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Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

The debate around the Ramsay Centre’s proposed degrees in Western civilisation continues to divide, with academics at the University of Sydney now considering a boycott over its proposed introduction.

But despite hysteria across the political spectrum, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the Ramsay Centre’s curriculum itself. A brief look at an indicative curriculum posted on the centre’s website in June puts the debate in perspective. 

As currently indicated, none of the ideas offered by the curriculum seem rare or controversial. Instead, the curriculum is simply, “a list of things you can study at most universities in Australia”, according to Monash University lecturer Ben Eltham. Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche and Mill, all of whom feature, are commonly read throughout academia.

A student at the University of Sydney, where the Ramsay debate is in full flow, could, for example, encounter many of these ideas in any number of history, philosophy, European studies, international relations or sociology courses. Some might even be familiar with texts like Pride and Prejudice and Heart of Darkness from their high school English classes.

The Ramsay Centre has, however, appeared to address concerns that its program would be viewed as Western propaganda. The proposed curriculum provides some — albeit limited — scope for non-Western authors. Comparative literature introduces Chinua Achebe, Confucius and the Indigenous Song Cycle of the Moon Bone. Even Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the original “cultural Marxists”, get a brief look in.

Nevertheless, there are obvious gaps, reflecting the intellectual history of the west itself — of the over 100 or so writers, thinkers and artists that students would study, fewer than 10 are women.

The curriculum also appears dated, with a preference for the antiquated over the modern. Ancient Greece and Rome get a rather thorough workout — first semester of first year would be spent on the likes of Homer, Plato and Thucydides. The 20th century, the intellectual outpouring borne of two world wars and the dramatic upheavals of modernity get comparatively little exploration. Western ideas, if the curriculum is anything to go by, ended with Foucault in the 1970s.

The centre, which is chaired by John Howard, counts Tony Abbott and Joe De Bruyn (head of the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association) among its board members. For its proponents, the course is an opportunity to provide a “transformative” reinvestment in the humanities.

Yet academics have raised concerns about the centre’s potential threat to intellectual freedom, and questioned whether, against a backdrop of “glaring curricular disparities” between the West and the rest, such a degree is needed in the first place. 

Peter Fray

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