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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Fate of western civilisation does not hang on university courses | Opinion - The Sydney Morning Herald

Using the US as an example, it cannot be said that ending slavery came as a result of a contest of ideas or ideals. Violence did, argues Jack Waterford, former editor of The Canberra Times. 

Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation head Simon Haines.
Photo: James Alcock

The fate of western civilisation probably does not hang on whether the ANU has a course requiring students to study, in rough order of publication, “great books” of the past 3000 years.

But it is a measure of the political art of Tony Abbott, John Howard, and the attack dogs of The Australian that it can be made to appear that being opposed to such a course, in the way they would want it, is being said to be a sign that the ANU, Australia’s top university, is opposed to western civilisation itself.

Studying Great Books is an idea that largely originated in some of the liberal arts colleges in the US. In many of these institutions, whose syllabuses are on an intellectual level somewhere between an ACT secondary college and the first year of an Australian university course, they are particularly unpopular both for being very labour-intensive, but also boring.

Many students who do not shrink from serious intellectual challenge doubt its value for effort. Perhaps they do not get its point, or do not agree with the more-or-less agreed conclusions to which they end up being expected to subscribe.

One of the great things about books on the history and culture of western civilisation is that they can be made to represent the triumph of any number of ideas or theories, and the rejection of others now seen, as least by the instructors, to be inferior, retrograde, or barbaric. One could, for example, prove from some such books that in each succeeding century the enlightened ones have slaughtered more people than the one before.

But a Great Books course has a marked tendency to promote the idea of human progress, a triumph of reason, and a steady and a logical flow towards a paradise, somewhat like the United States in, say, 1950. Here, it is suggested freedom had triumphed (well, except for black Americans), religions had become tolerant, and capitalism had become established as the ideal engine of human and economic growth.

That one of the jewels of western civilisation – Germany – had just surrendered after murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and political opponents was, apparently, neither here nor there.

The course never very much enthused the great American universities, such as Harvard or Yale. The best university to which its Australian promoters point is Columbia, in New York, and Notre Dame, a private Catholic university (and a fine one if, like my old school, better known for its football than its academic achievements). One could write the history of western civilisation, or indeed the history of intellectual ideas in the US, without mentioning any of the universities which teach the subject, or its teachers or any of its graduates. I cannot think of a president who studied it. Wherever it has been “popular” it has been because it has been compulsory.

This is not to suggest that the idea behind it is bad, or that, even if it were, that it followed that western civilisation was bad. The course tries to put in context books such as the Bible, the Iliad, Greek and Roman philosophers, medieval scholars and philosophers, and the work of scientists, political economists and others pretty much right up to the present day. The books tend to be very worthy, but very character-forming to read. Students have to read a book a week, and to be able to participate in detail in intensive discussion about them with from six to eight students, and a tutor in seminars. Very active participation, at which a failure to have read each book closely will be evident, and, probably punished in assessment. Students looking for subjects that permit them some time off to work should avoid the course, which presupposes about 20 hours of reading a week.

I have read most of the Great Books, but not in a single course. We imbibed them in high school or university, in learning the history of ideas and how academic disciplines developed. A good student will imbibe many of the great writers in studies of history – ancient and modern – economics, law, political science, religion and philosophy, as well as in mathematics and science. It was once, at least to a degree, assisted by the teaching of classics. ( It is pleasing to see that classics now appears to be on a comeback at university level.)

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald