What’s behind the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation?

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence has spent many months in negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, causing a great stir on campus and in the national media. 

The $3 billion centre – established with a bequest from private healthcare tycoon and greatest ever donor to the Liberal party, Paul Ramsay – has reportedly offered the university tens of millions of dollars to establish a Bachelor of (or rather, for) Western Civilisation. 

The idea of “Western civilisation” is hard to pin down. Ramsay CEO Simon Haines says we “can’t say what it is [but] we all know what it is, we all live with it”. 

Perhaps we can glean insight from the mind of Ramsay board member Tony Abbott, who hopes that the Ramsay Centre will remedy university curricula that are “pervaded by Asian, Indigenous and sustainability perspectives”. 

History is a washing machine load of “civilisations”. Wars, imperial conquest and trade have scattered and scrambled together people and cultures across all the artificial lines that divide the world today. 

But the Ramsay Centre ideologues paint a simplistic and false portrait of civilisations as sealed-off entities; plastic packaged worlds labelled “West”, “East” and, most feared, “Arab”. Such chip-packet-style civilisations are conveniently rid of the countless currents and counter-currents that have characterised all of human history.

Take, for example, pre-colonial Indigenous Australia. Often believed to be isolated from the rest of the world, evidence increasingly suggests the opposite. Discovered only recently, on the margins of a 13th century manuscript written by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, are four sketches of an Australasian cockatoo, revealing how trade in the waters around the continent’s north was flourishing in medieval times, its produce reaching across the world.

Or take the Islamic Golden Age. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“The Arabic-Latin translation movements in the Middle Ages, which paralleled that from Greek into Latin, led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the medieval Latin [European] world. 

“The impact of Arabic philosophers such as al-Fārābī, Avicenna and Averroes on Western philosophy was particularly strong in natural philosophy, psychology and metaphysics, but also extended to logic and ethics.”

Veneration of Western civilisation is not just scholastically dubious – it’s motivated by racism and the ideology of empire. The rhetoric of civilisational divide is a constant feature of contemporary Islamophobia, for example. 

Pauline Hanson has called for anyone who supports Sharia Law to be deported because they don’t respect the allegedly Australian values of equality for women and gays. Ironic from a politician who opposes legalising abortion and marriage equality.

And those like Abbott promoting the wonders of our Western Christian heritage have little to say about the role of the Church in opposing every advance during the European Enlightenment. 

While he laments “Asian” and “Indigenous” perspectives being taught in universities, he defends one of the greatest criminal organisations in world history – the Catholic Church, whose monstrous crimes continue to be uncovered.

An honest study of Western civilisation must include more than Homer’s Odyssey and the breakthroughs of Copernicus, Descartes and Newton. Western civilisation also has a history of imperial conquest, rapacious environmental destruction, racist violence, militarism and genocide of indigenous populations across the world. 

From the 1 million dead because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to many more in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, all were the cost of extending or defending Western-style “civilisation’”.

But the Ramsay Centre doesn’t want to examine the contradictory legacies of Western philosophies and societies. It wants to pursue a one-sided defence that covers over the atrocities. In Abbott’s words, Ramsay is not “merely about Western civilisation, but in favour of it”. 

Ramsay was rejected by the Australian National University because it wanted to have control over the curriculum, staffing and teaching. Ramsay intended to employ people to sit in on classes and monitor content – dare anyone say anything critical of the West. Ramsay Centre CEO Simon Haines said himself, “We would not be willing to hire somebody who is coming in with a long liturgy of what terrible damage Western civilisation had done to the world”. 

In other words, Ramsay is unwilling to employ anyone willing to examine the whole truth.

Why, then, would Sydney University be so willing to deal with the centre? The answer lies in what has become the central value in all Western societies: money.

As government funding for education dwindles, universities look for funding from the private sector. The typical neoliberal university has multi-billion dollar investment portfolios and seeks financial relationships with all manner of grotesque bedfellows, including the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and international military forces.

Indeed, the Ramsay Centre is only the latest private institution to attempt to control a section of the curriculum and impose right wing ideology on the Sydney University campus. The United States Studies Centre was set up by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2006, with the explicit aim of “countering the bias against the US-Australia alliance”. 

It’s excellent that Ramsay was beaten back at the Australian National University. Hopefully, the campaign at Sydney University will do the same. However, we cannot forget what has led us to this point. 

It is the responsibility of student unions and university staff unions everywhere to demand a free, fully funded education system. That is our best defence against corporate interests buying a space for their propaganda on campus.