ANU right to be wary of 'supremacist' centre



Context is everything. On the one hand, an institute focused on studies of western civilisation could be no different to other university-associated institutes. These units often specialise in areas that have a place in culture and policy, facilitating research with partner agencies and contributing to the development of international relationships.

John HowardOn the other hand, the Ramsay Centre was an agenda-laden venture at the outset. It has now been left hanging after the Australian National University (ANU) withdrew from negotiations for an undergraduate program, with Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt saying that a difference of vision, with no prospect of agreement, led to the decision. There were serious concerns about autonomy.

The Ramsay Centre's focus on 'Western civilisation' has never been neutral; the people involved gives that away. Former prime minister John Howard launched it last year and chairs the centre. Tony Abbott, who sits on the board, wrote earnestly in Quadrant about its purpose.

Both are staunch, veteran warriors of our perpetual culture wars. Both have a fixation with Australian identity, one they hold to be indelibly Anglo-Christian at the core. Both have always behaved as if this were under existential threat.

It is a thread that has run through their public life, particularly in responses to non-white migrants including asylum seekers and Muslims; to Indigenous assertions of history and justice; and to a generally secular, pluralistic society. 

In this context an institute that, in Abbott's words, is 'not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it' can only be taken as theatre for further contestations about identity and heritage. That does not speak to academic merit.

The reason for establishing a degree that amounts to European studies, as Abbott had put it to the late Paul Ramsay, is that 'this current generation was missing ... familiarity with the stories and the values that had made us who and what we are'.  


"This is supremacist stuff, and also massively ignorant. Sophistication in art, literature and science has never been a monopoly of the west."


He claims that a Christian focus was missing even from Catholic schools, along with classical history and 'the story of England'. The clincher: 'Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal, and that truth might not be entirely relative.'

This is supremacist stuff, and also massively ignorant. Sophistication in art, literature and science has never been a monopoly of the west, unless a case could be made that the rest of the world were somehow less human.

If there were still any doubt about the extraordinary potency of the Ramsay Centre, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has waded in, saying that he was surprised by the ANU decision and that he will be speaking directly with Schmidt. It only reinforces the fears about autonomy that had prompted withdrawal in the first place.

The language around what is probably just a setback for the Ramsay Centre is also illuminating. Liberal MP Craig Kelly stated that 'leftist academics' not only hate 'Western civilisation' but 'have a dislike of our nation, that is simply why they do not want this course'. Others have called ANU 'gutless', its move a triumph of political correctness. Regardless of such alarm, it is unlikely that western civilisation rests on studies of it, or that it can be made to endure through university programs.  

In any case, classics professor Matthew A. Sears cautions against unexamined presentations of western trajectories as unambiguously benign, even benevolent: '"Civilised" and "enlightened" Europeans  (brought) about mass-scale organised colonialism and genocide; industrial warfare that killed millions; religious, social, and other oppressions; ecological devastation; and unprecedented levels of disease.'

It is hard to imagine that these aspects would have featured under the Ramsay program. In his Quadrant piece, Abbott enumerated a more positive version of western civilisation: 'the rule of law, representative democracy, freedom of speech, of conscience and religion, liberal pluralism, the prosperity born of market capitalism, the capability born of scientific rigour, and the cultivation born of endless intellectual and artistic curiosity'.

Most of these things, it must be said, emerged from and were refined by struggle. Freedom, rights and equality are not much more than ideas until fought for, and people fought for them even outside Europe.

If anything must define western civilisation, it is struggle and change — rather than a crude adherence to absolutes. In fact, a humanities-rich bachelor's degree properly modelled after American liberal arts colleges (which is what the Ramsay Cente supposedly wants to establish) should steer students away from absolutist, supremacist views about culture.

That is the kind of education I got at a Jesuit university in Manila; everyone there did, including the science and business majors. It is meant to leave you well-rounded. I am not convinced that that would be the case here.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Ramsay Centre, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Western Civilisation



submit a comment

Existing comments

I hope Eureka Street might present a defence of this benefaction, and one that does not rely in any way upon the writer's attitude to people such as Mr Abbott or Mr Howard. Fortunately, such defences are being made in more balanced parts of the media and I for one would prefer those so I should be grateful if it is not longer sent to me.

Fr J.R.Bunyan | 07 June 2018  

"If anything must define western civilisation, it is struggle and change — rather than a crude adherence to absolutes." And there is one Rome-based organisation which really needs to heed that.

Bruce Stafford | 07 June 2018  

Yes and study of only the right wing catholic church view of European history and not of the reformation and history of the english protestant evanglicals or the enlightnment.

stuart lawrence | 07 June 2018  

Thanks Fatima. Your point is well made, and also applicable across disciplines. In my own field of worship studies and ancient Roman liturgical texts, commentators constantly slip between the virtues of Roman Christian prayer and the qualities of pre-Christian Rome. In doing so they laud particular virtues seen as part of pre-Christian Roman civilization, but remain silent on the violence, oppression and militarism that Rome actually inflicted. For a more recent example, a litmus test will be how well Irish history will be treated in any 'story of England'.

Gerard Moore | 08 June 2018  

I happen to love our Western Civilization - it’s art, philosophy, music, psychology, spirituality, legal system and overall culture. So many others seem to also, in part at least, according to the numbers trying to come to our shores, apparently. You cannot avoid or ignore the horrors of the histories of any country’s or any approach to 'civilisation' or society. To do so, as this article is leaning towards just as much as the Ramsey approach is in its own way, is to get it horribly wrong in so many ways. This ‘either / or’ is what's killing us today more than anything. It is the way of certain social theorists to divide into isms and identities, so as to conquer. The red-flag-above-the-parliament-building is an aim for many in our country as much as a right-wing supremacist approach. We don’t want either, I hope, but we need to ask what is the attraction of such extremes, and who is promoting them and by what means so that we can seriously and objectively critique not just what’s happening, but our own thinking as well. Most of us are not extremists but we could be. Just ask the citizens of a few countries from the last century, not to mention this one.

Stephen de Weger | 08 June 2018  

"Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal, and that truth might not be entirely relative . . . This is supremacist stuff." I beg to differ, Fatima: this is primarily a philosophical statement, demanding address in philosophical terms.

John | 08 June 2018  

At the core of this breakdown are issues of academic autonomy, according to the VC, Brian Schmidt. Only those present at the negotiating table have been privy to the types of demands around staffing, curriculum priorities, how the course will be taught generally etc. Over the last three decades many Australian universities have become corporatised; KPIs are commonly embedded in academics' career progression and student fees have gone down the US track. Many will be surprises my the extent and diversity of private funding to universities, following decreased government funding. This will be discussed on ABC RN Saturday Extra on June 9, Geraldine Dooge mentioned today on radio. The term 'academic autonomy' is a difficult concept for many commentators - especially when a significant financial bequest is declined. Politicians are familiar with the nexus between money and control but reputational issues lurk there. Look at current attempts to resolve political donations. This issue is more broadly related to: s/he who pays the piper calls the tune; money talks etc. Many Australian universities will be prepared, I suspect, to accommodate Ramsay courses but in the longer term the ANU its values.

PeterD | 08 June 2018  

One has to wonder how the scholarship promoted by the Ramsay Centre would deal in an open, scholarly and scientific way with the "Christianity" that has been used by both "both sides" of politics to gain electoral advantage from their fiddling with higher education. Is it more than just a face-saving effort to induce support from Christian citizens for the Liberal Party in the face of the increased political correctness on all sides? Indeed, was it not the Chairman of its Board who, in his public contribution, regularly intoned the phrase "both sides of politics" as if it were his pragmatic "absolute"? How would a focus on western Christian values in the study of recent political history in the West assess the bifurcation of "core and non-core" political promises, for instance, another of the "absolutes" appealed to when pre-election promises prove too difficult? I would like to hear how these former Liberal Prime Ministers explain their support for the Ramsay Centre and whether they are doing so out of a recognition that their Liberal Party has prevented efforts to discover a Christian focus for public life let alone for public education. Can they do that?

Bruce C Wearne | 08 June 2018  

I was impressed by Professor Brian Schmidt speaking on TV last night, saying the ANU declined to enter into the proposed arrangement by which the Ramsay Centre would not only pay for, but set the agenda for, a course in Western Civilization. No academic institution should enter into such arrangements, or if they do, their independence and reputations will go into a decline. Imagine the screams of the right if a left-leaning body were to offer to finance a similar course along left-wing lines. I am very pleased the ANU has not agreed to this arrangement, and believe the PM should keep out of it. If he pushes the Ramsay Centre project, his reputation will go down further.

Rodney Wetherell | 08 June 2018  

At least Mr Abbott was honest enough to admit that this Institute of Western Civilization was 'in favour of it'. So much for an unbiased, impartial, equitable, fair and broadminded approach to the pursuit of truth. I cannot imagine any of the proponents of IWC giving the freedom to researchers that Oliver Cromwell gave to his portrait painter: ' I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture freely like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.' Nor should an academic institution accept millions of dollars for painting only the pretty features of Western Civilisation. A university cannot serve both truth and Mammon.

