” the University of Wollongong says. “They study the Odyssey and the Ramayana. They examine the ‘primitivisms’ of Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso while also looking at the woodcarvings from the South Sea islands and the ukiyo-e tradition of Japanese woodblock prints that influenced Western artists.”

The university says that, despite the course’s focus on Western thought and art, it also “initiates well-placed, high-quality conversations” on non-Western traditions in half of its 16 core units.

It also argues that the new degree is “inherently cross-disciplinary”, combining elements of study of the classics, literature and philosophy. And the university points out that students can, if they choose, take something non-Western in a double degree.

Credit: The Australian Newspaper – click here to read the full article  here

 

 

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23 January 2019

First cohort has a taste of Plato and Shakespeare

Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has run its first course for 30 mostly high school students at a secluded conference centre at Ingleside in northern Sydney.

And for Sophie Jackson, a 16-year-old student at Loreto Kirribilli, it was an eye-opener as well as a confidence boost.

“I was a little bit overwhelmed when I first sat in this room and there were some people out the front talking about some really high level intellectual thinking,” she said.

“I was just sitting here going ‘wow, I feel a bit out of place’. But after sitting down in smaller groups and getting to have high level intellectual conversations with a variety of people with different backgrounds, opinions and perspectives, it allowed me to open my horizons and I’ve learnt so much.”

The two-and-a-half-day residential course was flagged as “an introduction to the kind of thinking a future degree in Western civilisation might offer”. It drew on what is described as the Socratic method of argumentative dialogue to encourage critical thinking by studying Hamlet and Plato’s Apology.

“I was interested in the texts that we were studying,” Scarlett Green, a 17-year-old from Queenwood School For Girls, said. “This course offered an opportunity to learn skills that would be helpful for university – being able to think on a critical level and be reflective.”

Helga Tong, another 17-year-old Queenwood student, said taking part had shaped her view of the merits of studying Western civilisation.

“Most of us here can say that we disagree with the controversy around it,” she said. “We don’t see why there is after this.”

Credit: SMH excerpt – For the full story please see link here

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23 January 2019

Why I joined the Ramsay Centre, timeless issues are to the fore

Dr Michael Easson AM, writes why he joined the Ramsay Centre Board.

The Ramsay Centre is in the headlines again with news about the discussions with the University of Queensland on a major in western civilisation studies as an option in the university’s Bachelor of Arts degree. UQ intends to run a course which would teach text about the impact of the West on Aboriginal people.

This comes after an agreement with the University of Wollongong to host the first Ramsay Centre Bachelor of Arts on Western Civilisation was announced in December.

In November I joined the Centre’s board, replacing Kim Beazley. When made aware of this development, some ask: “Why Ramsay?” as if the idea of a person generally identified as centre left must be turning hues of deep blue to join this board.

I joined because its ideals are worth supporting.

The Ramsay Board Charter states its objective: “to advance education by promoting studies and discussion associated with the establishment and development of western civilisation, including through establishing scholarship funds and educational courses in partnership with universities”.

The words “studies and discussion” requires that anything offered, a great-books course for example, must be inspired by a critical spirit. Always the aim is to interrogate, debate, consider what is living and dead and worth commemorating, rejecting, and/or assimilating. To have even a passing acquaintance with “the canons of western thought” is to realise how minds, books, philosophy, opinions differ.

In an era when funding for Arts faculties in major universities is severely constrained, where some respected Departments are closing (recently the University of Newcastle announced a decision to no longer offer discrete philosophy subjects) a credible organisation prepared to fund courses is prima facie extremely important and worthwhile.

Much turns on the credibility of what is offered. Within any Board there will be differing opinions, but it is the overall consensus that matters. Not that this is foolproof. Sadly, we know that some Boards are stoked on their own juices of self-admiration, insularity, and complacency. But on the Ramsay Centre Board, there are no shrinking violets. Debate is fun. And within Ramsay, frankly, we have learnt lessons on how to better engage respectfully and collegially with those academics and institutions we hope to work with. There is no prescriptive formula that we promote.

There is high calibre academic credibility underpinning the Centre. Professor Simon Haines, the CEO, is steeped in academic laurels, in a variety of fields. Dr Stephen McInerney, Executive Officer, Academic, is an accomplished scholar in literature, including Australian poetry. I back their judgement and sensitivity to any concerns about academic integrity.

Of course Universities must ensure they are independent and fearlessly uphold the principles underpinning academic freedom, rigorous teaching and debating. Universities exist to seek truth, wherever that leads. Bertrand Russell in his On Education says that even “Utilitarian knowledge needs to be fructified by disinterested investigation, which has no motive beyond the desire to understand the world better.”

Yet many Arts faculties in Australia are starved of funds, reducing courses and scholarship. Surely it is not beyond our wits to marry the ideals of Ramsay with the needs of students, present and future, to learn and consider the works of past epochs.

The China scholar and essayist, the late Pierre Ryckmans, a former Professor at two of Australia’s great universities, wrote in his essay “Do We Need Universities?” that: “The question asked is never whether a university worthy of the name ought to teach certain subjects, but what subjects are most likely to attract larger enrolments.”

He went on to say: “The spurious relationship invoked to justify subordinating the general design of the scholarly activities of the university to mere figures of student enrolments is not only asinine, it is also deeply corrupting. It reduces the university to the level of an unseemly caravanserai, an incoherent soukh, a bazaar where a thousand wares are spread haphazardly, while the scholars themselves are turned into peddlars, touts and pimps, desperately competing to hustle a few more suckers.”

In contrast, Ramsay in collaboration with scholars and their universities can add to the diversity and richness of the tertiary education experience. This is an opportunity to re-invigorate the humanities and equip students and staff with much needed resources so universities can better concentrate on scholarship and teaching.

The Ramsay Centre’s mission is not political and it is “caricature” to say a particular ideological world-view is promoted. There are conservatives, liberals and social democrats on the Ramsay Centre board. Yet it would be false to say, despite benign intentions, that no impact is intended.

One of the characters in David Lodge’s novel Nice Work laments that: “Poststructuralist theory is a very intriguing philosophical game for very clever players. But the irony of teaching it to young people… about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear.”

Because of cuts and the way resources are allocated, in a myriad of ways, many students are not taught the basics of texts and scholarship and encounter fewer primary texts than students of a previous era.

When I first attended university, in first year Philosophy, the Socratic Dialogues and Logic were taught, as basic foundations for learning to think, assess, and rationalise, for how to choose between competing ideas and values. The best teachers deployed classic works in interesting, provocative, and thoughtful ways to new generations of students.

Some (though only some) of the thinking underpinning Ramsay is inspired from Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, the set of common courses required of all undergraduates since 1919. The communal learning entails a series of small, discussion-based seminars exploring foundational texts, enduring documents and exemplary experiments in literature, philosophy, music, history, art, writing, science. This is one of the founding experiments in liberal higher education in the United States and thrives on debate on difficult questions about human experience. Ramsay hopes this can be emulated in Australia.

When John Howard invited me to join Ramsay I gave him a book by the late Professor of Classics at Yale University, Bernard Knox, humanist and old lefty. (He fought against the Falangist side in the Spanish Civil War). Knox’s The Oldest Dead White European Males and other Reflections on the Classics (1991) is the book I gifted. Knox considered some of the criticisms of any study of western civilisation.

The ancient Greeks, the subject of Knox’s polemic, are alien to us: with their slaves, subservient women, and ideas of bloodlust that are hard to fathom. Yet, as Knox said, they also “…invented political theory, rhetoric, biology, zoology, the atomic theory… they created in the restless turbulence of their tiny city-states that impatient rhythm of competition and innovation that has been the distinguishing characteristic of Western civilisation ever since.”

This is not to particularly celebrate anything; for scholarship and study involves thinking, understanding, and contesting. As Knox says of Plato: “In his ideal states, both the rigidly controlled nightmare of the Republic and the slightly less stifling bad dream of the Laws, the basic materials of the humanities, poetry, philosophy, history, and the arts are either expelled bag and baggage or else forced to sing an official song to please the censors.”

Understanding the ancients is not merely to contemplate angry pale dead men. Timeless issues are up for debate.

Ancient literature is certainly eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many of our modern assumptions. Emily Katz Anhalt argues in her recent book, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, that some Greek myths exposed the dangers of violent rage, but also the need for empathy and self-restraint. Homer’s Iliad, Euripides’ Hecuba, and Sophocles’ Ajax show that anger and vengeance destroy perpetrators and victims alike. Such stories point to violent revenge as a marker of illogical thinking and poor leadership. Subversively, she suggests that by promoting compassion, rational thought, and debate, some Greek myths help to arm us against the tyrants we might serve and the tyrants we might become.

What Ramsay wants to achieve is this: through the study of works of classic significance the great questions are illuminated: What does it mean to be human? What is the good life – and the good society? What are the limits to individual loyalty to the state? And limits to human exploitation of the universe? As Knox remarks, “These questions and others like them are what the humanities have been asking ever since they first took shape in Athens.”

Through study, in Knox’s words again, this can “prepare the young mind for the momentous choices, the critical decisions which face our world today.”

Far from being a businessman’s fantasy to subvert universities to a narrow frame of thinking, the Ramsay Centre is a radical endeavour to invigorate a non-utilitarian spirit of fearless scholarship. That’s why I joined.

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5 January 2019

The books that the West needs to read again

What could have been so subversive? Chased off the campus at the Australian National University and Sydney University, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has done a deal with the University of Wollongong to teach the degrees it will fund. Some academics there reached for the smelling salts. A visiting fellow has stopped visiting. Others sniffed the imminent arrival of neo-fascism, the barbarians through the gates.

As a way to cast light on the biggest academic controversy of 2018, The Australian Financial Review asked the Ramsay Centre’s Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney to nominate 10 of the great books of the West they think we should read before we die. In our New Year bumper edition’s Review section, they let the books speak for themselves. There was Plato and Virgil, Shakespeare and Dante, Machiavelli’s realism, and Rousseau’s equality and social justice versus Burke’s conservatism. Some are just rollicking good reads. Nothing drives straight to the conflicted emotions of war like.  The
Iliad. Or comprehends a world of lies like King Lear. But when the West is being tested by simplistic populist politics within, and by increasingly confident authoritarian great powers from outside, it’s not a bad thing to go back to founding texts and ideas. The Ramsay Centre’s sin is to teach these books in their own right, not just as objects for demolition in some post-modernist experiment. Though Ramsay could do that too: as the mental infrastructure of the West, the great books have spawned every idea from fascism to anarchism, even the nihilistic relativism with which shriller academics have knocked all those dead white males off their privileged pedestals.

But it’s the liberal strand of Western thought that has been the most fruitful, precisely because it is the most self-aware, the most self-doubting, and the most capable of absorbing criticism. There are older civilisations than the West, and civilisations with which it overlaps. It is Western liberalism that has continuously renewed and improved itself to an uncommon degree.

That was the mechanism by which it moved from darkness and cruelty to life-enhancing improvements like democratic self-government and rational, empirical scientific inquiry, and then spread them around the world. It generated individual freedoms – and from that, the creative destruction of the market place that has created prosperity and abolished poverty like nothing else before it. Liberalism is gradual, and changes things from the bottom up. It is the opposite of top-down attempts to create Utopia like revolutionary socialism. Liberalism is all about improvement, but it works with human
nature.

The Marxists decided that if their socialism didn’t work then human nature would have to be changed, eventually with the gulag and the firing squad. It would be a stretch to suggest that gentle neo-Marxist academics – as devoutly as they believe that all human history and culture is but a ruling-class conspiracy – are in the same boat as Pol Pot. But their objections to Ramsay as a prelude to fascism are just as absurd.

Liberalism is once again in need of renewal, and its old ideas in need of reviving. In an era of ‘post-truth’ domestic politics, lies are currency and a new swamp of cynicism is being created. The old Western-led international order that defeated the Soviet Union has gone. In its place is a no-rules balance of great powers free to operate through bluster, brinkmanship and intimidation. Business too is short on trust and a sound sense of purpose. It needs to go back to the reminder from Adam Smith that a free economy only comes from moral beings who are able to look at themselves and know the difference between vice and virtue.

Many have argued that the West’s elites have become too smug and entrenched, and do not know how to deal with the populist demands now being made of them. To that conflict will be added the vast impact of new technologies many people barely grasp. But you do not need to look at the classic texts for long to know that we have been resolving dilemmas like this for a long time. We need to go back to some of our own best ideas. We need more Ramsays, not fewer.

Credit: Australian Financial Review – see full article here

Picture credit: The great books supply our mental infrastructure.  Jim Pavlidis illustration

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28 December 2018

The Ramsay Centre’s 10 books you must read before you die

Forget the politics around the Ramsay Centre. Dive into the politics discussed in these 10 greatest books ever, write Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney.

Western civilisation has asked the deepest human questions for thousands of years, in the form of a great conversation carried on in books, art and music.

By joining this conversation, by experiencing some of these ageless works, we can learn from history, gain insight into our own humanity and better understand the foundations of our society.

This chronological list of great works in two categories – literature and political philosophy – may help you navigate family relationships during the holidays, reflect on this year’s banking royal commission, or think about political turmoil in Canberra, Europe or the US. It may even encourage you to read some of the books.

The Iliad – Homer

All philosophy, Plato said, is a meditation on death, but it was a poet not a philosopher who gave to the world the most profound meditation on death that Greek civilisation would produce. Homer’s Iliad centres on the fate of “swift-footed” Achilles, the psychopathic but magnificent Greek warrior. Confronted with an existential choice – to live a short, glorious life or a long but unremembered life – Achilles at first seems to reject the glorious path.

Dishonoured by his commander Agamemnon, he withdraws in a rage from the battle against the Trojans. The course of the war turns almost immediately against the Greeks, but when Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, introspection gives way to action. Knowing his own death will shortly follow any triumph, Achilles rushes into the fray, turning the tide of battle, until he confronts and kills the noble Hector.

The final book remains among the most poignant in the Western canon, as Achilles – his rage overwhelmed by King Priam’s grief for his fallen son – returns Hector’s body to his weeping father.

Sharpening the poem’s already acute sensitivity to the appalling plight of women in war, as the poem draws to a close, Hector’s wife, Andromache, laments her fallen hero and her own fate.

The Aeneid, Book 4 – Virgil

If having a passionate affair is something you want to tick off your bucket list before you kick the same bucket, you should first read the cautionary tale of Dido and Aeneas in Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid. This affair not only ends in tears, it ends in flames. Having fled the burning walls of Troy with his household gods on his back, Aeneas and his fleet are waylaid in Carthage on their way to Italy, where he is destined to resettle the surviving remnant of Troy. In Carthage he seduces Dido under the influence of the goddess Aphrodite.

The story offers a classic study of the battle between duty and desire – of our obligations to God and neighbour, on the one hand, and our personal passions on the other. In the end, Aeneas answers the call of the gods to recommence his journey to Italy. He abandons Dido who, in response, immolates herself, consumed by flames just as she had been consumed by passion. Later, in the underworld, in literature’s greatest rebuke, she turns away from her former lover, refusing to acknowledge his presence.

The Gospel of Mark

If for no other reason than you want to understand why we value forgiveness and human rights, why we feel we should help the poor, and why we tend to feel ashamed when we treat others in a way we would not like to be treated ourselves, you need to read “the greatest story ever told” (as it was called in a famous Hollywood movie of that name). Set in Jerusalem around 33AD , the story was the catalyst for the complete transformation of the Roman Empire and the birth of European civilisation – whose laws, morals, customs, education, music, art, architecture and literature it has ineluctably shaped.

It is the subject of the four canonical Gospels, of which Mark’s is the shortest and most urgent, dispensing with the infancy narrative and taking us straight to the heart of Jesus’s ministry to sinners and the poor. Suffering is turned to joy in the account of the resurrection, as the grieving women come to anoint with sweet spices the body of their crucified rabbi. “And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away…”

Inferno – Dante

Dante’s Inferno is surely the greatest work of literature to be born out of a midlife crisis. A political exile from his beloved Florence, Dante begins his masterpiece describing how he lost his way “midway” in life. In the dark wood three wild beasts, representing various vices, hunt our hero before Virgil is sent to rescue Dante through the intercessions of Beatrice, the poet’s muse. Having passed through limbo, Virgil’s own place of residence, the pilgrims arrive in the second circle of hell, where the sins of lust are punished. Here they see Dido (see above) and encounter the tragic lovers, Paulo and Francesca.

Still tossing up whether to have that affair before you die? Dante will set you right. In what is the most famous episode in the entire poem, Francesca describes her adulterous affair with Paulo, which ended when she and Paulo were discovered in bed by Paulo’s brother – Francesca’s husband – who swiftly killed them. Dante faints in response, so troubled is he by the thought that carnal passion – which seemed so irresistible – could lead to eternal separation from God, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

Lust, though, is the most minor of the major sins. Dante has greater ire for loan sharks. The cast of the damned in Inferno looks less like Halloween and more like the banking royal commission.

King Lear – Shakespeare

In an age when “misspeaking” at work, on social media or in emails can lead to the loss of one’s career and livelihood, it is worth revisiting the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear. Cordelia’s refusal to “mend [her] speech a little” by adding “nothing” to the insincere flatteries of her two sisters, leads to her banishment, setting in motion a tragedy that ends with her dead body lying limp in her father’s arms – a kind of pieta, with the genders reversed.

As with Homer, we see what it is for a king to grieve over his fallen child, but Lear’s agony is worse than Priam’s, for Lear is himself responsible for the calamities that allow evil to triumph over his kingdom and home. The so-called medieval synthesis of faith and reason is here firmly pulled apart; the great chain of being dissolves and Shakespeare makes us feel what it is for humanity to return to a universe where, like the characters in Homer’s Iliad, we are no more to the gods than “flies to wanton boys – they use us for their sport”. Hammering home Lear’s terrible realisation that Cordelia will live “no more”, the most memorable and devastating line in the play contains one word, repeated five times: “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Republic – Plato

A group of Athenians discuss the immortality of the soul, the immorality of art, the illusions of everyday life, the equality of the sexes, the abolition of the family, the nature of political constitutions, the importance of education. But above all they talk about justice, the essential principle in both the self and the state. A bullying type says that justice is a chimera. Political life is the exercise of power and the satisfaction of appetite (sexual, material). The autocrat is the happiest of all because he can have whatever he desires.

Socrates has to persuade his disconcerted and sceptical friends that the truly just man or woman – even when suffering, poor and dishonoured – will be happier than the wealthy, powerful, respected tyrant. And that the best government is by wise, well-educated Guardians (the European Commission?), who understand what “justice” really means, what the best life really is for human beings, as individuals and citizens.

Unlike Aristotle, whose Politics is a dry empirical account of how we actually practise politics, Plato thought philosophy’s job was to imagine a utopia, based on the meaning of an intellectual idea. This conceptual approach to thinking has driven Western thought ever since.

History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides

The West’s first true work of history is also a tragedy: that of Athens herself. Pericles’ immortal Funeral Speech, his tribute to the spirit of democracy and to his city at her zenith, as a bastion of freedom against Persian and Spartan expansionism, is soon succeeded by a terrible plague. It kills a third of the population and demoralises the rest. Hedonism takes over; the values which made the city great are abandoned.

The Spartan conflict turns into a faction-driven civil war across the whole of Greece. Again values dissolve. The cunning rogue is respected, not the good man. The stupid and the violent flourish, the wise and peaceable go under. Language itself is corrupted. Moderation is called weakness, prudence is now cowardice. People are driven not by honour but by love of honour, by ambition, by desire for status.

Athens becomes cruel to her colonies, telling them that might is right. First hubris, then nemesis. Her great army invades Sicily: the tragic mistake or hamartia. The army is utterly destroyed, with heartbreaking descriptions of starvation, disease and imprisonment. Human flourishing is complex and unstable. The freest and most democratic of societies can betray or forget their own values.

The Prince – Machiavelli

Eliminate your enemies. If you have to be cruel, do it at once. Be feared not loved. Pretend you are virtuous but be “honourably bad”. Mankind is ungrateful, deceitful, greedy, timid, selfish. People value status above love. They get “bored with the good and long for the bad”.

No wonder Machiavelli has always had a bad rap. But he said these things on purpose. Renaissance Italy was a chaos of feuding factions and warring states. He was fed up with romantic advice books for princes, advocating Platonic or Christian ideals. He was interested in how we actually are, not how we ought or pretend to be.

Desire and appetite are always with us. Political life, like moral life in general, is a matter of seeing clearly how things actually are, so as to secure the flourishing of stable states. (Machiavelli thought republics were more stable than monarchies.) Political and Christian values don’t mix. Humility, mercy, self-abnegation and turning the other cheek don’t work in public policy or international relations.

Machiavelli points to an uncomfortable truth: our civilisation is founded on incommensurable value sets. The trick is to recognise this truth – and live with it.

The Social Contract –Rousseau

Mankind is naturally solitary and good; our institutions have made us wicked (and ruined nature). Society creates inequality by making us aware of our differences from others. These insights came to Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the road to Vincennes in 1749.

Like St Paul on the Damascus road, he “beheld another universe and became another man”. We are fallen beings: how do we redeem ourselves? How to shake off the chains of wealth, power and inequality we long ago ran headlong into? Answer: by politics, by the creation of a new kind of state. We must allow our corrupt individual wills to be subsumed within a new “general will”.

In this “fundamental pact” each of us must give himself or herself completely to the community of the like-minded. Those who refuse are “forced to be free”, saving them from their own corruption. The lawmaker “should feel himself capable of changing human nature”, of transforming each individual into a part of a greater whole. We must all enter a state of being in which we will see social justice and equality as our own true liberty. This view has enormous, quasi-religious power. It has inspired millions of people and the great political revolutions of modernity.

Reflections on the Revolution in France – Burke

Alone in the natural state, “stripped of every relation”, we are “naked and shivering” creatures, Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote in 1790. Each person’s “stock of reason” is small. We need society, “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages”.

Society is indeed a contract, but one we enter into just by being born human, not by redesigning human nature. It is a partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn.

Our freedoms are an inheritance derived from our forebears; it is incumbent on us to transmit them to our posterity. Government is a “convenience”, literally a “coming together”, not an ideal template. Politics is to be undertaken in a spirit of self-sacrifice and restraint, with a deep sense of responsibility to the present and the future.

“The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility” and must be aware of his or her own fallibility (politicians please note). Society is a delicate and complex fabric, easily destroyed. Institutions are to be cherished. Liberty is something we discover for ourselves in the self-sacrificing activity of preserving those institutions. The fanatical pursuit of perfect equality will destroy them; at the end of that road “you see nothing but the gallows”.

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seeks to advance education by promoting studies and discussion of our intellectual, artistic and institutional heritage. It has partnered with Wollongong University to deliver a bachelor degree starting in 2020. This list was prepared by the Centre’s CEO, Professor Simon Haines, and its executive officer (academic), Dr Stephen McInerney.

Credit: The Australian Financial Review   https://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/books/the-ramsay-centres-10-books-you-must-read-before-you-die-20181212-h190kz 

 

 

 

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17 December 2018

Ramsay Centre and University of Wollongong sign Memorandum of Understanding

STATEMENT FROM CEO PROFESSOR SIMON HAINES

As part of a philanthropic gift to the Humanities in Australia, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has today signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Wollongong (UOW), to fund a new BA degree in Western Civilisation, and a related scholarship program.

This is the first university partnership for the Centre, which was created with an endowment from the late Paul Ramsay AO, founder of Ramsay Health Care. The Centre seeks to advance education through study and discussion of western civilisation, including through university partnerships. It is currently in discussion with several other universities, including within the Group of Eight.

Worth upwards of $50 million over 8 years, the partnership will also fund 150 undergraduate scholarships, and the hiring of world-class educators.

To read the full release please click media release RAMSAY UOW MOU

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17 December 2018

Steel town uni is right for Ramsay’s new degree – by Prof Simon Haines

There has been a lot of publicity this year around the Ramsay Centre’s potential partnerships with universities to create new Bachelor of Arts degrees. What has too often been overlooked is that at its core this is a story about helping our young people to be the leaders of the future. How will these degrees benefit students? How will they benefit their teachers in the humanities disciplines?

 The new degrees will enable undergraduates to engage with the great classic “texts” of the Western tradition, from Homer to Kafka, from Socrates to Rousseau to Wittgenstein, from the Parthenon to Picasso, across three years of intensive small-group reading. They read Greek and Latin tragedy and epic, medieval and Renaissance poetry, classical and Enlightenment philosophy, the great pioneer texts in the history of science, the Bible and its legacy, art and architecture.

 This isn’t some superficial, touristic survey, to allow elite future leaders to engage in polite cocktailparty chit-chat about masterpieces.

 The collaborative exposure to highly complex texts enables students to develop a genuinely critical mindset, applicable in all walks of life, irrespective of their future political or social affiliations, while at the same time making them intelligently aware of a rich and broad intellectual and artistic heritage.

 Most of these great works (think Rousseau, Socrates, Wollstonecraft) are themselves models of critical thought, often downright hostile to the societies they were created in.

 Our civilisation grew precisely through absorbing their criticisms.

 Free critical thought must always be an essential value in our universities and these works are models of that.

 Of course, many of them are already taught in different disciplines: but nowhere are they all brought together in a single chronological sequence.

 This transformative learning style is unfamiliar in Australia and Britain, but widely practiced in smaller North American liberal art colleges. A feature of the model we propose is that students will still be able to take a second, parallel arts major, and thus qualify for honours if they desire, in, say, history or English, or take a minor in Chinese (Mandarin) or Indigenous studies.

 Alternatively they can take a combined degree such as arts/law and acquire a professional qualification. Their education as leaders will thus combine the professional and the contemplative, as well as providing the opportunity for comparative or cross-cultural studies, as they wish.

 Thirty students each year from every university we partner with will be awarded generous five-year scholarships to offset living and accommodation costs and enable them to pursue these options without devoting precious time to income-earning. This will give an opportunity to students from diverse backgrounds, some of whom might not otherwise think of taking such a program. At the discretion of partner universities, the degree may also be open to other students who do not hold such scholarships.

 Importantly, the centre will be providing funding to hire top-flight teachers and scholars to deliver the course. Our goal here is twofold: to help restore the status of teaching itself, usually now the poor relation in a research- and rankingsobsessed sector; and at the same time to bring desperately needed new career opportunities back into the humanities, where whole departments of philosophy, classics and other vital disciplines are being closed, to the immense impoverishment of our culture and our future leadership. Young scholars are seeing their whole futures disappear before their eyes.

 As for our new partnership with the University of Wollongong: our leaders come from and are needed in all walks of life and all parts of the country, not just among the metropolitan elites. Our scholarships intend to recognise this. So does this first partnership with one of Australia’s most forward-thinking, teachingoriented, genuinely progressive, regional universities. From the start, the centre has looked for its partners further afield than just the big-city sandstones. Likewise, we and our partners will be looking beyond the more privileged urban areas for those students who will be among our future leaders.

 We hugely look forward to working with our new partners, and with the others still to come.

Credit: Sydney Morning Herald – For the full article please see  –  https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-steel-town-is-right-for-ramsay-s-western-degree-20181216-p50mjv.html

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There are no limitations to the mind except those that we acknowledge"
- Napoleon Hill