At the University of Sydney we can see what happens when students are no longer taught our history. When the halls of higher learning focus more on identity politics and postmodernist ideas of power structures instead of historical context and nuance. When the suggestion of teaching Western Civilization or a course on the great books is met with accusations of white supremacism. Before you know it we have a bunch of entitled activists trying to tear down a statue of the University founder and great Australian hero, William Charles Wentworth, whose only crime was being a man of his time.
The activists behind this campaign are the privileged offspring of irresponsible academics and university bureaucrats, who care more about pushing their ideology than passing on knowledge and ideas to the next generation. This is made clear by their ridiculous choice of target. Along with setting up the University, Wentworth established one of the first Australian independent newspapers in 1824, was the first European to find a passage across the Blue Mountains, and was the author of the New South Wales constitution, the foundation stone of Australian democracy. To these critics all such achievements should be dismissed because Wentworth carries the baggage of ideas of race that would have been unexceptional in his era. This is yet another instance in which history is weaponised, as significant figures from the past are viewed through today’s academic lens of identity politics.
No historical figure is without their flaws, but any balanced assessment of Wentworth would see the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. Born in Australia to a convict mother and a highwayman father, Wentworth was the champion of ex-convicts and the descendants of convicts. He fought for their equal rights against the ‘exclusives’, rich free settlers like the Macarthur’s, who thought the entire convict class should be permanently excluded from positions of influence. It is in large part because of Wentworth that these ‘exclusives’ were defeated and Australia developed a classless and egalitarian society. Nevertheless, his critics dare to attack him as ‘aristocratic’ simply because he was lucky enough to receive an English education, without which he never would have been inspired to found the University.
Wentworth Must Fall is a pale imitation of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which ultimately saw a statue removed from the University of Capetown in South Africa. In both cases pulling down statues is a poor way to conduct historical debates, but it is also a sign of the activists’ utter ignorance that they think the two men have comparable records. Rhodes was an imperialist from Britain who supported the ongoing conquest of Africa, whereas Wentworth was born in an existing Colony in which he wanted the settlers to enjoy the same rights and liberties he associated with the United Kingdom.
He was no more of a violent colonialist than any migrant or descendant of migrants who now lives on land once occupied exclusively by traditional owners (a description which would also fit most of the activists), Importantly, within Wentworth’s lifetime the same rights and liberties he had fought for on behalf of Europeans began to be extended to the indigenous peoples of Australia, a process which culminated in the 1967 referendum.
Activists have been trying to get traction on this issue for the last three years. In response centre-right clubs and student groups on campus have sought to debate the matter with them, to no avail. Perhaps the activists know so little of Wentworth and his time they would be ill equipped to debate his legacy. They have decided that his colonial status must have made him a hate-filled oppressor, so who would bother to read a book on such a character?
The activists also claim that their intended goal is to ‘decolonise’ the University of Sydney. The only way to truly decolonise the institution would be to abolish it. It is inherently a colonial-era institution that was originally established by public-spirited men like Wentworth in emulation of Oxford and Cambridge. The motto of the University of Sydney is Sidere mens eadem mutate, which translates to ‘the stars change, the mind remains the same’ or ‘the same learning under new stars’. It was set up to bring the knowledge of the enlightenment to a new colony and to ensure that it was ready for the responsibility of democracy. By any measure, it has been a tremendous success.
This campaign is not about justice or righting some ancient wrong, but rather about activists showing as many people as possible how amazingly woke and virtuous they are. Wentworth set up the university to train the people of his beloved native country for the democracy that he helped to establish. These activists are doing their best to prove that they are unworthy of the gift.
Renee Gorman is the National Manager of Generation Liberty at the Institute of Public Affairs, and a graduate of the University of Sydney.
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