Nothing, it seems, stirs the blood of the country’s cultural warriors more than an argument about academic license or press freedom if it’s not favourably disposed to their side.
One is tempted to ask what would these mavens of “political incorrectness” do without academia and the ABC to rail against; although it might be observed that one person’s political correctness is another person’s political incorrectness.
Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilisation, aimed at educating a new generation in the foundations of our own society in the broader sense.
This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage.
Personally, I think it’s unfortunate that my alma mater, the Australian National University, and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation could not agree on a funding and governance model that would have satisfied the ANU’s requirements for a genuine arms-length relationship with its proposed benefactor.
This leaves aside reservations we might all share about sources of university funding that have a particular purpose such as those directed at establishing Confucius institutes and other such bodies at Australian institutions supported by Chinese government front organisations.
In a university like the ANU that prides itself on the teaching of humanities and whose status is recognised globally as one of Australia’s top three universities (with Sydney and Melbourne), a course in the great foundational texts of Western civilisation would seem to be desirable.
The proposed course would have been modelled on the Great Books courses offered as core curricula at American institutions like Columbia and Chicago.
None of these courses are branded as disciplines in “Western civilisation’’: nevertheless, this is the basis for the works studied representing the canon of Western literature and thought.
Given the challenges facing us in an era disrupted by a rank populism that owes little to the Enlightenment – rather a return to the Dark Ages – it would seem all the more desirable for a great Australian institution like the ANU to focus on texts that have contributed to Western civilisation.
So, what went wrong in negotiations between the ANU and a foundation established with the riches of medical services entrepreneur, the late Paul Ramsay?
And, more to the point, who is to blame?
A spokesperson for Ramsay tells me that Ramsay directors had not sought to impose unreasonable restrictions on the ANU. This might be contestable.
ANU chancellor Gareth Evans is out of the country and unavailable for comment, but it is known an enthusiastic Evans had driven negotiations and is personally disappointed at their failure.
Negotiations broke down on issues of academic freedom, funding controls, and the naming of the undergraduate degree, among other sticking points.
In the heads of agreement the ANU had wanted to include a reference to “academic freedom’’, but this was “scratched out’’, according to an ANU negotiator.
The university had wanted to name the course the bachelor of Western civilisation studies to lessen an impression this was a politicised undergraduate degree aimed at the so-called politically correct enemies of Western civilisation, but this was rejected.
This brings us to the role of Ramsay Foundation chair John Howard and one of its directors, Tony Abbott. In the estimation of ANU council members, who include people like businessmen Graeme Samuel, this is where negotiations ran off the rails.
The council had wanted Ramsay to dissociate itself from remarks Abbott had made in Quadrant Online in which he, as an advocate for the Anglosphere, had made it clear the purpose of the ANU project was political. “It’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it,’’ he wrote.
Despite attempts by Abbott’s media acolytes to suggest otherwise, this was a provocative intervention at a sensitive moment in negotiations.
Howard did not return a phone call to discuss the above, but in a recent discussion in his Sydney office he canvassed the influence of the history and culture wars that have roiled Australia for a generation or more.
In that discussion about the effects of a campaign against “political correctness’’ which defined, to an extent, his own time in office, Howard had this to say:
“There is deep down, Tony, a large section of progressive or left-of-centre thinking that holds that Western civilisation and Australian civilisation has more to be ashamed of than proud of.’’
Howard may have a point, but surely in the end it is better for these sorts of issues to be debated in a university environment where different viewpoints can be tested.
Let’s face it, the harbingers of Western civilisation, Plato and Aristotle, did not agree on much.
Unfortunately, an impression lingers that members of the Ramsay board were less interested in the study of Western civilisation than its deployment in the endless culture wars that contribute little to country’s wellbeing.
Tony Walker is a vice chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and a Fairfax Media columnist.