Ramsay, dogwhistles, and the “West”

I studied a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. I graduate next week with first class Honours in History. I’d like to share some thoughts on the Ramsay Centre and their proposed “Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation”.

The Australian claims that “Western civilisation [is] a lost cause at public universities”.

Pockets of excellence remain in the humanities in public universities but overall they are on an ideological path of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they are getting worse. Their university administrations will certainly never reform them…

[T]he Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation… had offered huge donations to set up a degree based on the great books.

Such courses are common in the US. But in Australia only the small Campion College runs such a great-books-based program to an accredited degree level.

Campion College is a Catholic liberal arts college in Sydney, whose goal is “to nurture future students in the liberal arts who will, by the quality of their education and the maturity of their religious faith, be able to live out a mission of leadership and service to society and the Church”. They are, they say, “independent” but “faithfully aligned to the teachings of the Catholic Church”.

Campion runs an annual essay competition to attempt to seduce enrolments out of high school students; in 2010 I won the first of these. I’m not sure I was what they were expecting. I was 17, very small, very energetic, and ragingly queer. They tried to sell the school to me regardless. Bless their socks, but I was desperately uncomfortable. It was all very white and very straight. I don’t think I met a single staff member who wasn’t an elderly white man. It felt like they were pushing an agenda while trying very hard to look like they were not pushing an agenda. The essay competition was attached to a monetary prize; you’d best believe I took the money and ran.

I wanted to study literature and history, but the kind of curriculum that Campion College offered was oddly narrow in a way that is difficult to articulate. They were interested in a particular kind of literature; a particular version of history. It felt sheltered.

All of this said, the curriculum at the University of Sydney wasn’t actually much better than what was offered by Campion College. I was most interested in ancient history and mythology, but the only areas covered by USyd’s Ancient History units were Greece and Rome. There was nothing on ancient Mesopotamia or the Near East, nothing on ancient Egypt, Africa, China, Japan, India, or Mesoamerica. Some of the earliest written texts on this planet are from Ancient Sumer, but there was no opportunity to study Enheduanna (who praised the god Inanna for her ability to turn women into men and vice versa), or to study the Sumerian creation myth that explicitly includes intersex and disabled people. The oldest piece of epic literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I did study very briefly in a subject called “Greek and Roman Myth”, but there were no units of study dedicated wholly to any culture outside of Greece and Rome. There was nothing on ancient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, though they have the oldest continuous cultures in the world. In 2012, the year I began my undergraduate degree, the Koori Centre was defunded and shut down.

When conservatives speak about “the West”, about “Western civilisation” and “tradition”, about “the classics”, about “values” and “culture”, it is all very sharply coded. It sounds good on the surface; why shouldn’t we nurture art and the humanities? Well, alright, but let’s remember why they’re suffering in the first place: the Liberal government has announced plans to cut $2.2 billion in funding from universities. So let’s allow ourselves to be suspicious of their motives for a moment. Let’s ask why they might couch seemingly-innocuous phrases in alarmist rhetoric about falling civilisations and futurity.

Let’s consider the Ramsay Centre in the context of Pauline Hanson moving a motion in the Senate saying “it’s okay to be white”. The phrase is borrowed from white supremacist organisations. It is designed to seem innocuous, to act as a dogwhistle, only capable of being heard by its target audience. It is supposed to be irrefutable: if you recognise the white supremacist baggage attached to the phrase and try to reject it, then you’re proving their point.

The “West” itself is a nebulous concept. It includes Greece and Rome, but not Carthage or Egypt; it includes Jerusalem, but not Uruk. Even the Ramsay Centre doesn’t feel the need to define exactly what they mean by Western civilisation. Their proposed curriculum is startlingly unambitious. Homer, Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare: it looks exactly like the contents of my undergraduate degree. Still no Gilgamesh or Enheduanna, though much of Graeco-Roman myth and culture is inherited from Sumer and Mesopotamia. (Compare the descent of Inanna with the myth of Persephone.) And nothing in languages other than English, though most of the named foundational texts were written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. The West, whatever it is, is apparently strictly Anglophonic.

None of the content of the proposed course is particularly neglected by the existing University of Sydney curriculum. These are the current core units of study for Ancient History at USyd:

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What, then, is so at risk of neglect or decline? What exactly is at stake here? Yes, all of these are worthy of study, but are they the only areas worthy of study? I can’t say that I can characterise much of my undergraduate education as especially leftist or radical; if the university is producing radical leftists then it is certainly not by design.

Returning to the piece in the Australian, Greg Sheridan places Christianity at the heart of the “West”.

The West, uniquely, developed experimental science because of its theological views of nature. God was sacred and nature was natural. Nature didn’t embody warring or capricious demons. It was good, as Genesis had proclaimed. And it embodied order, as a reflection of divine order. The desire to discover the secrets of that order led to experimental science.

By their own timeline it doesn’t make much sense. Christianity began in the first century BCE; the civilisation of Ancient Greece is generally regarded as emerging in the eighth century BCE and ending in the second century BCE, when it was invaded by Ancient Rome. If Christianity is at the heart of the West, then the West cannot include Ancient Greece, and yet it does. The Ancient Greeks thought that the origin of the world began with night and chaos, and their gods were not holy and righteous but petty and selfish. Nature was random and strange, full of whirling possibilities. If there was a perfect order, it was in the vastness of everything, the huge beauty of the unknown, all of it working in weird harmony.

Proponents of the Ramsay Centre seem to think that everything admirable about the classics is at risk of being spoiled by feminism and “cultural Marxism”. How boring, to point out cultural metanarratives of inequity. How frustrating and facile, to project bigotry across these great works of brilliant men, to bring sexism and racism into it (since, of course, they mustn’t have been there already).

And yet if we are to invoke people like Aristotle and Plato as the grand forefathers of Western civilisation, if we are speaking about nature and order, then we must come to grips with what that means. Aristotle believed that slavery itself was natural; that women were naturally inferior to men; that disabled infants should be murdered at birth. Plato, too, thought that certain inequities were natural.

In my undergraduate study we never examined Plato or Aristotle especially deeply for sexism or ableism; they are simply inescapably those things already. As a disabled person it is impossible to read Aristotle and feel comfortable with his asserting “let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”. And it is not only these older texts that should be subjected to a critical lens. Marx, too, is painfully racist and ableist: as a disabled person it is impossible to read Marx and feel comfortable with his references to “crippled monstrosities”. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the lot of them, but we should at least take their grand truths with a grain of salt.

Of course none of this was ever touched upon in my classes. If feminism has ruined university education then it has done a very half-hearted job of it. A while ago I took a European Studies class where one of the prescribed texts was The Marquise of O, after which the tutorial avidly discussed whether a violent gangrape was really rape if she fell in love with him afterwards. The text after that was The Sorrows of Young Werther – a book which gives its name to the “Werther effect”, referring to copycat suicides, since its publication induced a spate of them. No content warnings, of course, and no option to skip those texts – hah! Snowflakes! Etc.

Are we neglecting the history and literature of Western civilisation? Well, no, not really. In fact I think we could comfortably neglect it a little more, and benefit from it.