Ramsay Centre curriculum
Prominent Ramsay Centre backer Tony Abbott.

Staff from the Ramsay Foundation will have de facto veto power over the appointment of academic staff to the new Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to the University of Wollongong.

That’s the only reasonable interpretation of the documents released this week detailing the arrangements between the university and the foundation, negotiations for which were conducted in secret throughout the latter half of last year.

In its highly defensive FAQ page about the new centre, the University of Wollongong states:

What influence will the Ramsay Centre have on curriculum content, staff hires, and/or student recruitment?

Academic appointment panels will be chaired by either the Vice-Chancellor or the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, depending on the position being filled. The Ramsay Centre will have two academic representatives on those panels alongside a far larger number of UOW academic panel members. It is intended that panel decisions will be made by consensus. These arrangements are not unusual for UOW academic appointment panels.

So on the one hand, the UOW will have “a far larger number” of academic members on the panel. But on the other hand, the two Ramsay Centre operatives can block proposed appointments they don’t like by refusing consensus.

You don’t need Socratic reasoning to see that that’s a veto power, being hidden by weasel words.

The 30 scholarships at $27,000 per annum will be awarded by a panel of Ramsay Centre and UOW staff. No mention of UOW staff “far outnumbering” Ramsay Centre people there. This will be the core of the centre’s operation to give a free bung to the chino ‘n’ pearls crowd who turn up to IPA youth jamborees.

The curriculum has also been released with great fanfare, and stuff about 20 different curricula being consulted blah blah. God knows why. It’s an unremarkable “Great Books” course, which starts with Ancient Greece and whizzes through Rome and the Renaissance with a few bells and whistles along the way.

A few things are noticeable. The first thing is how startlingly little attention is given to the Jewish heritage in the formation of Western culture and mindset. There is not a single specifically Jewish text on the course — not even the Old Testament. A unit on the religious tradition has no Jewish content. The only Jewish writer named is Kafka.

This seems more in line with the old, bad forms of great books courses, which sought to present the West as a classical-Christian ethnos, rather than a Judeo-Christian one. By an incredible coincidence, the course seems to have replicated the conservative Catholicism of people like Ramsay himself, and Tony Abbott, who seek to expunge the Judaic presence from the Catholic Christian tradition.

The second is the manner in which 2000 years of philosophy is constructed as having, as its natural end, Anglo-American empiricist-analytical philosophy. Since this philosophy — with its assumption of atomised individualism — underlies the classical liberalism, which forms the philosophy of neoliberalism (Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” statement is analytical philosophy par excellence; i.e. because society is an “abstract real” that you can’t poke, it doesn’t exist), that is another happy, happy coincidence.  

Non-analytic philosophy is hived off into a “modern classics” course. It’s the oracular stuff like Nietzsche and Sartre, but no Lukacs, Heidegger or Foucault; systemic thinkers who might give a base to challenge the course’s deepest assumptions. The course seems practically designed to turn out unquestioning analytic liberals, with no contact with other ways of thinking.

The occasional woman or black writer is added to the unquestioned “classics”, whose status will be transmitted uncritically by the very design of the course. (Hilariously, bits of Buddhism pop up here and there, like a friend drivelling on at you about his meditation holiday in Bali. There’s more Buddhism than explicit Judaism, as far as I can tell.)  

But then that’s the point isn’t it? The Ramsay Centre is a private college, established in a public university and piggybacking on its infrastructure. The FAQ talks with pride about how it will be ring-fenced from existing staff — because it knows the NTEU would black it — as if it were doing existing staff a favour. The document trash talks its own humanities department by saying that the department focuses solely on the gender, race, etc aspects of the Western heritage.

It doesn’t. You can still study Shakespeare and the Ancient World in the Wollongong humanities. You just won’t get a highly prescriptive and unquestioned line about how excellent it all is thumped into you.  

The temptation would be to pay it little attention. If the right want to create a sucks’ college with a dull curriculum, let them. Yet it can’t be ignored. From the moment Tony Abbott announced that the course would have to be “for” Western Civilisation, any co-operation with the Ramsay Centre has represented a betrayal of the spirit of the university. The de facto veto power of Ramsay staff over appointments cements that in. The deal represents not only an attack on the public university, but on the very idea of what a university is, that it purports to defend.

Peter Fray

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