The Australian National University has cut ties with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation (Paul Ramsay’s posthumous project for the reinvigoration of liberal arts education). The ANU has decided they will not work together to create a new liberal arts program premised on inculcating a deep understanding of and respect for the intellectual foundations upon which our uniquely successful liberal-democracy was built.
Tony Abbott summarised the project’s mission in the April issue of Quadrant:
The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it. The fact that it is “for” the cultural inheritance of countries such as ours, rather than just interested in it, makes it distinctive. The fact that respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions makes the Ramsay Centre not just timely but necessary. This is an important national project. It’s not every day, after all, that some $3 billion is dedicated in perpetuity to raising the tone of our civic conversation.
I completed an Arts degree at one of our more esteemed institutions of “higher learning”, and came away none-the-wiser as to the intellectual roots out of which grew the political institutions that safeguard our freedom, our tolerance, our cultural diversity, and our capacity for intellectual innovation. That is not to say that individual teachers weren’t terrific, or that they were pushing their own ideological agenda (although some unambiguously were), but that the degree did not enforce minimum standards of education in the fundamentals – historical, philosophical, and procedural – that undergird Australian prosperity. Had there been available a course in Western Civilisation such as that proposed by the Ramsay Centre when I finished high school – it would have been a dream come true.
In his essay, Mr Abbott was optimistic about the prospects of success in having the Ramsay program operating within a public institution like ANU:
In preparing the Ramsay Centre report, [Julian] Leeser was acutely conscious of “O’Sullivan’s law”, first formulated by the former editor (now international editor) of Quadrant, John O’Sullivan, namely that “every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing”. This is a serious risk for the Ramsay Centre but I’m confident that this fate will be avoided: first, because the Ramsay Centre board (which includes Kim Beazley and Joe de Bruyn, as well as Howard, Leeser and me) is determined not to waste Paul’s legacy; and second, because even in Australian universities there is still a cadre of teachers for whom history can’t be rewritten, facts are facts, and great books are still well worth reading.
The Australian reported that: “The backdown follows intervention by the National Tertiary Education Union and the Australian National University Student Association, which had claimed the program would push a ‘racist’ and ‘radically conservative agenda’.” I’m sure Kim Beazley of all people would be surprised to learn that an institution operating under his auspices was pushing a “racist” and “radically conservative agenda”. On the other hand, if members of the aforementioned Student Association had had the benefit of an education such as that proposed by the Ramsay Centre, they’d know better the true meaning of terms such as “racist” and “radically conservative” – and less frequently deploy them with such morally contemptible imprecision.
ANU has apparently expressed concern regarding the “autonomy” of the University with respect to setting standards together with the Ramsay initiative. To my mind, I’d be more concerned that the high educational ideals aspired to by the Ramsay initiative would be compromised through association with ANU.
Therefore, the Ramsay Centre should strike out on its own and set up a private educational institution. Doubtless, this will radically limit its reach in certain respects – but it would be worth it in securing its objectives and aspirations free from meddlesome influence by public university bureaucrats.
A private college could still provide outreach scholarships to the disadvantaged (indeed it must to maximise the breadth of its influence). It could also attract academic teaching talent that has been marginalised by the dominant public universities.
Paradoxically, it may be private liberal arts colleges that are best placed to serve the public interest of Australia.
Edward Cranswick is a Melbourne writer. He tweets at @edwardthecran
Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.
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