Does studying the West imply superiority? Corbis
For generations, the university has been a place designed as a crucible of debate and discussion. That means allowing free-thinking and the exchange of ideas in order to acquire knowledge and intellectual substance.
It is the height of irony, therefore, that universities across the Western world should have been at the forefront, in recent years, of restricting freedom of speech. Across America and Europe, for example, anyone with counter-orthodox views about transgender issues, or same-sex marriage, or even aspects of capitalism, is liable to suffer the indignity of "no-platforming".
It is also ironic that, as Western civilisation should have reached this pass, some at my alma mater, the University of Sydney, are arguing that the subject of Western civilisation itself is inherently "racist". A proposal by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to start a course of such study in collaboration with the university, we are told, must be stopped.
I had the great pleasure of not only studying modern history at the University of Sydney (1990-93) but also tutoring and lecturing there (2008-17). It saddens me profoundly that so many former colleagues have worked themselves up into a frenzy of disgust and outrage at the thought of Western civilisation being taught on campus. If they succeed in their aims of preventing full and frank discourse on a subject rich in a cultural history essential to Australia, and to so much of the world, they will have undermined the very notion of what a serious university should stand for.
Before a public meeting last Monday evening, the opponents of Ramsay issued a statement breathtaking not just in its arrogance, but in its ignorance. It is always dangerous to impute motive to others, but that does not prevent these activists from doing so. They argue that "the sole rationale for its proposed curriculum is to reassert the supremacy of the 'West' over all other peoples of the globe."
All that is missing from that assertion is a shred of evidence, but it allows them to play their trump card. Because of what they regard as the supremacist nature of the course, they claim "the only people who invoke 'Western civilisation' in anything other than a critical spirit are members of the racist right".
And, of course, the minute the "R" word is enlisted, all those who fear being tarred with it are expected to bow down, apologise and withdraw. Such bullying and illiberalism must be resisted vigorously. To do anything else would be to end the idea of a great intellectual institution as a place of free discussion and serious academic purpose.
The activists who wish the Ramsay Centre to be strangled at birth assert that "Western civilisation" is "a favourite umbrella term sheltering all manner of toxic and paranoid prejudices". In that case, many of the world's leading academics, who have taught aspects of this discipline for centuries – theologians, philosophers, classicists, linguists, historians, art historians, musicians and so on – must now be re-labelled as toxic and paranoid, not to mention racist. "We cannot allow," the campus radicals continue, "to offer a course which casts every student of non-Western background as culturally backward."
Never mind that part of the teaching of Western civilisations has been to encourage inquiry into other civilisations. Indeed, anyone who has looked at Persian, Indian, Chinese or Aztec cultures (to name but a few) will have grasped at once their sophistication and complexity.
In a serious university, they should be as open to study as anything else – and the question of what to study should remain a matter of wide-ranging choice. The activists must claim that offering courses in Western civilisation casts non-western students as culturally backward, when it manifestly does nothing of the sort, because the weakness of their argument demands such invention – which only increases that weakness. It is a bit like claiming that by offering natural science courses, a university suggests that those not of a scientific bent are themselves inferior in some way, which would be idiotic.
An eccentric minority
The activists object to European imperialism, which – they may not have noticed – went sharply into reverse a century ago, after the Great War. There is nothing wrong with an Australian university studying a civilisation that originated in Europe, not least given the undeniable effect that the civilisation had on Australia – including the importation of liberal values that the activists seem determined to crush.
Back in Europe and in America, a wave of populism has grown up in recent years. This is not least because of the bullying activities of illiberal intellectual elites, who seek to end debate about matters with which they disagree, and use the weapon of accusations of racism against those who continue to resist, in order to try to shame them into silence. The activists of Sydney should be careful what they wish for. They fail to appreciate just what an unrepresentative, eccentric minority they really are, and the contempt in which people genuinely wedded to the idea of liberalism hold them.
There is nothing to stop the University of Sydney, or any other university in Australia or the rest of the free world, offering courses in any other civilisation that people wish to study. But equally, nothing should stop Sydney offering this course in a civilisation whose influence in the world is indisputable.
To go through life without an understanding of ancient Greece, or the power of the Romans, or the birth and spread of Christianity, the development of the English language, the glory of the Renaissance, the widespread theological, cultural and economic effects of the Reformation, the wonders of the Enlightenment, the development of ideas such as democracy and the rule of law can only render someone thoroughly uneducated. So, too, would a failure to grasp all the scientific discoveries that came from the West, and which have underpinned our modern world.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a presenter at ABC's Radio National.