Skip to content

Western Civ Vs. Western Civilisation-ish

Australia’s public universities, home to no less than nine Confucius Institutes funded by the Chinese government, seem strangely reluctant to accept Australian foundation support for the study of Western civilisation. More than 200 of my colleagues at the University of Sydney have signed an open letter condemning the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation’s plans for a ‘Western Civ’ degree as ‘quite simply, European supremacism writ large’.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Australian National University has turned down Ramsay funding outright. In rejecting Ramsay’s proposed program, the ANU claimed that it already taught ‘some 150 undergraduate subjects addressing Western civilisation themes’. The ANU also bemoaned the fact that Ramsay would not accept its preferred name of ‘Western Civilisation Studies’.

What’s in a name? The ANU’s list of 166 courses on Western civilisation includes 43 language courses, 35 in history, 26 in philosophy, 22 in culture studies and literary criticism, 20 in social science, 15 in art and music history, two in business and one in law that ‘study’ Western civilisation — nearly all of them undergraduate lectures or graduate seminars.

But only three subjects on the ANU list actually resemble the kinds of great books courses that form the core of American-style Western Civ programs: one in ancient law, one in political theory, and one in modern theatre. These are the only three of 166 that engage undergraduates in intensive discussion based on direct experience of the great works of Western civilisation.

The Sydney 200 similarly emphasize that Western civilisation is ‘already intensively studied and taught’ at Sydney Uni, but fail to recognize that Western Civ programs are not about the topics studied. They’re about the way the topics are studied. Western Civ is a learning style, not a subject list.

Existing courses at Australian universities teach students about famous ideas, both Western and non-Western. The Ramsay Centre is proposing something new in Australia: courses in which students will engage directly with the great philosophical, literary and artistic traditions of Western civilisation, not just learn about them second-hand from their teachers.

This kind of education requires special resources, but it also requires a special mindset. Teachers have to learn to ‘let go’ of the curriculum and trust their students to make up their own minds. The promotion of independent thought requires a leap of faith that most academics find very challenging.

That leap of faith was the very foundation of Western Civ at American universities. Inspired by the educational philosophy of John Dewey, American great books programs were founded on the idea that ‘students should approach the works directly, not through secondary articles and books about them’.

Australian schools and universities instead embrace a critical thinking approach to education, in which students are expected to marshal evidence from scholarly sources in support of their arguments. Students routinely crib for the SCE by memorising quotes to buttress their arguments. The best students carry these slavish habits into top ATAR university law programs.

If it fulfils its promise, the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civ program will instead attract top Australian students to explore values and meaning, not academic argumentation. John Dewey taught a century ago that such education for democracy was more important than education for skills. He’s just as right today.

The Sydney 200 haughtily assert that decisions about education ‘are for academics to make, not billionaires or former prime ministers’. They forget that democracy is not realized in the ivory tower, but in politics, in society and — yes — even in business. Tony Abbott was right to say that that the Ramsay Centre is ‘not just timely but necessary’. Education is too important to be left only to the educators.

Published inAll ArticlesArchive
Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: