Maybe we need a degree in Western Civilization after all

I’ve kept out of the latest silly culture war so far, but I couldn’t resist this from Josh Frydenberg. After decrying a “long march to the left” in Australian universities, he says

It is absolutely critical that the next generation of students understand about where the rule of law came from, where democracy came from, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women’s suffrage

Looking through that list, it can be described as a potted summary of the “long march to the left”  in Britain (and by extension Australia) over the course of the “long 19th century” from the French and American revolutions to the outbreak of the Great War.  At the beginning of that period, Freydenberg’s conservative precursors supported the rule of law, and opposed democracy, freedom of speech and religion and women’s suffrage. It was only after long struggles that restrictions on freedom of speech and religion like the Six Acts and Penal Laws  were repealed. The fight for (initialy male-only) democracy and women’s suffrage took even longer.

If we extended Frydenberg’s list into the 20th century, we’d get something like this University of Sydney course which covers

struggles over labour rights and working conditions in the 1900s, women’s suffrage, Aboriginal land rights, race relations and the White Australia Policy, homelessness during the Great Depression, freedom of speech during the Cold War, the Vietnam Moratorium and sexual liberation in the 1970s, the environmental movement, refugees and asylum seekers, and LGBT rights today

This course was denounced by Bella d’Abrera of the Institute of Public Affairs in a piece supporting the need for a Western Civilization course. It’s notable that free speech and women’s suffrage occur both in Frydenberg’s celebratory list and d’Abrera’s denunciation. I’m guessing that, if pressed, d’Abrera would not defend the implication that these, and other items like the end of the White Australia policy, were things to be deplored. But it would be interesting to see her present a version of history in which all the freedoms we now enjoy appeared magically and without any strugge.

Looking at this mess, I think we might need a course in the history of Western Civilisation after all. It should be provided to people like Frydenberg and d’Abrera so they can decide exactly whether they want to stop the clock at 1970, 1950 or perhaps at 1900.

12 thoughts on “Maybe we need a degree in Western Civilization after all

  1. Presumably he has in mind forcing an Australian adaptation of something like ‘A Patriot’s History of the United States’ down students’ throats. Something that emphasises arguably noble and constructive things done by white European settlers while trivialising all the bad stuff and giving glib rebuttals of criticisms are likely to hear from progressives (OK slavery was not good but most slave-owners treated their slaves well, the slaves were actually better off than they would have been in Africa, and it was all organised by the bloody Muslims anyway – that kind of thing).

    As far as the ‘long march to the left’ is concerned … back in the 1960s, Alex Carey was teaching undergraduates at UNSW without anyone turning a hair. I can’t think of anyone as subversively radical on the faculty of any Australian university today.

  2. Not sure who it was that commented that this course is being put forward by a bunch of people who think that both the Reformation and the Enlightenment were disasters…

  3. The capitalist class generally thought capitalism was incompatible with democracy until relatively recently. Since then capitalism has been squeezing out alternative thought and hastening its demise.

  4. What a risible rant from d’Abrera, starts off very badly with a clumsy and obvious misrepresentation of Dirk Moses’ position, and only gets worse. Then you see it’s merely an infomercial for Campion College. What fun to see d’Abrera and Frydenburg opposed in argument and united in denial.

  5. John – I think at least some people on the right would like to wind back pretty much everything since or even starting with the Enlightenment. That’s certainly an plausible interpretation of the IPA manifesto ie Liberal platform.

  6. Its an interesting question actually. What long-dead philosophers are Tony Abbott and Bob Santamaria the disciples of. Certainly not the leading philosophers of Western Civilisation, but from whom did their world view come?

  7. John Goss,

    In answer to your question. Two words, Christian Dogmatics.

    “Sheehan’s Apologetics and Christian Doctrine provided me, as a schoolboy at matriculation standard, with the rational justification for my act of faith in Catholic Christianity.” – B.A. Santamaria

    “John Henry Newman and later C.S. Lewis, … both provided confirmation of my religious beliefs. To the professional philosopher, Newman and C.S. Lewis might appear to be no more than popularizers of other men’s ideas. Yet I do not despise the popularizer, since it seems that there are few new objections to religious belief.” – B.A. Santamaria.

    Hmmm, “few new objections to religious belief”. I guess Santamaria had not heard of comparative religious and cultural studies, nor of science, (evolution, cosmology), nor of Biblical textual criticism. But I guess that’s what happens when one only reads popularizers and only on one’s adopted side of an argument. Religious fundamentalists and traditionalists are still stuck essentially in a Medieval mindset. Their ideation has not progressed beyond that era.

  8. I was thinking more in terms of the origin of their political philosophies. There’s not much political philosophy in CS Lewis. I don’t know Newman.
    I was wondering if John Locke was a substantial influence. Or Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits).

  9. why does any moneyed-up group think it can buy to dictate academic courses to publically funded higher educational institutions?

    is this just another example of of what can be called the “cult of the market”?

    and can we please bin the lefty/righty cant?

    (apologies for awkward sentence construction)

  10. When I attended uni 15years ago most of the stuff was cross-disciplinary to an extent and usually employed examples of different critiquing or “readings” of particular issues and questions. I think that a basic Arts degree like mine is about western civilisation to a fair degree, but inclusive of alienated voices in the ongoing developing study of civilisation in general. I can’t for the life of me see Ramsay as being anything but a regression of what is going still, presumably.
    If the critical edge and questioning of assumptions is knocked off, so that people become like Abbott and Howard, which is presumably what unconscious morons like these want, I must cringe.

    It was shameful to see panellists on Q and A avoiding the question of Ramsay interference in staff selection and curricula.

  11. Bella d’Abrera: “In his 7:30 interview with ANU’s Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, Stan Grant rightly pointed out both the complete lack of diversity insofar as humanities subjects at ANU are concerned, as well as the fact that Western civilization at the university is being taught from a hostile and adversarial point of view.”

    No, d’Abrera is as wilfully deaf as Grant. Grant actually could only cite three alleged “hostile” courses. Three. Schmidt pointed out that there were, if memory serves, some 150 plus other courses across a very broad range available at ANU.

    Are IPA back to the future types such as d’Abrera getting full value out of Mark Scott’s vastly expanded ABC religionist platform? Preaching only to the converted even if with some two of the four cents per day?

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