Politically active people don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues these days, but something they all seem to agree on is the fear that Western democratic values are under pressure – and that the future looks bleak for Western civilisation. Conservatives warn that Western civilisation is about to be overrun by immigrants, Islam or Communist China. For liberals, it is threatened by populism, nationalism, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Both seem to believe that in the battle between the West and the rest, the rest are winning.
But if civilisation really is in so much trouble, why can’t we all agree to do something about it?
The late billionaire Paul Ramsay dedicated a major portion of his estate for the establishment of a great books-based Western Civ degree. So far only the University of Wollongong has proved willing to take up the offer, and even there with a promise ‘to bring in the non-Western perspective… to ensure that marginalised and under-represented voices are captured’. The University of Queensland and the University of Sydney are apparently still in discussions with Ramsay, with many professors (and their unions) determined to prevent a deal.
There was a time when universities took up the challenge to defend Western civilisation, without any monetary enticements whatsoever, simply because it was the right thing to do. In 1914, the democratic West faced the prospect of annihilation at the hands of naked German militarism. It can be hard to remember now, but the Nazis of World War II weren’t the first German madmen to try to extinguish the lamp of freedom. That distinction belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II and his World War I Prussian militarists. And Germany’s universities were in the forefront of the imperial Germany’s effort to subjugate and destroy Western democracy.
When invading German troops intentionally burned down the Catholic University of Leuven as a warning against Belgian resistance, Western intellectuals were aghast at the brutalisation of libraries and works of art. In response to negative press coverage in the West, German intellectuals rose to the defence of German militarism. In an open letter to ‘the civilised world’, ninety-three German professors (including fourteen Nobel Prize winners) justified German war crimes as the price that must be paid to assure a German victory.
They also vilified the West for ‘allying with Russians and Serbians… Mongolians and negroes against the white race’ – i.e. against Germany. The Nazis didn’t invent the idea of German racial superiority. It was there in the universities all along. American professors took up the German challenge, not with machine guns and poison gas, but with a program that involved the reading of great books – including German books. At Columbia University in New York, they organised the first classes in Western civilisation. Crucially, they decided not to lecture their students about the merits of Western civilisation, but to let students discover Western values for themselves by reading (and discussing) the classic works of Western literature.
It wasn’t a program of indoctrination. Nor was it a program intended to provide balance, or to put the West in context. It was a program, quite simply, about the civilisation in which the students themselves lived, the one that, were they sent to the ‘Western’ front, they would be charged with defending.
Thus was born ‘Western Civ’, that most American of university traditions. In the middle of the twentieth century, Western Civ was ubiquitous on American college campuses, and its read-it-yourself approach filtered down into high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools through Great Books programs.
But the 1970s radicalisation of the humanities led to the abandonment of Western Civ at most universities, and the national Common Core is now killing Great Books in grades K-12, too.
Today only Columbia University and a collection of distinctive liberal arts colleges are keeping the Western Civ tradition alive, while K-12 Great Books programs are increasingly relegated to exclusive private schools. Baby Boomer campus radicals who protested against Western civilisation fifty years ago are now waking up to find that their children don’t necessarily share their commitment to freedom of speech, the rule of law and democratic decision-making. Politics is increasingly about identity, and everyone but everyone seems desperate to find a way to make themselves out to be non-Western.
If we want to bring back the ideals of Western civilisation, it’s time to bring back Western Civ. No matter what critics may say about them, readings-based Western Civ classes don’t shove a pro-Western ideology down students’ throats. They guide students to the classic works that have shaped our Western world, and let the students decide what to think about them.
Great books-based Western Civ classes are liberating in the best sense of the liberal arts tradition. If our students are now turning to anti-democratic extremes to the left and right of civilisation, it should come as no surprise. Of course, academic freedom demands that individual professors be allowed to teach according to their consciences. But the needs of society require that we have professors whose consciences align with the values of the civilisation in which they live. The Ramsay Centre isn’t threatening to fire uncivilised professors, but it is offering to hire civilised ones.
American and European foundations should take the hint. No one wants a McCarthyite witch hunt to name and shame professors who oppose Western values. But much good could be done by philanthropic foundations if they were to fund professors who believe in our civilisation – and are willing to defend it in class. When it comes down to how we spend our education budgets, a few billion dollars can pay for one space telescope or big physics lab, or it can endow one thousand professorships to support the teaching of Western Civ at hundreds of universities.
We’re willing to pay that kind of money for pure science to expand the horizons of the human imagination. If we can’t find the same kind of money to cultivate the imagination of our own children, our Western civilisation does indeed deserve its fate. If we turn down what little money philanthropists do offer up, it’s hard to see what there is worth saving.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at Sydney University and the author of ‘The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.’