Ramsay's Long March Backwards
A/Prof Patrick Stokes
Some of the more Quadrant-ish segments of the Australian right have long obsessed over the thought that something called “cultural Marxism” is eating away at the body politic.
Since Gramsci, the theory goes, leftist intellectuals have taken part in what 1960s German activist Rudi Dutschke dubbed the ‘long march through the institutions’: infiltrating the universities, media, and public service to build influence and enforce hegemony.
It’s the sort of idea you might find attractive if you see (post)modernity as a Manichean struggle between the Enlightened West and its dastardly enemies. You might even be moved to fight back – say, by pushing Western Civilisation as a distinct course of study.
Despite being flush with cash and heavy-hitting board members, the Ramsay Centre had some false starts before its Bachelor of Western Civilisation found a home at the University of Wollongong. ANU rejected Ramsay’s overtures, citing irresolvable problems of academic autonomy, while the Universities of Sydney and Queensland have not yet signed on.
One telling sticking point was ANU wanting to call the degree the ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation Studies,’ which Ramsay evidently thought demeaned the West as just another area of study. After all, as Tony Abbott (who first proposed the idea of the Ramsay Centre) put it, “The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it.”
There is something conceptually incoherent at the heart of that view. If you want students to study Western texts and ideas, you can rest easy knowing that’s what every Arts student in the country is doing right now. If you want students to study those ideas because you think they’re actually right, then your interest is not in Western thought, but truth as such.
Either way, a ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation’ seems at best redundant and at worst regressive, an echo of the colonial triumphalism that cost millions of lives and still produces such bizarre sequelae as the Cook voyage and Brexit.
Ramsay have been careful to stress how even-handed their Bachelor program would be. They’ve had an indicative curriculum online for some time, and now we’ve learned more about what UoW will actually be teaching. Critical views will be considered; Shakespeare and Aristotle will sit alongside Marx and Greer, and students will “role play rituals from other cultures.” (Cultural appropriawhatnow?).
The Ramsay Centre won’t be ‘monitoring’ classes, merely ‘observing’ them. (One wonders if Bentham and Foucault on the effects of being observed by power will be taught). Ramsay representatives will sit on hiring panels, but will be in the minority. With all the firewalling and vigilance in the world, however, the question is whether Ramsay is using public universities for ends such institutions should have no truck with.
Up to 10 academics will be hired to teach the new program. No doubt dozens if not hundreds of PhDs, particularly Early Career Researchers, will apply for these jobs. Frankly, they have little choice if they want an academic career in Australia. The casualization of the university workforce and the lack of job openings has condemned most PhD graduates to years of precarious contract teaching while chasing an ever-receding chance of a secure job.
And to be honest, the picture Ramsay sketches would tempt any academic. In an era when ‘Great Books’ classes are near-extinct and getting students to do any reading at all is fiendishly difficult, Ramsay conjures up a sort of autumnal Oxbridge idyll: small classes of bright, eager young minds, competitively selected, hungry for knowledge and discussion. You can practically smell the knitted scarves and duffle coats.
Ramsay won’t want for such students either. There’s a certain class of high school graduate who wants nothing more than to immerse themselves in The Canon, regardless of what The Canon turns out to contain. I know; I was one of them.
Such students will be remarkably well looked-after. Thirty ‘Ramsay Scholars’ will be selected each year and given a $27,000 scholarship, around the same as an average PhD stipend.
Before you rush to apply though, know that Ramsay Scholars will need an ATAR of at least 95 – and must be aged between 16 and 21. No mature-age seekers of truth need apply.
They’ll also need to display something called “Ramsay Attributes.” What are these attributes, exactly? Nobody seems to know for sure. Prof. Theo Farrell, Executive Dean of the faculty that will host Ramsay, takes it to mean “the kind of students who are interested in a great books course.” But if that’s all it means, then students will have demonstrated this attribute simply by applying. And there’s no reason a 25 or 35 or 75-year-old wouldn’t want to study great books.
Small classes, big books, and big questions are undeniably Good Things. But why these other stipulations for Ramsay Scholars? What legitimate university educational or equity need is met by youth and being amorphously Ramsayesque?
To get a bit Quadrant-y for a moment, it all looks rather suspiciously like building a cadre. Ramsay appear to be on a long march backwards through the institutions, using our unis to train up a corps of hand-picked Western Civilization shock-troops and deploying them at the heart of the professions, the centres of learning and publishing – and politics.
Assuming, that is, they do the reading.