In the last few months, the concept of ‘Western Civilisation’ has received significant coverage in the Australian press. In the aftermath of the announcement that healthcare and media entrepreneur Paul Ramsay had bequeathed a considerable sum of money towards its promotion, Western Civilisation appears to have re-entered the public consciousness. This is a very good thing indeed.
There are a some individuals on the Left however, who do not consider this to be a very good thing at all. In fact, in some circles it is considered to be a very bad and completely retrograde thing. The unwelcome news, it appears, has raised many a hackle and caused a substantial amount of umbrage to be taken.
In such circles, the declaration by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation that it will fund two universities – each to offer a Bachelor of Arts devoted wholly and unapologetically to the study of Western Civilisation – has been met with the same disbelief, outrage and anger as if they’d triumphantly announced plans to fund a BA in White Supremacy.
This reaction is largely due to the fact that those on the Left now openly associate Western Civilisation and all its trappings with whiteness. This was amply demonstrated in July, when, during a speech extolling the virtues of Western Civilisation, President Trump asked his Polish audience if the West had the will to survive. His detractors immediately linked his question with race by accusing him of suffering from racial and religious paranoia.
Given that the Left now automatically associates whiteness with bigotry, racism, privilege, oppression and supremacy, the act of defending Western Civilisation has itself become indefensible. We are living through a remarkable time in our human history, where the Left tells us first to be ashamed of that history, and then to disregard it altogether as something utterly offensive.
This view was expressed last month by Professor Catharine Coleborne, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle. In her article in the state-funded Conversation, she decried the launch of the Ramsay Centre as something to be very, very worried about.
The concept of Western Civilisation, she stated, is unfashionable and ‘past its use-by date’ because quite simply, it does not reflect the diversity of the classroom. Eventually, she continues, universities will just have to accept that classes and lectures will be virtually indistinguishable from a general assembly of the United Nations.
In other words, Western Civilisation is too white a unit of study for non-white students and thus should be done away with. Professor Coleborne neglects to mention that the presence of such diversity in Australian universities is a direct consequence of Western Civilisation.
And despite the fact that the University of Newcastle was founded as recently as 1965, its staff and students are direct beneficiaries of a very Western Civilisation institution indeed, albeit in a modern form, whose roots go back to medieval Europe.
The fact that the institution has survived since 1088 is of course testament to its strength. By occupying the post of Head of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Coleborne is actively participating in a tradition of scholarship and erudition which she considers to be outdated, moribund and of little relevance to Australia. This, I would argue, makes her position, and those of like-minded colleagues, rather untenable.
Every student taking a history degree in Australia, regardless of race, should be taught about the glories of Western Civilisation. While other civilisations indeed have claims to particular virtues and achievements, there are aspects of Western Civilisation which have universal importance because they give the human race (even imperfectly) rights and freedoms which apply to all.
While no-one these days would seriously argue that Western Civilisation, or any other civilisation for that matter, has been perfect, it does not mean that it should be cast aside. As Niall Ferguson points out, ‘as is true of all great civilisations, that of the West was Janus faced; capable of nobility and yet also capable of turpitude’. To ignore the ‘nobility’ altogether, because the student you happen to be teaching was not born with white skin, is utterly absurd and does the student an immense disservice.
Unfortunately, the fact that the Head of Humanities and Social Sciences at one of our universities associates Western Civilisation with race is hardly unsurprising. Professor Coleborne is part of a coterie of academics occupying positions in Western universities who appear to despise Western Civilisation and everything that goes with it. Focussing on the ‘turpitude’ of a civilisation is a very easy thing to do if you choose to view ‘the past through the critical lens of the present’ as indeed claimed by Professor Coleborne on her webpage.
However, this critical lens has been employed for such a long time that many academics are incapable of looking at the past any other way. Indeed, identity politics has become the new scientific tool of many historians. Despite Marx’s Theory of Historical Materialism, historians are not, and should not try to be, scientists.
In The Idea of History (1946), Oxford philosopher R.G. Collingwood proffered the following gem: ‘History’, he wrote, ‘offers something altogether different from [scientific] rules, namely insight.’ The total dependence upon a thoroughly modern invention of identity politics to analyse our history, means that this precious insight is lost. How can we weed out bad ideas and develop the good, if we insist on restricting our thinking to the unsophisticated classifications of race, gender and class? How can society continue to progress if we choose to observe the world through such narrow and limited prisms? I suspect that much of the anguish on the Left arises from the fact that it had presumed the concept of Western Civilisation, at least in academia, to be long since dead and buried.
This latest development in NSW however, has rudely and violently interrupted its ideological reverie of a brave new world without it.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues