Words by Jack 23, NSW
The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has a mission. That mission is to inculcate tertiary study of the humanities with a socially conservative worldview. It wants to do so through its proposed ‘Western Civilisation’ degree. This is a worry on many fronts, perhaps no more so than on the frontier of truth telling and in Indigenous affairs more generally.
Recently, the University of Wollongong Council made the controversial decision to approve the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civilisation degree, which the latter has shopped out to several Australian universities. UOW was offered a purported $50 million from the Ramsay Centre to develop the new degree.
The University of Queensland academic board approved a major in ‘Western Civilisation’ at the end of June, with student scholarship applications recently opened. This too, has garnered controversy; the Ramsay Centre is seen by many as a vehicle for the socially conservative right.
And this view is not without merit. The centre is, after all, led by former conservative Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. The latter infamously stated in the publication Quadrant, that the Ramsay Centre was ‘in favour’ of Western Civilisation.
In the same article he noted a supposed lack of ‘respect for our heritage’. This perceived lack of respect is a direct reference to the ‘history wars’; yet another instance of conservative backlash to truth telling in Australian history.
Why is this of concern for advocates of Indigenous rights? Because the brand of social conservatism that the Ramsay Centre represents is one that seeks to promote the supremacy of ‘Western Civilisation’; that is, in fact, its raison d’etre, and this reason for being arose from the perceived threat of acknowledging Australia’s colonial history and present. And now it is succeeding in promoting this supremacy in an educational institution.
The Ramsay Centre’s conception of the ‘West’ is over and above the rest of the world; it reiterates the notion that Australia was terra nullius before the arrival of Europeans. It is, therefore, a worldview that relegates First Nations Australians to a backwater of history.
It is also the invention of a ‘West’ that is free of criminality. It is an attempt to rehabilitate a colonial past that white Australia can celebrate, a denial of the history that has harmed Indigenous Australia in significant and continuing ways. In a very clear way then, it is an issue for the elevation and rehabilitation of First Nations Australia, but also all groups that do not fit into the narrow space reserved for those the Ramsay Centre feels are its own.
For many it is common knowledge that ideology influences policy and drives public debate. In trying to direct the understanding that students have of Western civilisation, the Ramsay Centre is attempting to influence public discourse, and this will in turn affect which policies Australia develops for First Nations peoples. It may well affect the granting of the long sought-after Voice to Parliament in a decidedly negative way.
This is only one policy area; it could affect many others.
What we should remember, if nothing else, is that the colonial project devalues First Nations cultures, and the colony is underpinned by the view that the West is superior to the Indigenous cultures it dominates.
The move to create a degree which enshrines an understanding of the history of the ‘West’, whatever that might mean practically, is a move to inculcate education with political ideology.
What the Ramsay Centre proposes, quite openly in fact, is that an education drenched in ideology – one that fails to attempt to turn a critical eye back upon itself and its own assumptions – will benefit young Australians. It is a sly and devious political manoeuvre, and we might rightly be concerned about its apparent success.
The issue here is that education, particularly the study of history and cultures, should always maintain a critical self-awareness that precludes ideology as the method of education. Further, a cultural education should not aim to instil in its students an ideological perspective of the world. This is not education, it is not giving students the capabilities needed to assess their world and act effectively in it.
The Ramsay Centre’s proposed degree is a red herring; it offers an education in Western Civilisation, but that would require an attempt to acknowledge the shackles of ideology, and of cultural context. The Ramsay Centre seeks to enshrine these shackles, to frame them as knowledge and not as prejudice. Further, it seeks to embolden a prejudice that will divide Australia. It will again cleave society along lines of identity, strengthening the division of societies into the ‘civilised’ and the ‘primitive’.
We cannot hope for a future in which First Nations Australians are granted sovereignty, a Voice to Parliament, or a place of pride and esteem in our still-colonial society, if the Ramsay Centre is able to infiltrate the tertiary education system. This danger does not pertain to one single policy; it reaches into the depths of what resides beneath, in the realm of ideology and thought.
The University of Queensland signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ramsay Centre on the 7th August to deliver an extended major in Western Civilisation by 2020.