News & Events

10 July 2019

What the vulgar feud around the Ramsay Centre doesn’t grasp about ‘Western Civilisation’ – by Andrew Gleeson

The Ramsey Centre for Western Civilisation appears to be making progress in its plan to establish degrees in Western Civilisation at three Australian Universities. Just last week, it was reported that the University of Queensland’s academic board approved a plan for courses to begin next year, subject to final approval by the university’s vice-chancellor. At the same time, the National Tertiary Education Union is reported to have dropped legal action against courses at the University of Wollongong, also scheduled for a 2020 start.

Scornful critics will, of course, not abandon their attempts to scuttle the project. They have succeeded in convincing many people ― even some of the program’s advocates ― that it is little more than a conservative project aimed at glorifying straight white European male supremacy.

But nothing could be further from the truth. A perusal of the Indicative Curriculum reveals a cunning left-wing plot to subvert the established order of capitalism. Consider this selection from the curriculum’s texts.

The initial year of study includes Aeschylus’s Oresteia. The first play of this trilogy, Agamemnon, is one of the earliest works to strike a feminist blow against patriarchy, describing Queen Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon to usurp his throne. Students also study Plato ― that well-known champion of homoerotic love ― whose most famous dialogue, The Republic, describes an ideal state devoted to justice and ruled by a caste of progressive intellectuals.

When one gets around to authors writing in English, students are introduced to sexual politics through the notorious bawdy of Chaucer and Shakespeare. They also study John Milton, that infamous republican and revolutionary, whose greatest literary creation was an epic poem celebrating insurrection against the Christian God.

In the study of the Enlightenment, pride of place is given to radically democratic and liberal figures like Locke and Kant, feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, radicals like Rousseau ― an inspiring spirit of the French revolution ― and Thomas Paine, the nemesis of conservative hero Edmund Burke.

As we reach the last couple of hundred years, the fig leaf of traditionalist appearances is shed to reveal an openly Bolshie syllabus: Nietzsche and Freud ― scourges of Christianity both ― black radicals like W.E.B. Du Bois, and even Marx and Foucault!

Well, this is parody, of course ― albeit parody with a point: that the canon of ‘Western Civilisation’ is more diverse than its critics suspect. More importantly, it is also far richer than anyone would think whose only knowledge of it ― like that of most students ― is sourced from the bizarre philippics of its detractors or the bland instrumental rationales sometimes voiced in its defence.

Credit: ABC Religion and Ethics website– click here to read the full article
Posted Tue 9 Jul 2019, 5:49pm Updated Tue 9 Jul 2019, 6:12pm

Andrew Gleeson is a retired academic philosopher who lives in Adelaide. He is the author of A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil.

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1 July 2019

Freedom of speech the basis of study in Ramsay courses

By Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney

Can we maintain the right to express our own views while limiting the rights of others to do the same? When does free expression become an incitement to riot, an oppression of the vulnerable or a danger to national security?

Since 2017, the Ramsay Centre has been in discussion with several Australian universities about prospective partnerships to offer degrees focused on the “great books” and other texts of Western civilisation, from Homer to Heaney, taking in classical, biblical, medieval, early modern and modern sources.

While we may have taken a slower path to realising these partnerships than we anticipated, there is much to look forward to.

The new bachelor of arts in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong will accept its first enrolments in 2020, with 30 full undergraduate scholarships to be offered each year, and 10 academic positions. We are progressing towards other partnerships.

We also expect next year to unveil a suite of generous postgraduate scholarships for Australian students to pursue further study at prestigious overseas universities.

This slow but steady progress is good news for us all, not least the students and academic staff of under-resourced humanities departments: the places we rely on most to remind us that what we often take to be self-evident, or think we have just discovered, has its roots in ancient insights, or is the outcome of centuries of struggle and progress.

Our notions of tragedy and truth, state and citizen, beauty and good, nature and art: all these have long and distinctive pedigrees, and are deeply constitutive of modern attitudes.

Perhaps this is most true in the case of our liberal-democratic freedoms: of speech, assembly, religion, the press.

Daily the local and international news reminds us that these freedoms are under perpetual challenge.

In Australia, voices across the political spectrum, from Alan Jones to Richard Flanagan, have spoken out in defence of a free press. In Hong Kong, millions of people, included among them many students, have assembled in the streets in defence of the rule of law.

Good for them. Use it or lose it: freedom is the birthright each generation inherits, but also holds in trust for those to come. Our sense of responsibility for the trust is strengthened if we also know it as an inheritance. But it’s a complex inheritance, and we are inconsistent in our attitudes to it. Students protesting against contentious campus speakers, for example, or governments denying visas to controversial visitors, could look across the centuries to John Stuart Mill, John Milton or Thomas Aquinas.

In On Liberty (1859), Mill argued “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”.

But he also invoked the “harm principle”, according to which the prevention of harm to others is the only purpose for which power can be “rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised society”. So how much harm can be done by a speaker expressing a contentious view? When does the exercise of power over speech become illiberal?

Milton’s argument in Areopagitica (1644) for “unlicensed printing”, for the freedom “to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”, is a treasure of English prose as well as one of the greatest of all defences of liberty – and of great books, come to that – which he said “do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them”.

But as a Puritan writing in the shadow of civil war, Milton did not think this freedom should be extended to Roman Catholics, whom he saw as a threat to his nation’s existence.

So did he believe in freedom of speech? Is his position so different from the pre-modern attitude of Aquinas, the soul of Aristotelian good sense in so many respects, and of course a Roman Catholic, who in the mid-13th century argued that heretics posed a threat to social order and indeed the very souls of the population, and should be suppressed, by force if necessary?

Does freedom of expression have exceptions? If so, is it genuinely free?

Students might be encouraged to ask such questions in some university courses. They might perhaps encounter Mill, or Milton, or even Aquinas, at least in passing, in different majors. But asking such questions through reading all three of these “living intellects” in the course of one degree: this is the kind of thing we hope to enable a few students to do, and when the word gets around, maybe a lot more will want to.

Source: Australian Financial Review, to see article click here.

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25 June 2019

Conversations with John Anderson: Featuring Helen Pluckrose, editor-in-chief and academic researcher

Former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson sat down with Grievance Studies affair hoaxer and academic researcher Helen Pluckrose in Sydney recently as part of his ‘Conversations’ podcast series.

Helen was in Sydney to deliver the fourth Ramsay lecture for 2019 on ‘The Rise and Whys of Grievance Studies’. She is a self-described ‘exile from the humanities’ and currently editor-in-chief of Areo, a non-partisan digital magazine focused on Englightenment liberalism, humanism, secularism and freedom of expression.

Helen came to prominence when she and two colleagues sought to expose problems in academic ‘grievance studies’ by submitting bogus papers to academic journals, some of which were published. She is currently writing a book about the impact of postmodern thought on academia, social justice movements and wider culture.

The podcast is available here.

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10 May 2019

Les Murray’s ‘second funeral’ and his everlasting poetry

Les Murray will be farewelled today at St Bernadette’s Catholic Church, Krambach, just out of Bunyah. It will be his second funeral.

More than 20 years ago, Murray suffered an abscess on the liver and was in a coma for three weeks. Coming to, he discovered well-wishers had sent “a Spring-in-Winter love-barque of cards, / of flowers and phone calls and letters”. Waking to the nation’s love, which he’d “never dreamed was there”, meant everything to him. He called it his “State Funeral”. Now that he really has gone, the accolades have been even more numerous and good willed.

To be sure, some commentators have felt the need, in praising Murray, to indicate they were on the “other side” to him politically. What side would that be? Were they on the other side of Murray when it came to the working poor and marginalised? Were they on the other side to his advocacy, long before it was fashionable, of Indigenous Australians? Were they on the other side when he called out – long before anyone else – the problem of schoolyard bullying and its reverberations through the culture?

“Nothing a mob does is clean,” Murray believed. That was the main thrust of his politics. Like the eponymous hero of his remarkable 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, Murray would often step in to protect individuals from a mob, even if he disagreed with them. In an era of “Safe Schools” programs, this is a lesson that should be part of the curriculum, and there is no better way to teach it than through the work of our greatest poet. But there are, of course, many good reasons to encourage the young to read Murray. Indeed, there is an obligation on our schools and universities to do just that.

When I was 16, my father handed me a copy of the 1983 collection The People’s Otherworld. I was confronted by the brazen dedication to the Glory of God, but I was even more challenged by the language itself: “Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels, jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages… migrating mouse-quivering water.”

A year later, my interest was fostered by John Watkins, later deputy premier of NSW, who introduced his Year 11 English class to the early poetry, including Driving through Sawmill Towns, Spring Hail and An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow. The difference between these poems and the more mature ones was stark, and intriguing. How to account for it?

Honestly, I was a slow learner. When I first encountered them I could make little literal sense of the more mature poems, but I felt their electric charge and kept returning to them, year after year, delighting when something suddenly became clear. The last line of the poem, Shower, for example: “Only in Europe is it enjoyed by telephone.” What on earth was he talking about, I wondered for years, until I took a shower in Italy in 1997 and lifted the shower-head with its trailing cord from its fitting: a telephone!

I taught this poem to undergraduates over 10 years in an Australian literature course. Their reaction to the closing line was more often than not the same as mine had been, but I couldn’t bear to make them wait as long as I had to to discover its meaning. I can still see their smiles of recognition when they “saw” for the first time what Murray was describing.

And when I see them in my memory, it is another poem of Murray’s that captures their reaction: “Streaming, a hippo surfaces / like the head of someone / lifting, with still-entranced eyes, / from a lake of stanzas.”

We owe it to every student in Australia’s schools and university English departments to give them this experience.

Stephen McInerney is executive officer (academic) at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and author of The Enclosure of an Open Mystery: Sacrament and Incarnation in the Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, David Jones and Les Murray.

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald 10 May 2019

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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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Even while they teach, men learn"
- Seneca the Younger