Uncle Pat | 08 June 2018  

It is very appropriate that Fatima Measham has written on this very important issue which is about the independence of universities. I find it amazing that the Ramsay Institute expected that the ANU would accept a course on western civilisation that would overlook a number of key issues in the history of the west. Of course, there are many positive aspects to western civilisation, but whether we like it or not, many of its leaders have presided over actions that have caused great suffering to millions throughout its history. The list is long - the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, exploitative colonisation, genocide, huge numbers of wars (especially those in 20th and 21st centuries) etc. etc. Universities are supposed to be places that promote free thinking and the critical examination of all aspects of subjects being taught. It was good that Fatima was able to attend a university in Manila that provided this type of open education. In contrast, In contrast, I was in the Philippines in 1990 for a conference and met a group of teachers and university lecturers - members of the Alliance for Concerned Teachers. A major concern they had was the attempt by US corporations and conservative think tanks to make donations to Filipino universities while pressuring them to accept courses promoting their products and ideology. It seems that the struggle to keep universities independent is happening in many places. Congratulations to the ANU in taking the stand it did.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 June 2018  

"Imagine the screams of the right if a left-leaning body were to offer to finance a similar course along left-wing lines." Are you serious? Why should a left leaning body bother to finance individual courses when the whole of government-funded academia and just about all it teaches is screaming left wing? I write as a product of ANU Law in the late 90s. There were as far as I could identify, about three or four non-lefties in the faculty.

HH | 08 June 2018  

The one who pays the piper calls the tune. Anyone involved in not-for-profit governance will recognise the concept of funder capture, and this has rightly been the concern of ANU. Fatima's penultimate paragraph sketched a picture of the 'liberal college' that I'd love to see become a reality, but those who dispense Ramsay Centre funding have a different work in mind.

Joan Seymour | 08 June 2018  

'Red-flag-above-the-parliament-building'? Which red flag is de Weger alluding to, and whose parliament building? And does this not reek of a resuscitation, much mooted in the Fifties but of no relevance in a post-communist era, of the 'reds under the bed' scare?

Dr Michael Furtado | 08 June 2018  

HH: Judging by my children's and their friends' Arts courses in 2108, things have changed - there are no non-lefties in their faculty!

John | 08 June 2018  

Hi Michael, again. I was referring to a comment we seem to have all forgotten already. I will quote it from a previous comment here: "I was fully on board philosophically with the Safe Schools project until one of its leading protaginists carelessly let slip (privately) that while she was happy with the progress of the program, that 'Now we just need to get rid of the racist Australian flag on top of state parliament and get a red one up there and my work is done". I'm sure you'll remember who said this, or maybe you don't. Please correct me if you think that what she said wasn't said. If it was said, than how do you respond to such a statement. To me, it's every bit as extremist as the Ramsay Institute is being portrayed to be here. (I have no idea of the Ramsay Institute apart from what I've read here today, and trust me, I am no supporter of the likes of Abbott). No, what we have here are two opposing ideologies vying for their own form of supremacy within educational institutions. If we seriously believe that the universities of today are somehow ideology free and resistant, oh my God, have we drunk the kool aid.

Stephen de Weger | 08 June 2018  

Stephen: me, too! Admirable clarity and independence of mind shown in your post.

John | 08 June 2018  

Even my "Catholic" school in Canberra in the 1970s was pronounced left-wing. My favourite teacher (history) was a leftie: loved E.P. Thompson ("The Making of the English Working Class") and had us listen to leftist guest speakers. The other history teacher was even more pro-socialist, and she taught us about the Russian Revolution with, let's say, something other than detachment. The economics teacher was a Keynesian (of course...Milton Friedman was a "nazi" and Austrians were unheard of). None of the religion teachers in my higher years agreed with Humanae Vitae, and they certainly didn't give us a chance of understanding the argument so we could judge it on its merits. Quite a few on the staff were ex-religious, with something of an agenda. (I hasten to add, all of them very personable, decent folk.) A seminarian of the Congregation which ran the school and who was about to be ordained told me flat out in front of my friends that no, he didn't believe in angels. Etc. The day after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, 11/11/75, said it all ... doom and gloom throughout the whole campus, me and a couple of ecstatic others excepted. Leftism everywhere. I'm reliable assured the school was typical. That as more than forty years ago.

HH | 08 June 2018  

I have to say, Michael, your (and Aurelius' for that matter) perception of me is troubling but expected in a way because I happen to have said here and there a few things which question the common philosophy of the left. In the end, I do believe in moderation and the Buddhist principle of the middle way, I suppose, not because it's a cop out but because it is the most creative and constructive. However, at my most cynical, I do actually think the issue being discussed here is more about money and less about ideology as PeterD suggests. But ideology from any side requires 'funding', so it is actually about both. Universities in general seem to have been made to become totally dependent on funding (bums on seats) and have lost their truly academic/educational spirit - I've been involved long enough to see the sad decline. There are some good pockets here and there, but well, in the end, you get what you pay for, or get funded for.

Stephen de Weger | 08 June 2018  

Apologies, Fatima, I meant to say that I do agree wholeheartedly with your final three paragraphs. I also agree with Sears' caution but cannot help but think it applies to any culture and political group at their worst. I believe we should be allowed to study any version of history and even have lively debates there about, but one cannot if some versions of histories are 'banned'. And believe me, there are 'versions': this rality was one of the first of many 'truths' which shocked my naive young adult self when I studied a unit titled "Understanding History".

Stephen de Weger | 08 June 2018  

Thank you Fatima for shining the light of reason (and scholarship) on a ridiculous proposal - and rejecting it. In his classic The Idea of a University John Henry Newman stressed that narrow specialization produce narrow minds. The proponents of the Ramsay fantasy are clearly ignorant of the (historical) development of cultures by the interaction of several cultures. In the magnificent Castilian civilization the study of the arts, philosophy, theology, architecture and literature was enriched and indeed driven by the profound interaction of Cristian , Hebrew and Arabic scholars - and was only destroyed by a couple of ignorant Christians. It is somewhat ironic that people associated with a political party that terms itself liberal should be critical of a university system that scholars, such as Newman, expected would provide a liberal education teaching, encouraging students "to think, to reason, to compare, to analyse".

John Nicholson | 08 June 2018  

Stephen, I think you'll find the author of the quotation you include in your reply to Dr Michael Furtado above is the architect of the Safe Schools program, Ms Roz Ward.

John | 08 June 2018  

HH: most of my secondary school teachers were politically right wing, though some were of the left. In the English and History faculties, however, all of them agreed to the inclusion of Orwell's 'Animal Farm' and '1984', and Huxley's 'Brave New World' in Yr 10 and Yr 12 respectively, along with the importance of reading as much as we could of the Western literary canon. I later learned that Marx valued a classical education. I don't see much evidence of respect towards, or for that matter, reading of, either in many schools today.

John | 08 June 2018  

Recommend reading the article by Henry Ergas in The Australian.

Jane | 08 June 2018  

This is a brilliant article Fatima - you are someone whose articles are always great but this is very fair and accurate. Political interference has no place in academia - neither from either major party nor from minor ones attempting to interfere. Effectively, Tony Abbott was the major saboteur but it is way preferable that no political party brings this to the table. Equally, your point about western "civilisation" having no purchase on boasting rights in regard to practices including colonisation, killing of enemies (etc) has huge purchase. THANK YOU FATIMA AND KEEP YOUR GREAT ARTICLES ROLLING IN! Don't worry about the detractors. Christine

Dr. Christine Nicholls | 08 June 2018  

" Wouldn't that be a good idea!" Gandhi said about European civilisation. -- I wonder whether Fatima Measham's argument is to the point. She refers to Abbott's glorification of Western civilisation and finds it wanting. Be that as it may, we should not forget our cultural heritage. And one might agree -- or indeed disagree--- with Mr. Abbott's particlar version of this. But this is not to the point. The present issue is not about opinions like his. It is about university autonomy. Outsiders with money, should not determine the content of teaching and research. But this whole left vs. right debate belongs to yesterday and diverts attention from the present evils inherent in the commercialisation of the universities, their overpaid bureaucracies, underqualified students, etc.

Thomas Mautner | 08 June 2018  

From the written objections I've read from Sydney Uni academics, it seems to me like the Ramsay Centre would teach western civilization the same way catechism is taught in primary school!

AURELIUS | 08 June 2018  

@Uncle Pat | 08 June 2018 Uncle Pat, when you say, "Nor should an academic institution accept millions of dollars for painting only the pretty features of Western Civilisation", thing is, even in the 80s when I was studying, the prevailing agenda was how Western civilisation (especially the USA) had screwed up the world and the brave new world being presented would overturn all the oppressions of patriarchy and religion; hardly an ‘unbiased, impartial, equitable, fair and broadminded approach to the pursuit of truth’. This is what disturbs me about this article. It is saying that we want to filter education so that all that is taught are the non-pretty features of Western civilisation's achievements. If we say that there were 'pretty' achievements it may 'corrupt' students' minds and undermine where we want things to go. By all means monitor what is taught but don't ban a course simply because it presents an alternative view - that's hardly being inclusive and diverse. Surely we are bigger and more secure than that, and surely students have a greater ability to reason through the crap? Or do they, and is that the fear? Why do we believe what we believe? Who told us what to believe to be ‘truth’?

Stephen de Weger | 09 June 2018  

Last one, unless I am misinterpreted.... To sum up: what I think we might be witnessing here is the closed left creating an extreme right, in the same way that the closed right a century ago, created the extreme left. On a personal level, I (like millions of others) was screwed up by negative elements of 'western civilisation' ; but I (like millions of others) was also healed by other positive elements of Western civilisation. However, I'm sometimes still trying to work out which was/is which, or do they come as a human bundle, wherein which, like within our own selves, the good and the bad cannot not exist?

Stephen de Weger | 09 June 2018  

I completed an Arts degree with a major in History and later a Masters of Theology. I taught History for nearly three decades. I also taught Religious Studies. I support Fatima's comments fully and was pleased Professor Schmidt was prepared to up hold the autonomy of ANU.( I am not a graduate of ANU). Sadly Western Civilization has a very poor record when it comes to acknowledging the success or otherwise of other civilizations and has an even poorer record in toleration of views or practices that are different - a fact very relevant in its historical relationship with China whose cultural history is far older or indigenous civilizations like our native peoples. I feared that the influence of the so-called benefactors would be a wedge into the independence of not just the ANU but our universities throughout the country . There is no doubt the squeezing of university budgets by this conservative, ideology driven Government is designed to enhance their reliance on bequests and donations from those with motives that should be cause for concern for freedom of expression and thought in our multicultural society .

Gavin | 09 June 2018  

Hi Stephen, thanks for the attribution. I suppose it gets you off the hook in a similar way in which a fan dancer at a vicarage tea-party can disentangle herself from the unwelcome attentions of the prurient and skedaddle from the ballroom before all hell breaks loose. Now that you have gained a support group and have dropped the Me Too hash-tag, my question would be about what happens to those who resolutely insist upon driving on the middle of the road on a motorway as hotly contested as this. If the cops don't pull them over their reluctance to take sides gets misinterpreted, as some have over here, and their actions read as giving solace to others who consistently drive on the right.

Dr Michael Furtado | 09 June 2018  

A "university autonomy" defence advanced when, God forbid, students who have been encouraged for years to denigrate the West, might actually be encouraged to recognise its beneficial contributions to civilisation, and, as Kenneth Clark hopes in the opening of his inspiring work, "Civilisation", themselves do " . . . something worthy of the great tradition." University autonomy at risk? Bah, humbug!

John | 09 June 2018  

In terms of surrendering academic autonomy, it is the second point - 2ANU academics/2Ramsay Centre reps ratio - that any self-respecting university would find problematic.:"the degree would involve small classes of no more than six to eight students, the curriculum would be determined by two academics from the Ramsay Centre, and two from the ANU, and only students with an ATAR of 97 would have been accepted."{SMH}.

PeterD | 09 June 2018  

Thank you for an insightful argument, Fatima. One of the things which always makes me suspicious of the "Western Civilisation" label is its vagueness, which tends to lend weight to the argument that this is primarily about waging culture war on behalf of colonialism without saying so - a suspicion strengthened by e.g. Tony Abbott's quoted remarks about England. After all, if we were talking philosophy based on Plato, then we should surely include the great Muslim and Jewish philosophers. If we were talking European literature, we would include Tolstoy or the blossoming of culture in Al Andalus. If we meant Indo-European culture, then why not Firdowsi or Hafez? If it's about the Western Hemisphere, then presumably we'll include Aztec or Hodenosaunee thought. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of "Western Civilisation" tends to exclude all of these in favour of a very narrow reading of bits of Western European culture. Not that I think that these should not be studied but it is not as though these have not already been the dominant discourse for a very long time. There is a lot more to both the West and Civilisation than many current proponents of "Western Civilisation" tend to have in mind.

Justin Glyn SJ | 09 June 2018  

Oh my Goodness! What a load of leftist rant! Hurray for Ramsay Foundation, John Howard and Tony Abbott and their effort to have study of Western Culture included in our great public universities where other cultures, Islamic etc. are presented with funding from totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.

Gerard Tonks | 09 June 2018  

Stephen De Weger, further to the Roz Ward quotation in your earlier post: Ms Ward's commitment as a self-avowed contemporary Marxist to the Safe Schools program lends weight to the idea of the late Italian philosopher Antonio Del Noce (author of "The Problem of Atheism", "The Suicide of the Revolution" and the recently translated "The Age of Secularisation") that, with the failure of Marxism to deliver its promised classless economic utopia, its focus would shift to the atheistic subversion of the West's traditional social and cultural order rooted in religion, as evidenced in Antonio Gramsci's work. Earlier signs of this shift in Australia may also be seen, I believe, in the 1970s determination of Chief Justice Lionel Murphy to replace the ethically Judeo-Christian foundation of law with a secular humanist one, an enterprise that has gained significant momentum in recent years. Del Noce regarded neo-Marxism, in league with consumer-oriented technological advancement, as a vehicle for sexual revolution, supplanting Marx's original proletarian revolution with a hedonistic and ultimately nihilistic utopia 'liberated' from traditional moral and religious values and restraints. Del Noce's proposed philosophical antidote to secularisation and its attendant moral relativism was a rediscovery and renewal of the West's metaphysical tradition.

John | 10 June 2018  

John Henry Newman's idea of a university, now "Wouldn't that be a good idea!"??? "Such is a University in its idea and in its purpose; such in good measure has it before now been in fact. Shall it ever be again? We are going forward in the strength of the Cross, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, in the name of St. Patrick, to attempt it" Newman (para 12). I wonder what Newman would make of the concept of 'truth' being totally relative and anyone who believes otherwise should be banned. That would mean he would have to be banned. I agree with Dr Nichols - political (and other ideological) interference, has no place in universities? Truth is relative and therefore, all forms of 'truth' and truth seeking should be allowed. As such, ANY form of supremacist mentality should be banned from academia. So the Ramsay Centre should be banned, along with radical extremist feminism, cultural Marxism, Catholicism/religionism and any other ism that believes it has all the ‘relative’ truth, and that others should shut up and follow or lose their power. Sorry, I’m having trouble following the (non)logic in all this.

Stephen de Weger | 10 June 2018  

Dr. Nicholls, do you really only want 'yeah' sayers? That defeats Fatima's conclusion that it is "struggle and change" that makes us progress. I'm sure she's OK with the challengers/detractors. Good, strong debate allowing differing views to be aired is how we progress as humans, individually and collectively, rather than to merely follow as sheep. Diversity, yes, that's what is being preached today so much but when there is a challenge to the preachers of diversity, well, look what happens!!! Two legs, good, four legs, bad. A great warning from Western Civilisation's literature and history.

Stephen de Weger | 10 June 2018  

I find this very disappointing. Western civilisation has contributed Hugely in so many ways. Yes, there have been shameful actions, like any civilisation. But there is no reason why it could not be studied dispassionately. Ms Measham seems to conclude this cannot be done by Ramsay implying its proposal as absolutist & supremacist. I think this reflects a bias in itself. I hope the course, done objectively, proceeds somewhere.

Bill Frilay | 10 June 2018  

Contrary to those who regard it only as a monolithic vehicle of cultural imperialism, "Western Civilisation", as you recognise, is a complex phenomenon comprised of numerous tributaries. However, as commonly understood, one of its defining characteristics, I'd say, is the contribution of Judeo-Christian morality, based as it is on religious belief - the primary target, I suggest, of its secular opponents' determination to destroy it.

John | 11 June 2018  

Hullo Bill and John, You can propose plausible arguments that the ANU decision is a failure to defend western civilisation and that it relegates the Judeo-Christian morality of western civilization. But I tend to see the impasse in much more simple terms. University courses are enriched by Course Advisory groups that help to imbue a course with contemporary relevance. But in terms of course approval processes, and the determination of content, you can't have two ANU academics with two Ramsay representatives, sitting on an equal basis, to determine the curriculum content and how the course is taught. You welcome course advice etc but it remains advisory: the fundamental principle is that what is taught, and how it is taught, is the province of the ANU academic staff and governed by its associated course approval processes, whether this be in Islamic Studies, Chinese politics or South Pacific Studies.

PeterD | 12 June 2018  

Thomas Mautner says this issue is about university autonomy. That would certainly appear to be correct. However, such autonomy has been assigned to historical quaintness in this country. Our universities have long been prostituting academia in pursuit of the mighty dollar, a position forced on them in some instances by the likes of Howard et al in government by reducing essential development and research funding. Policies that favour dropping entry standards in return for the ability of the student to pay are ruining our universities. It is a matter of some debate as to why any university would exclude a study of Western civilisation, the greatest civilisation this world has ever seen, when studies of lesser civilisations and cultures, many of them historical dinosaurs, are acceptable. I suspect a political agenda is far more at work here, one that feels threatened by the "conservative" Ramsay Foundation with its Christian basis, the very same basis on which Western Civilisation is (or once was) founded.

john frawley | 12 June 2018  

Well, Fatima; you must have hit the mark because there's nothing quite like a posse of outlaws, who draw on Quadrant for their nay-saying, to spice up the disagreement! More power to your Ignatian elbow!

Dr Michael Furtado | 12 June 2018  

It's so interesting that those commenters who are disagreeing with the emphasis in this article or trying to present another POV are being labelled as 'detractors' and 'outlaws'. Why is that? (I also think we should avoid labeling 'lefties' as well). Why can't they just be seen as other people with other points of view, people who are our brothers and sisters as well? How we answer this question goes to the heart of the problematic foundational beliefs attitudes and behaviours of both this article AND the Ramsay Centre.

Stephen de Weger ( | 12 June 2018  

"The clincher: 'Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal, and that truth might not be entirely relative.' " And then: "This is supremacist stuff, and also massively ignorant. Sophistication in art, literature and science has never been a monopoly of the west, unless a case could be made that the rest of the world were somehow less human." Were a few paragraphs deleted here? Because the second statement does not at all follow from the first. Nor does Abbott's article at any point imply that "sophistication in art, literature and science has never been a monopoly of the west" or that "the rest of the world were somehow less human".

Markk | 12 June 2018  

@ John | 10 June 2018 Thank you John for that background. Your outline is very possible to believe if we open our minds, eyes and ears to different POV, even just a little. Scary to do though - very scary. It shakes our psychological/unconsious foundations. I'll have to look up all those references to see if they might provide a balance to 50 years of an unknown and unquestioned embracing of post-modern secular society and education, even though I went through and taught in Catholic schools, and was a very spiritual person at the same time. Don't get me wrong though, we need both religious and secular / progressive and conservative thought, I so seriously mean that, or at least, the BEST of both. I really do believe it is possible, regardless of the pessimism and tribalism from both sides that preach that it's not. I'm just trying to find my way back to that positive possibility, somehow.

Stephen de Weger | 13 June 2018  

Thanks, Stephen. Every success in your research.

John | 13 June 2018  

Well done, Fatima! Who would have thought your nuanced article would have produced such commentary. What a pity no philanthropist (alive or dead) has thought to endow a course called The Black Armband Reading of History & Politics in Australia post WW2. I like to see that.

Uncle Pat | 14 June 2018  

I had to laugh, for fear of crying, at attempts by John and Stephen de Weger to portray themselves as middle-of-the-road moderates on this question. While the taking of sides in such a contentious issue is to be expected, it requires a particular flight of fancy to argue that every political account has at least two sides to it. Anybody who watched last Monday evening's Q&A program on this question would instinctively understand the deliberate and provocative intentions of the Ramsay program and its supporters as being to install a blatantly partisan and ideologically-biased program into a university on the basis of what amounts to nothing more than a bribe. I'm afraid that no amount of unctuous posturing about fairness and balance will alter the patently pusillanimous attempts by some Catholic apologists for such a program to justify its inclusion. Available on iView @:

Dr Michael Furtado | 21 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, I think it time you reflected on the ad hominem tone of your responses to those who do not agree with your views, and also the increasing censoriousness of your postings. I'm sure the editors and readers of ES are capable for themselves of discerning the suitability and objectivity, or otherwise, of contributors' comments without recourse to the demonizing terminology increasingly displayed in your own.

John | 22 June 2018  

John. while I sympathise with the ire you feel about my position, to misread my dissembling of your posts - invariably of the right and intractably opposed to all aspects of progressive Catholicism- as ad hominems, is yet again to miss my point that you cannot adopt both a moderate and conservative position within the same cultural frame. It simply lacks logic. I'm sorry you feel personally offended by this analysis, but it was not intended as a personal slight. Perchance if you shifted your position you might find in me an avid supporter of your views.

Dr Michael Furtado | 23 June 2018  

Thank you, Dr Furtado. However, perhaps it is the rigidity of your "cultural frame" categories that requires revision: "conservative" and "moderate" positions, if these terms are apposite, are not mutually exclusive. And I'm afraid I'm at a loss to know what you mean by your "dissembling" of my posts.

John | 24 June 2018  

John, I meant, of course, 'disassemble' not 'dissemble'. Perchance the best way to explain my motivation in our lengthy arm-wrestle is to point you to the long-running SBS serial, 'The Handmaid's Tale'. Written by Margaret Atwood, it describes a dystopic society in which the elite use a religion based entirely on rules to brainwash and enslave others. I take the view that until Vatican II, cultural and institutional Catholicism, like the Stalinism that you properly detest, demonstrated many of the characteristics on show in 'The Handmaid's Tale'. Your Hobbesian criticisms of almost everything theologically modernist published in Eureka Street, suggests an attitude that would be pathological, were it not that it happens also to draw within the realm of comments persons who agree with you and who regularly lambast the writers and editors of this journal for publishing such views. Ordinarily, and since you ask, I would shake the dust off my busy feet rather than take issue with you on every single one of the criticisms that you make: after all. "de gustibus, non disputandum est". However, not all the issues under discussion here are merely political or confined to matters of taste. And I never attack you personally.

