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The Ramsay Twist: Australian University Funding and Western Civilisation

There is a lot of tattle going on about why the Australian National University rebuffed, after a series of talks, the offer for the establishment of a specific bachelor’s degree that would feature Western Civilisation as its content. It would have been managed under the auspices of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Besides, universities have been directing their attention to meaningless, tarted guff for decades, whether it be a bachelor’s degree in surfing, or the various toilet roll supplements that degrees in media and communication provide.

This, however, was deemed different. It’s not popular to talk about Western Civilisation these days, notably in capitals, and certainly not in an environment where sexual politics and identity platforms count. The term suggests dead white men of scolding gravitas, even if a few of them were unnervingly bright and ahead of their time. But in Australia, the issue seems to be that much touchier, and uglier. Education is periodically packaged as a diorama for culture wars, and the commanders and grunts are uncompromising in their ideological positions.

In a country given over to the ad hominem stab, and the physical, as opposed to verbal putdown, victories are won through beating contenders into oblivion. The issues here are motivations, political agendas, and visions.

The effort to set up a funding stream for a Western Civilisation degree was imperilled from the start by the two front men in the endeavour, notably former Australian prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. Both are members of the Ramsay Centre, the latter being its current chair. The very fact that these men had become advocates for the enterprise suggested a program and a platform beyond an offer for money and mere cultivation. On the table was essentially a program of inculcation to be controlled by the Centre, a form of soft power a grade above the norm.

There is much irony in this. Both Abbott and Howard were the conservative stalwarts who have done wonders to convert Australia into an arid world of accountants and price watchers, rendering the country a collective of aspirational voters crushed by mortgages who salivate, or despair, at the next economic forecast. Such principles have little to do with the civilizational purpose of Athens and its peripatetic walk and certainly nothing to do with the philosophe punchers who made up the Encyclopaedists. As for talk of liberty, Abbott’s meditations soon veer into the territory of the Vatican, whose values he cherishes with parochial dedication.

Australia’s perfected political suicide Abbott arguably lobbed a grenade of considerable proportion when promoting the merits of the Ramsay program in a piece for Australia’s foremost conservative magazine, Quadrant. In its pages, his praise for late health mogul raises an assortment of questions.

He writes about the acquisitive Cecil Rhodes, a person distinctly out of favour with anti-imperialists and not indifferent to looting for empire, with infantile enthusiasm. He then charts Ramsay’s vision about a syllabus that would “foster undergraduate courses in the Western canon at three leading Australian universities with scholarships” to contend with “life’s biggest issues and history’s greatest challenges” and so forth. (Whether this is Abbott talking, or Ramsay, is hard to say).

Then Abbott starts laying his own booby traps. “The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it.” This made it “distinctive”. “This is an important national project.” The only thing to fear here was the dictum of John O’Sullivan, current international editor of Quadrant: “every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.”

In the schemes of negotiation, this did not play well. Australia’s national university was essentially being told that autonomy over the program – selection of staff, selection of students, and the program itself – would not be exercised by autonomous academics and officials within it, but by those without. Take the cash, but accept the strings. ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt subsequently claimed that “academic autonomy” was at risk, terminating the conversation.

A group of academics at the University of Sydney, having gotten wind of negotiations being conducted between the Centre and their own Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, claimed any collaboration with the Ramsay Centre “a violation of our crucial role in promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness and mutual respect”. Their open letter deemed the enterprise to be promoting a “conservative, culturally essentialist, and Eurocentric vision” mired in “chauvinistic, Western essentialism.” Besides, subjects on western civilisation were already being studied “intensively” at the institution.

There are, of course, other hypocrisies when it comes to money, donations and the tertiary sector. Universities, when they are teased of their component parts, are fractious creatures, divided to fail rather than prosper and bound to harm that most precious resource of all: the student. If the open letter from the University of Sydney academics was right in their claim that the Ramsay Centre could be successful in creating “a cadre of leaders”, that would have been a near miracle. What universities tend to do now is create gluttonous, beige products that pride management and the harnessing of specialist skills over notions of any Renaissance man.

As for the structure of the university itself, management, in whatever curious cloaking of convenience they choose to pick at any given time, see themselves as head boys and girls keeping the academic workers in check, trying to turn the modern teaching institution into a technical ant hill; the workers, generally weak, loathsomely middle class and in search of misplaced spines, tend to be compliant. Rents, mortgages and quotients of weakness need to be paid.

When a questionable money supply finds its way to the university, the issue of compromise varies. The Ramsay Centre’s mistake here was to be obvious, overt, rather than covert and clandestine. Soft power funds can be received but never described as such. Funding for Australian universities, for instance, can be traced to various states officially out of the good books of Canberra: Iran and Turkey, for instance.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also taken the additional steps of attempting to control the way Islam and Middle Eastern studies are taught in Western universities. Then comes that most discomforting of realities: the role played by philanthropic funding and donations to the profusion of China Centres that dot the research and education landscape. Forget the Enlightenment; this is business.


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  1. paul walter

    In other words, the Ramsay Centre is problematic from an inevitable attempt to set up an ideologically based “purchased” curriculum, eliminating the true point of academic thinking which is a dispassionate, objective as much as possible, detached and contextual examination of elements of a purported example of historical process. History is fascinating enough without denialist embroidery and becomes fascinating with honesty rather than as an anxiety based effort to avoid facing up to certain realities emergent in the process of discovery.

    The example of Australian history comes to mind, these days so much more fascinating for what it reveals of human psychological processes with the inclusion of blue-collar history, women’s history, and colonisation and traditional history against the backdrop of a now revealed Aboriginal and immigrant viewpoint as to the unfolding of events often ignored in the heroic myth that represents white armband accounts?

    Western Civilisation is not just about the heroism otherwise of folk like Alexander the Great and the Caesars but the conditions that formed these people and their times. The history of Hellenistic civilisations succeeding Athens then Alexander is often divorced from the early narratives throughthe negatives they reveal of human behaviours, but are fascinating rather than avoidable for the colonialistic clashes between local and rural societies that formed the resistance of the ruralist Maccabees to the mercantile and cosmopolitan “globalising” Hellenes, for example. Equally, Roman history is the richer for the inclusion of some of Cicero’s writings which highlight the operations of proto imperialism and processes of consent manufacture and legitimisation of oligarchies presenting themselves as democracy based and/ or legitimated through some sort of divine intervention.

    Howard and Abbott want a celebration rather than an examination, something that would legitimate their claims of outside forces undermining a perfected system and their self-projection as heroic defenders and legitimate leaders of “true” or “Christian” civilisation. But it rests on the presumption that historical processes are definitively divinely ordained so that their reading s become perceivable as myth-making including for dubious motives, rather than examples of rigorous analysis.

    Will the proposed course ignore include comparisons with other cultures or are these to be ignored then demonised,as with aboriginal histories or say Islamic history, tot he point where we fail to discover our very own origins. These people hate context relativity and comparisons.

    But let’s wait till the processes of inquiry are completed, that we discover what really needs to be celebrated what needs to be understood and what requires further questioning, given that history is unfolding, not a completed project…we may need to know also what to avoid, for existential reasons.

  2. DrakeN

    As with the Lomborg fiasco, the terms of the Ramsey bequest are an attempt to bribe Universities into conforming to the disreputable dogmas of those who cheat, bully and oppress in order to improve their personal power and wealth.
    History has traditionally been written by the victors and these people wish to conserve this situation; omitting unfavourable truths and glorifying iniquities.
    For them, facts are an inconvenience to be avoided at all costs

  3. David Bruce

    This raises the question in my mind about sustainability. Can planet Earth support 9 billion souls enjoying the so-called Western life style? If not, what are the alternatives? Does the answer to these questions really matter in the current debates? By coincidence, I believe the Bilderbergers are meeting currently to discuss these issues…

  4. guest

    Albrechtsen in the Murdoch media accused the ANU of ‘craven corporatism’ for its claim the Ramsay course challenged the ANU’s autonomy. And so we have the ‘craven corporatism’ of the Murdoch media attacking the autonomy of the ANU on a false claim that the ANU ‘hates’ Western Civlisation.

    Ironically, it is ‘craven corporatism’ of the Coalition/IPA cutting of university funds which has made universities follow the business/corporate model to survive. They think that with a fistful of money they can buy the autonomy of the ANU – of any university. Is this their understanding of what Western Civilisation is about – money, power and propaganda?

  5. Matters Not

    What Paul Ramsay (a golfing buddy of Howard) wanted was a prestigious academic qualification based on his view of history – broadly defined. For Ramsay, history isn’t something to be done but merely ingested because the truth is already known. An unarguable given.

    Thus the Ramsay Degree becomes the mere faithful regurgitation of what is already pre-masticated food. And as we know – premasticated food is the fare of dependant beings. Hardly the work of a reputable university.

