The IPA’s report, The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017, written by Bella d’Abrera, has received a strong reaction since its release last week.
But the empire of academia has struck back, with a number of pieces by university professors appearing in The Conversation – which is itself largely funded by the tertiary sector.
This piece in particular, by Trevor Burnard of the University of Melbourne, is particularly remarkable. In it, he argues that the content of history curricula is simply a response to student demand. In other words, history departments’ fixation with issues like gender, race and sexuality is a matter of ‘market forces’, rather than a product of design.
But in his self-proclaimed ‘memo’ to the IPA, Professor Burnard inadvertently proves the point that the report is trying to make. By demonstrating his own bias towards identity politics as the default medium of academic discourse, he underscores the intellectual prism through which humanities subjects are taught.
For one thing, he suggests that – as a matter of patriarchal privilege – he ‘should be sympathetic’ to the IPA’s research, being a ‘white, middle-aged male’. It’s notable that Professor Burnard feels the need to own up to his gender and race before mentioning his qualifications or expertise in the subject at hand.
Professor Burnard also shows his tendency to superimpose issues of identity politics on the work of others, no matter how irrelevant. ‘[D]istinguishing between “identity politics” and “western civilisation” is a false distinction,’ he writes. ‘Indeed d’Abrera is the author of a fine book in gender history, on Mary I, Tudor Queen of England’.
It’s rather telling that because the monarch sitting on the throne at that time happened to be female, Professor Burnard appears to see past the real significance of the Reformation in England – the interplay between church and state and religious freedom – and pigeonhole Dr d’Abrera’s work into the genre of ‘gender history’.
But the most problematic element of Professor Burnard’s piece is when he plays down the significance of his own area of interest:
We don’t live in the fantasy world the IPA inhabits, full of Australian students of European heritage, desperate to learn about the legacy of western culture that is ‘our’ cultural past. If we followed d’Abrera’s policy prescriptions we would do ourselves serious damage.
What is Professor Burnard suggesting here? That western civilisation is only relevant to ‘Australian students of European heritage’? Are concepts like democracy, liberty and the rule of law somehow less relevant to the children of migrants from, say, China or India, because it is not their ‘cultural past’? And how will a greater emphasis on fundamental civic institutions result in ‘serious damage’?
It is deeply concerning that even academics such as Professor Burnard – with his substantial expertise and interest in the matter and admission that he ‘leans right’ – are brushing aside the significance of the history of western civilisation. Its enduring values are universal, not the extensions of some kind of dead white male conspiracy
What is even more worrying is that Professor Burnard seems to suggest that western civilisation isn’t all that interesting. ‘Australians are not as interested in the history of western civilisation as the IPA thinks they are,’ he writes.
Professor Burnard is wrong here. In fact, it is remarkable that so many students take subjects on western civilisation at all, given its systematic denigration by a generation of academics.
You cannot – as universities have done for decades – write off our timeless civic institutions as tools of structural oppression and then throw up your hands when numbers drop off. Nobody is born being ambivalent to the history of western civilisation. Even if one accepts Professor Burnard’s (incorrect) argument that students are uninterested in western civilisation, it is because, for decades, the message from academia has been that there is nothing there of interest.
And even if one accepts the argument that students are simply bored by western civilisation, that doesn’t it any less relevant, indeed vital, as an academic discipline. A true liberal arts education must be about more than the intellectual fads du jour.
Professor Burnard makes the point that universities are required, under our system, to be responsive to student need – as they should be. But that is not an excuse for academics to drop the ball on subject quality.
To blame the searing imbalance in history curricula on student preferences is a cop-out at best. In fact, it is arguably the preferences of academics that are driving this obsession with identity politics. And as long as our universities put more of a premium on the superficialities that divide us than the timeless values that unite us, our society will be poorer for it.
One could say that, in their torrential reaction to Dr d’Abrera’s work, academia doth protest too much.
Gideon Rozner is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.
Illustration: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, New-York Historical Society.
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