Okay, let’s talk about the West: a student’s response to Bella d’Abrera

A recent article by Bella d’Abrera shows the vapidity of the proposal to build a Centre for Western Civilisation. Rather than arguing for critical engagement or intellectual rigour, it seems the Institute of Public Affairs wants us to become rote-learners, sitting in ideological day care. In the ABC piece, d’Abrera goes out of her way to name and shame courses for their threat to fragile students, which indicates a dangerous precedent in the Institute’s pushback against academic independence and freedom. D’Abrera puts it like this:

Rather than offering undergraduates a narrow range of subjects which have become a pastiche of identity politics and which appear time and again, across all disciplines of the humanities, it is time to offer them a different perspective. We need to give young people the credit for wanting to know more than just a Marxian cultural theory of identity politics. Tony Abbott is right. What is wrong with offering them something that is for Western civilization rather than against it?

I took one of the courses that d’Abrera singles out – ‘Imperialism, 1815–2000’ – and by the time this goes to print I will have sat the final exam, so I’d like to take this opportunity to counter the ways d’Abrera dismisses the unit.

If d’Abrera had spoken to a student of this class, she would have learned how the lecturer and tutor, James Dunk, challenged us to engage with a variety of texts, not all of which were overtly (or at all) critical of imperialism, or the West.

She might have learned about the structure and process of the class: each week a different student or pair of students would present on the tutorial subject and lead discussion, bringing their own unique perspectives and voices to the table and making the rest of the room quietly, and sometimes uncomfortably, reconsider the perspectives we’d brought in.

She might have found out that the room was never silent, but that there was a loud debate every session, and usually when James spoke up it was to direct us back to the course material and away from a tangent that had gone too long or to encourage us to reframe our point with more evidence.

She might have found that our tutor was a passionate historian and academic who had time for his students, went out of his way to bring in some of the most stimulating and interesting guest lecturers I’ve ever heard, and helped us make sense of a course topic that was broad and nebulous through a series of rigorous case studies.

Hell, if d’Abrera had done the readings and come to the class prepared, she might even have learned about imperialism in the period between 1815 and 2000.

It’s insulting to us, as students of the class, to have this critical learning experience dismissed in this way. Bella d’Abrera and her team at the Institute of Public Affairs know they are wrong to suggest that this course somehow demonstrates the ‘crisis’ around the study of Western civilisation, just as they know that Western philosophy has a long and storied history of introspection and internal criticism. In other words, that Western civilisation isn’t a monolith.

They know, or should know, that perhaps the best thing we can take from the Western tradition is examination and critique. Surely, one of the great pillars of the West (in its self-conception) has been ideological and intellectual freedom – and yet here d’Abrera is, disregarding the importance of that freedom for lecturers and students while simultaneously pontificating on the death of thought.

She states:

The concepts that should be transmitted to university students, such as respect for the individual, equality of men and women under the law, the abolition of slavery, freedom of speech and religious toleration which are simply not part of the narrative and are not being taught.

But these concepts were transmitted! We covered these – and any reasonable person would develop these formations through their critical engagement with the texts we analysed. And I agree – such notions are crucial to the functioning of society. But to treat them as though they are inalienable concepts with no context? Maybe it’s the indoctrination speaking, but I’d like to see her citations for that.

Abolition of slavery is good. But if d’Abrera had taken our Imperialism course, she might have read Catherine Hall’s 2011 paper on the legacy of abolition, and learned how the economic impacts of slavery (and abolition payouts) lingered for generations after the event itself, developing a new degree of disenfranchisement and entrenched inequality. Hall doesn’t argue it: she demonstrates it. It’s fact.

Equality of men and women under the law is good, but if d’Abrera had been in our week 6 Imperialism lecture, she might have discovered that such an idea is not historically applied evenly: that Gauguin’s paintings of Polynesian women demonstrate how, while preaching equality, colonial powers eroticised the bodies of colonised women and stripped them of agency, both legally and socially.

Freedom of speech and religious tolerance are good, and we learned about that, too. Perhaps d’Abrera could apply that logic to the cases we studied in week 9, surrounding the Canadian tar-sands dispute (Preston, 2013 or Ross, 2017), and the way state apparatus and terror legislation was used to silence dissenting opinions from indigenous voices. Or the attacks on Bartolomé de las Casas we read about right at the start of the unit: he was a Dominican friar who preached vehemently against colonisation and the subjugation of indigenous peoples, based on his understanding of religious tolerance.

Respect for the individual is good – so why isn’t d’Abrera showing any respect for our learning, our development as critical thinkers, and our potential to engage with the course content? Her hesitation for students to be exposed to any course content that complexifies the narrative she seems to think we should be learning reeks of paternalism – or intellectual dishonesty.

I don’t know what d’Abrera has studied, but I’d like to invite her to sit in on a history class some time. It would be an excellent opportunity for her to experience the risk students allegedly face first-hand, and expose herself to the possibility that rigorous academic study might engender challenging our preconceptions. I might even let her borrow my notes.


Image: removal of colonialist Cecil Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town campus, 2015

Hamish Wood

Hamish Wood is a poet and student from Sydney, Australia. His writing has appeared in the Fat City Review and Hermes, and won the People’s Choice Award in the 2013 Verge Festival. He tweets occasionally under the handle @natureofthewood.

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  1. Pleased to read this piece, as someone who works on 19th-century British literature and its background. D’Abrera’s take on 19th-century Britain is completely clueless. She has a Cambridge doctorate in Early Modern History, with one academic book based on the thesis, from a good publisher, and three other books published with a very minor press. Seems to be an ‘instant expert on everything’ commentator of the kind too prevalent in Australia!

  2. Excellent article, Hamish, and one that demonstrates what I’ve long suspected: The Ramsay Centre and their fellow travellers are not interested in what *really* happens inside universities. Their fight is fuelled by fantasies of the university as some kind of anti-intellectual breeding ground for Cultural Marxists.

  3. Great article! Can you write another one now about the latest opinion piece (21/9/18) in the Herald Sun which discusses how Education in general should stop the “path of unlearning”?

    1. Hi James, I wish I had thought of that – unfortunately I’m very bad at monitoring comments on pieces and this got more engagement than I’d expected (read: any engagement at all). Thanks for the feedback, and I will have a look at the piece you describe. Might be fuel for more work!

  4. Wow great article. Now I want to take the course!!

    As a relatively uncultured and uneducated Australian (I only studied Engineering), I see this whole Ramsay Western Culture thing as… “lets teach a course about the cool stuff white people did, but leave out the bad stuff”.

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