    I suspect that Craven at the ACU will accommodate nevertheless.

  6. Phil

    Ramsey, Murdoch, Abbott, Howard – one and the same – all demanding their names be carved in stone beneath glorious statues of themselves. They do whatever it takes to get what they want and to hell with ordinary Australians who think otherwise.

    Each of them in his own way has played a leading role in turning our universities into private profit making enterprises that turn their clients into debt slaves to serve the interests of the one percenters and their hapless hangers on.

    Ramsey was a stooge financier of the Liberal Party and a benefactor of the Liberals art of socialism for the rich – these hypocritical parasites and rentiers are everywhere to be seen when the eyes are opened – in transport, health, education, mining etc etc

    Ultimately this is Turnbull’s legacy – he’s the most hapless, directionless, valueless, weak leader we have ever had to tolerate – f*ck him and his traitorous party – they are not liberal, not even conservative – they are criminals

  7. Political Tragic

    One question that appears to be missing in this debate is; how did Paul Ramsey amass so much money in his lifetime that he can afford to bequest 3 BILLION dollars. I know this is most of his wealth, he had no spouse or children to consider, but still, how can he have over 3 billion dollars? He did not, as far as I know, invent any innovative process or product that would be of general benefit.

    It is necessary to acknowledge his philanthropic work, and I do acknowledge it, but he can only do this by spending the huge amount of money he has made in the health care industry. An industry well known for high charges.

    To quote from their website: “The Paul Ramsay Foundation is committed to identifying the root causes of disadvantage and implementing strategic solutions to empower our communities.” I cannot help but think that cheaper health care might go some way to alleviate disadvantage.

    It seems clear that the Foundation does fund interesting and useful programs, it is worth looking at the list on the website. However, I question how funding a degree in ‘Western Civilisation’ meets the desire to identify the ” … root causes of disadvantage…”

    This case brings in sharp focus the two problems of philanthropic charity. The first is how do individuals amass such fortunes, and would it not be better to return to a slightly more progressive tax system to enable governments to more properly fund better social systems, such as health, education and income support? The second is that such wealthy individuals can direct their philanthropy to their particular areas of interest, often without any consideration of broader need.

  8. Matters Not

    Here’s some of the donations made by Paul Ramsay. (It’s dated.)

    Political donations by Paul Ramsay Holdings Pty Ltd to Liberal Party

    Period Value Recipient Type Category

    2011-2012 $500,000 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2014-2015 $125,000 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2010-2011 $100,000 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2007-2008 $100,000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2010-2011 $100,000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2006-2007 $75,000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2005-2006 $53,000 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2010-2011 $20,000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2010-2011 $20,000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2011-2012 $10,000 Liberal Party (Vic) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2011-2012 $5000 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2007-2008 $5000 Liberal Party (NSW) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2005-2006 $3000 Liberal Party (Vic) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    2007-2008 $2145 Liberal Party (Fed) Donation Pharmaceutical/Health

    TOTAL $1,118,145

    A deluge of political donations

    If you Google – Paul Ramsay and Political Donations – you will see that he liked the Liberals and was prepared to donate to them in a substantial manner.

  9. DrakeN

    @ guest:

    “Is this their understanding of what Western Civilisation is about – money, power and propaganda?”

    The first question is do they know enough about it to have any understanding of the word “civilisation”, and secondly do they actually care about anything other than obtaining and maintaining “money, power and propaganda” entirely for themselves.

    I think the answer is in the negative for both.

  10. Al

    I believe that Gandhi, when asked “What do you think about Western civilization” responded thoughtfully: “I think it would be a very good idea”. I don’t believe that Australia, with its disgraceful treatment of refugees (amongst other outrages) can call itself civilized any more.

  11. Glenn Barry

    Perhaps they wanted to put Abbott’s book – Battlines on the curriculum?
    That would ensure a reaction – looks like the corrupt have just bumped into the fact that not everyone is corruptible, some people have ethics, standards, integrity and morals which they treasure

  12. paul walter

    Agree. Howard and his rent boy Abbott are always there, trying to stir up illogic behind the scenes; infect the country with their own special brand of madness.

  13. Zathras

    Perhaps they want to set up some sort of Christian Madrasa to preach the holiness and undeniable superiority of Western civilisation.

    Howard was always in denial of what he called “the black armband view” of history. as if only good things came from us but bad things came from everyone else.

    (Also, just for fun, google what Gandhi really thought about black people. You may be surprised.)

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