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Why a degree in Western civilisation failed

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THE Australian National University (ANU) has been in month-long talks with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation about creating a degree in Western civilisation.

Last week, however, ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt announced the university had pulled out of discussions with the controversial think tank.

Then on Thursday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in on the issue, announcing he would seek an explanation from Prof Schmidt.

“I’m going to speak to the vice-chancellor about it myself and just get his account of it … I find it very hard to understand why that proposal from the Ramsay Foundation would not have been accepted with enthusiasm,” he said.

I’m a student at the ANU and I can tell you that this controversy has divided politically active students at the university.

Almost immediately after talks with the Ramsay Centre began, students and academics feared the program would become a magnet for Liberal Party supporters wanting to confirm their pre-existing beliefs about the superiority of Western civilisation.

And given everything we know about the Ramsay Centre, these fears aren’t completely unfounded. The centre has a branding problem among ANU students.

Former prime minister John Howard is the chairman of the organisation, and he is joined on the board by one of his successors, Tony Abbott.

Earlier this year, Mr Abbott wrote in online publication Quadrant that the Ramsay Centre was “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”.

The degree quickly became a joke among students. Several memes were created about it, which is never a good sign. It looked like the political version of gender studies, but right-leaning.

If the project went ahead, I’m confident that the so-called “students of Western civilisation” would have been mocked their entire undergraduate careers.

The whole degree would have been ridiculed as brain training for budding conservative commentators and Liberal politicians.

That’s simply untenable. An academic program that wants to survive can’t be plagued by accusations of political bias.

You can’t just pay a university to host your own partisan political training ground. That was the backlash.

But over the past few days, a backlash to the backlash has happened.

The ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies was dragged into the debate, slammed for accepting donations from the governments of Dubai, Iran and Turkey.

To many, the ANU’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre seemed hypocritical in light of these past donations.

Is the ANU willing to accept donations from Islamic governments but not conservative Australian citizens?

Whether these donations actually influence teaching at the ANU is unclear and unproven. Prof Schmidt is open about such donations and vouches for the academic independence of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

“In all cases, ANU retains control of both curriculum and staffing decisions,” he wrote in a blog post.

I once took a course run by the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. I didn’t notice any evidence of a pro-Iranian or pro-Turkish bias.

I don’t deny the possibility of bias existing within the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. But I haven’t seen any evidence of it and the people implying it is biased haven’t provided any evidence.

There is evidence, however, of the Ramsay Centre’s bias. We know that. The bulk of the opposition to the Ramsay Centre stems from concerns about academic independence.

“[The Ramsay Centre] sought a level of influence over our curriculum and staffing that went beyond what any other donor has been granted, and was inconsistent with academic autonomy,” Prof Schmidt wrote in The Canberra Times.

Imagine the following scenario: a cashed-up left-wing think tank offers to fund a degree in Western civilisation to a prestigious university. On the board of this think tank is Greens Party leaders, feminists and socialists.

Suddenly looks like a very different degree, doesn’t it? Doesn’t look so appealing, right?

The virtues of Western civilisation are so contentious and heavily debated that if you’re going to create a degree in it, you have to portray some level of impartiality.

The Ramsay Centre needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink its strategy.

I actually wish them luck. Because unlike my fellow students, I don’t think a degree in Western civilisation is necessarily a bad thing.

And neither does Prof Schmidt.

There are some radical students who hate the idea simply because they want to silence any pro-Western message.

They actually share a lot in common with the Ramsay Centre: they’re not opposed to bias, they just want their own bias to reign supreme.

But I’m not totally opposed to the concept. If done correctly, I can see the degree fitting nicely into the long list of culture-based subjects the ANU offers.

It would allow interested students to streamline the ANU’s best subjects in Western history and philosophy.

We have a degree for Middle Eastern civilisation and Asian civilisation; why can’t we have a degree in Western civilisation?

Students should have the option to easily study not just other people’s culture, but their own culture as well.

And if hundreds of ANU students study degrees about other cultures, international students at the ANU might too be excited by the opportunity to learn about cultures different to their own.

A degree that examines the rights and wrongs of Western civilisation might actually be the perfect degree for the times we’re living in.

Would you rather young people learn about Western civilisation from charismatic YouTube intellectuals, or experts with well-researched, balanced perspectives?

It would certainly be much better than the black-and-white status quo, in which the West is either a shining light of freedom and democracy or a racist and sexist imperial power that brings bigotry and destruction wherever it goes.

Like always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

More than ever, students could benefit from a critical analysis of the faults and virtues of the society they live in.

What if that was the Ramsay Centre’s intention all along, and this is just one big misunderstanding? In that case, all the Ramsay Centre has to do is convince people of it.

If that’s not what they intended, they can get stuffed.

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