Dr Michael Furtado | 26 June 2018  

Thank you for that clarification, Dr Furtado. Your comparison of Vatican II Catholicism to Stalinism, however, strikes me not only as ludicrous, but also seriously mistaken in its assumption of a hermeneutic of discontinuity (a matter on which we have disagreed in earlier exchanges); and your categorizing of my criticisms as "Hobbesian" and potentially "pathological" seem equally wide of the mark. I'm not aware of many ES readers who agree with me, and of none at all who "regularly lambast" the publication's writers' and editors. One reason, as a reader from its inception, I now contribute regularly to ES is because I believe it has become too one-sidedly secularist and leftist for a Catholic and Jesuit publication. And I'm sure you'd agree, Doctor, any sort of association whose members talk only to themselves is, at very least, suspect.

John | 26 June 2018  

Au contraire, John, you have misread my 'Stalinist' attributions as applying to Vatican II Catholicism. My criticisms apply to some, if not many aspects of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Nor would I wish this forum to become a mutual admiration society, simply because there is enough that Andy and others publish here to warrant discussion and conversation, even of the critical kind. Also I don't agree, as one with a specialist qualification in Catholic Social Teaching, that Eureka Street has moved too far to the Left both theologically and ideologically. A mere google of the 'America' Jesuit website or that of the British Jesuits would confirm this. We live in times when the biggest danger to and most trenchant attacks on human rights come from neoliberalism (i.e. free-rein capitalism, accompanied by a severely restrictive and curtailing social conservatism), which is ordinarily understood as 'Right-wing', and which poses the most intense and vicious blows on a globe hungering for justice and peace. Granted that the period before was accursed by the twin plagues of Fascism and Communism, the world has changed dramatically since then and, in terms of your posts, evidently left you well behind. Come on-board by "singing a New Song"!

Dr Michael Furtado | 27 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, you are correct in indicating my oversight of including "pre" before "Vatican". Thank you.

John | 28 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, as I understand the gospels and the Church's mission which flows from them, Jesus's first call is to faith in him - a disposition of trust and obedience expressed in free commitment, and one that opens its recipient to a fuller vision and way of life ("life to the full") than human reason, for all its potency, can effect of its own exertions. It is the illusion of humanity's self-sufficiency that I regard as our greatest hazard, indeed, betrayal; and I think this is more ideologically evident in Marxism because of its categorically atheistic premise. I support the Society of Jesus's apostolate priority of the service of faith and the promotion of justice ("a faith that does justice") but I feel there is a need at this time to emphasise the faith component required for the realisation of justice. and the pursuit of "life to the full".

John | 29 June 2018  

I don't wish to demonise you or split hairs with what you say, John, for there is much that I agree with in what you post. I simply take issue with you in your disassembling faith from reason. As Catholics, we belong to a tradition that honours and respects both.

Michael Furtado | 06 July 2018  

Michael, I'm afraid I don't see how you arrive at the observation of a disjunction in my understanding of the relationship between faith and reason - here, or in any of the postings where I have supported the traditional Catholic insistence on the complementarity of the two. For a developed articulation that reflects my position on this issue (not without relevance, I might add to many of our differing views In ES) I refer you to Fr Thomas White OP's "The Metaphysics of Democracy", in the February 2018 edition of First Things, where the author offers a searching critique of contemporary secular liberalist dogma. Given your admiration of Dominicans Fr Herbert McCabe and Albert Nolan, I hope Fr White's writing in defence of Aristotelian metaphysics and its necessity today elicits a similarly favourable response.

John | 09 July 2018  

I missed your question, John, amidst the extraordinary forays into the +Wilson case that ES has recently taken, and in relation to which I am glad to note we share much agreement. As it happens, I am a keen proponent of Aristotelianism but not of its more extreme and irredentist claims, made especially by some Thomists in recent times and which reduce its beauty and effectiveness to fallacious and highly exaggerated positions, especially in regard to the Church's teachings on sexual ethics. Our overall Catholic entelechy is one that keeps pace with reason and revelation, thereby requiring that we keep critical pace with the times and its discoveries, especially in regard to human relationship, its complexity and the role that love must play in it.

Dr Michael Furtado | 26 July 2018  

Similar Articles

Coming out is still a big deal

  • Neve Mahoney
  • 13 June 2018

No LGBT+ person can be certain how someone else is going to react. When I came out, I felt like I was risking my relationships. Whenever someone who didn't know about my sexuality told me they loved or cared for me, I mentally added a 'but': 'But that might not be true after I tell you.'


Stop maiming the gift of Aboriginal languages

  • Celeste Liddle
  • 12 June 2018

As I watched the debacle over the ill-advised Meanjin cover last week, I couldn't help but reflect on Aboriginal languages and how, when our words or histories do come to the forefront, they're continually disrespected or treated as a massive threat to the white patriarchal status quo. Meanjin is only the latest example.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up