On the Ramsay Centre
Words by K.N.
Three universities in Australia have this year had the misfortune to be approached by a prospective donor with a lot of money. The young “Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation” wants to establish a Bachelor of Arts with a focus on “Western Civilisation” studies. Its purpose is not to study history but to advocate for a particularly narrow view of it. What it proposes is a degree with so broad a scope and so fixed an ideological slant that its students would never come into contact with any meaningful academic debate.
Students and academics at ANU, Sydney, and now UQ, have already identified the inherent problems of the proposal. Is the course supposed to be analytical or propagandistic? Will the academics who teach the course have independence? And what subjects would it even include?
These are all important questions but they are all beside the point. The Ramsay Centre could have offered to support existing under-funded courses, or to provide an unencumbered gift to an existing school. It did not, because it is not interested in scholarship. In fact, Ramsay does not really care about the thing it purports to support.
These crusaders for the West do not care for “Enlightenment values”, nor, as it happens, for antiquity. Neither Goethe nor Plato matters. When it is not “Western Civilisation”, it is their other cliché: “our Judaeo-Christian heritage”. What matters to Ramsay is a pastiche, a parody of a civilisation, a myth. The hero needs a quest to prove himself: the conservative comes to claim “the glory of the past”. But the past he comes to claim never existed, and we had only just begun to realise.
In the study of things which are very old, it is tempting to think “what more is there to add?” But there have been studies published in the past hundred years which have changed entirely our understanding of ancient Greece, Rome, and the mediaeval period. History is now approached with the rigour of a science and it is all the better for it. Ramsay arrives on the scene after a period of rationalisation in the academy to bring everything to a halt. This is the problem with Ramsay: it comes with all the money but none of the sense. Its arrives with an arrogant conviction in something it knows nothing about. It is the symptom of the very problem it purports to solve.
For half a century, the liberal has pushed the arts to the margins and now the conservative has come to rescue them from their isolated corruption by the radical. The liberal–conservative paradox is no clearer than in the approach of the two to the university. The liberal has spent decades pillaging arts and pure sciences faculties and promoting instead the “practical” education. The university must be more like the market: it must deliver better outcomes for the economy and do it more efficiently. The student must graduate ready to fill spreadsheets in the bank. And though a late convert to the cult of economics, the modern conservative now holds it tighter than did the mid-century liberal. But the conservative cares about the things which the liberal says do not matter. The conservative is now worried about the plight of man (!) and the decline of civilisation. So the Ramsay Centre arrives to save the day.
Let Ramsay pay for us to learn Greek, and to read Marx. But that is not what they want. And the thing that they do want, we do not need.