Earlier this year, the Dean of Arts at Newcastle University wrote a piece for The Conversation in which she stated that Western Civilisation is past its used by date and that it’s too ‘white’ to teach in multi-cultural classrooms. The University of Sydney academics leading the charge, claim that the BA will “pedal racism disguised as appreciation for ‘Western Culture.’” At a National Tertiary Education Union forum, former University of Sydney chair, sociologist and gender theorist Raewyn Connell, told her audience that the curriculum “has racism embedded in its agenda.”
When I articulated to my fellow alumnus that I had not been surprised at the response from Australian universities—given the antipathy displayed towards Western Civilisation by many academics—he did not think this hostility to be a bad thing. When I added that I thought all students studying an undergraduate degree in history, or any humanities degree for that matter, should be required to do a foundation course in Western Civilisation, he was shocked and horrified. From his point of view, knowing about what happened during the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment is an irrelevancy and a waste of students’ time. For him, history is about ‘issues,’ not knowledge.
It was at this point that I realised that just how far universities, especially the humanities departments, have strayed from their original purpose. From the Renaissance until the 1960s, the humanities, derived from the expression ‘studia humanitatis’ or the study of humanity, made it their purpose to make sense of and understand the world through the great traditions of art, culture and philosophy. There appeared in the 1970s and 1980s however, a range of ‘new humanities’ subjects which rejected this tradition. The new humanities were underpinned by a range of radical post-structuralism and post-modernist theories which had been conjured up in the previous decade by a predominantly French group of philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, as well as the psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan.