Across the Western world, nations are dividing along sharply separated lines around identity and individual belief structures. Some columnists write that traditional institutions are under threat as cynicism and disruptive action around campuses and in social media have taken hold. Individuals are attacked for what till now have been accepted community values as issues such as gay marriage, transgender identity, Donald Trump, green energy, saving the planet, even animal rights, to list just a few, are debated. It’s called the culture wars. Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor and President, Australian Catholic University. In an address to The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 14 November 2018, Professor Craven analysed the challenges that the culture wars present for Western values, Western politics and Western art, and suggests how the culture wars in Australia might be brought to an end in a way that affirms Western civilisation.
ENDING THE CULTURE WARS
The approach of this paper is unusual, both in terms of my own personal oeuvre, and in terms Australia’s culture wars generally. Instead of insults hurtled from supposedly Olympian heights, it attempts to be reasonable. It adopts this idiosyncratic approach simply because, from the viewpoint of those Australians most invested in Western culture wars, the struggle seems largely self-defeating. Two passionately engaged intellectual tribes are locked in mortal combat, while the populace looks on in bemusement, if it looks on at all. It is rather like the famous nocturnal fight between the Gingham Cat and the Calico Dog, where the expenditure of immense amounts of passion merely leaves both parties lying in tattered shreds come morning.
It is rather like the famous nocturnal fight between the Gingham Cat and the Calico Dog, where the expenditure of immense amounts of passion merely leaves both parties lying in tattered shreds come morning.
The essential argument advanced here is that supporters of Western culture would be well advised to rely more often in their contests upon one of western civilisation’s own defining and supremely effective characteristics: cultural synthesis. At least in some contexts, the basic question might not be how to throttle some seemingly divergent cultural thought, but rather how any potentially valid threads might be woven into the vast, diverse tapestry that is Western civilisation.
Two pictures, one illustration
Two pictures, each from the art collection of the Australian Catholic University, together provide some illustration of this point.
The first would be greeted with rapture as a prime example of Western civilization by any reasonably well-armed cultural warrior. The Virgin Annunciate was painted by the Sienese master Taddeo di Bartolo in around 1422 and purchased by the University in 2012. The divinely calm expression of the Virgin, her exquisitely figured hand raised in a gesture of powerful acceptance, the book she holds displaying legible Hebrew script, the exquisitely tooled gold surface and the rich blue of the Virgin’s mantle, all proclaim this as a work from the heights of western culture. No-one looking at this beautiful example of Italian art from the fifteenth century could be surprised that it was acquired by a Catholic university which, by definition, has a profound commitment to and engagement with Western civilisation and culture.
No-one looking at this beautiful example of Italian art from the fifteenth century could be surprised that it was acquired by a Catholic university
The second work also comprises a profound representation of Western culture, though perhaps in a rather less obvious way. Confrontingly for more trigger-happy cultural warriors, Kenneth Jack’s watercolour and gouache painting, The Wondrous Cross or Christian buildings since Christ’s death, clearly reflects such influences as semi-abstraction, cubism and even surrealism. Yet it simultaneously is infused with a deeply romantic commitment to Christian and Western culture, as expressed through a precise and figurative depiction of the course of Christian architecture. The painting, completed in 1958 and acquired in 2012, depicts an imaginary metropolis viewed from multiple perspectives – as if from a small aircraft hovering above. When read from left to right, we begin with sacred buildings from the pre-Christian era, and progress through the history of Christian sacred architecture until we reach the extreme right-hand side, where the modern day is represented by scaffolding for an edifice yet to be completed.
The painting, completed in 1958 and acquired in 2012, depicts an imaginary metropolis viewed from multiple perspectives – as if from a small aircraft hovering above.
Near to this construction site, Jack has depicted London’s parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, located at Trafalgar Square. The west façade is based on the entrance to an ancient Greco-Roman temple. Behind this is the church spire with which the English have loved to adorn their churches since mediaeval times. In this case, the spire is centred over the building, so that it does not offend the symmetry of the classical façade. Generations of parishioners and tourists have loved the way the building synthesises architectural elements from the ancient and mediaeval periods. Architecture is particularly effective at achieving such a synthesis.
Jack’s painting thus is in itself a synthesis of sacred architecture in the Western tradition. He has not depicted a scene that you will encounter anywhere. Rather, he has created an imaginary scene through synthesis of images of real buildings. This synthesis of sacred Western architecture is itself a brilliant visual representation of the Western tradition. For Western civilisation is the supreme act of synthesis. Across the millennia, there has been a synthesising of Western values as the Western institutions, through which these values find expression, developed and were then refined. In an entirely positive way, it is fair to describe Western culture as “synthetic”, not in the pejorative sense of a cheap nylon shirt, but in the sense of the original Greek word, an imaginative and cohesive putting together of different but complementary concepts.
Western civilisation is the supreme act of synthesis.
Yet as things stand at the moment, one gets the feeling that Australian culture warriors do not appreciate Western civilisation as the supreme act of synthesis. Indeed, one suspects that the use of the word in relation to Western culture would be regarded more as an insult than an insight. Our own culture warriors prefer to see Western culture less as a numinous idea than a banner to be carried in formed ranks against a recognised enemy they have been fighting for decades. Yet think again of The Virgin Annunciate, that typical example of Western culture. Her face ultimately comes not from Italy, but from the icons of Constantinople, around which the Emperor Leo the Iconoclast fought one of the greatest (and ultimately unsuccessful) culture wars in history. Her book is in Hebrew, not Latin, something that would have been unthinkable before the stirring of the humanist revolution of the fifteenth century. Even her beautiful blue mantle is made from lapis lazuli imported from Muslim Afghanistan. The history of Western culture is as much one of synthetic acceptance, as of ideological rejection.
Our own culture warriors prefer to see Western culture less as a numinous idea than a banner to be carried in formed ranks against a recognised enemy they have been fighting for decades.
Culture is as much one of synthetic acceptance, as of ideological rejection
Australia’s culture wars
So far as we can, it is time to end the culture wars in Australia. Culture is not an object to be crudely fought over with rival groups laying claim to its true ownership. And yet that is what we seem to have seen playing out in Australia over the last few decades.
So far as we can, it is time to end the culture wars in Australia.
Australia’s culture wars are closely related to its history wars. The history wars erupted over disagreements about competing understandings of the interaction between the Indigenous population and the settler population in the colonial period of Australia’s history. Did the settler population deliberately mistreat the Indigenous population? Did it adopt a policy of annihilation in Tasmania that should be understood as a form of genocide? What kind of moral judgment should we pass about this history? Should we, on balance, feel proud of it, or ashamed of it?
What kind of moral judgment should we pass about this history? Should we, on balance, feel proud of it, or ashamed of it?
The culture wars in turn erupted over disagreements about the moral judgment we should pass about the Western civilisation that the settler population brought with it in 1788. Is Western civilization, on balance, a force for the good, or is it oppressive and something to be resisted?
If you believe that Western civilisation is a force for the good, then you will strive to cultivate an understanding of it in children and offer them an education that inducts them into it and instils in them a sense of valuing the Western tradition and the values that find expression in its institutions.
If you believe that Western civilisation is oppressive, then you will not think it is any more important for children to understand Western civilisation than it is for them to understand any other cultural modes of life, many of which you will see as having been suppressed or superseded by Western culture. In this case, children should not be encouraged to identify with the West or the values of its tradition.
In this way an intellectual war breaks out between those who believe Western civilization needs to be preserved for the sake of the future, and those who believe it needs to be resisted for the sake of the future.
In this way an intellectual war breaks out between those who believe Western civilization needs to be preserved for the sake of the future, and those who believe it needs to be resisted for the sake of the future.
The culture wars deeply betray what matters most about Western civilisation. But more than that, they do something even worse: they alienate ordinary people from their patrimony. The culture wars often seem to be conducted in a way that appears to be a dispute between elites about which elite group is the rightful claimant. This only serves to reinforce the sense in which “ordinary” people feel that culture is “not for us”.
People feel that the culture elites are warring over is not for them because these people do not feel that they have ever been inducted into the culture. This is a more shocking thought than many of us would care to admit. And we need to face up to how this came about. It has been the dumbing down of education that has meant that people no longer have an innate sense of what Western civilisation is and why it matters to them that they are part of it.
It has been the dumbing down of education that has meant that people no longer have an innate sense of what Western civilisation is
This is a dramatic reality of modern Australian society, whose implications are numerous, and must be faced. What does it mean if young Australian travelers enter the Sistine Chapel, and recognise and react to nothing but beautiful colours and utterly unidentifiable, historical-mythical figures? How, as a nation, are we comfortable with the fact that, as we constantly journey through Europe, virtually none of us can speak a European language other than our own?
Notoriously, Western civilisation is something that everybody talks about, for good or for ill, but few dare to define. One of my repellant children once asked me whether I actually believed in anything, apart from Catholicism. I replied that I believed in The West. He sneered back, “What, the West of Donald Trump?” I replied with sonorous dignity, “No. the West of Charlemagne”. It was a satisfying answer, but not a very enlightening one.
I replied that I believed in The West. He sneered back, “What, the West of Donald Trump?” I replied with sonorous dignity, “No. the West of Charlemagne”.
Hegel famously treated art, religion and philosophy as the means by which Geist – or the spirit of the age – is manifested. Central to the problem of the culture wars is a failure to understand the Geist or spirit of Western civilisation as it is manifest in Australia today. A proper understanding of Western civilisation can itself provide the antidote to the current culture wars.
There are three aspects of Western civilisation that I should like to touch on before moving on to consider the antidote to the culture wars. These are the place of respectful disagreement in Western philosophy; the way that irreconcilable values are manifest in Western art; and the proper role of institutions in Western politics.
Respectful disagreement in Western philosophy
At the outset, it is important to understand that Western civilisation never has comprised a series of monolithic philosophical, historical or literary understandings. The view of probably its two most famous foundational philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, diverged on just about everything. Yet each are indispensable parts of the canon of Western civilization, and co-exist in eternal, civilized disputation.
Western civilisation never has comprised a series of monolithic philosophical, historical or literary understandings.
This is not atypical, but typical of Western culture. Unusually, if not uniquely, that culture is not only able to contain fundamentally different views on fundamentally important questions, but, even more remarkably, is able to promote their discussion freely, openly and – largely – without rancor. Within Western culture it is okay to disagree, especially if you are able to muster intellectually respectable arguments to support your case. This is the essence of respectful disagreement: that, in an intellectually confident culture, I can listen to you without feeling the need to shout over you.
It is this aspect of Western culture that is most at threat in modern Australia, a reality made depressingly clear by the current “debate” around the Ramsay Centre and its potential location in various “elite” universities. The reality is that what is occurring is not a disagreement, let alone a respectful one, but an attempt to terminate, preferably before it has begun, a typically Western contest of ideas. Ironically, it is the Western tradition of respectful disagreement and careful scrutiny of opposing arguments that has allowed for the very kind of critique of Western civilisation that would not be tolerated, let alone encouraged, in any other civilisation. Those who are ashamed of Western civilization seem to forget that we ought to be proud that Western civilisation not only permits its own criticism, but has an intellectual tradition that encourages it.
What is occurring is not a disagreement, let alone a respectful one, but an attempt to terminate, preferably before it has begun, a typically Western contest of ideas.
Incommensurate values in Western art
This dynamic, internal pluralism is particularly apparent in the Western artistic tradition. Who can forget when Kevin Rudd the First, darling of the Left and short-term Australian messiah, a veritable cross between Hercules and Popeye the Sailorman from Balmain to Brunswick, early in his reign, ran afoul of his own supporters’ artistic canon?
At issue were the nude photographs of a teenage female Australian artist Bill Henson. To the cultural left – including my critic brother Peter – the photos were beautiful, evocative and brooding. To Rudd, they were “revolting”, as involving the exploitation of a young adolescent. They carried the whiff of pedophilia. The rift between Rudd and parts of his captive intelligentsia never fully healed. Each represented very different viewpoints within our society. The artistic elite regarded itself as urbane and sophisticated, more than capable of justifying Henson’s work on the basis of Art for Art’s sake. Rudd almost certainly reflected the views of a much bigger, “suburban” constituency, who had travelled the social journey through sexual liberation and omni-present pornography, but drew the line at allowing the accepting sexualisation of children in the cause of Art.
They carried the whiff of pedophilia. The rift between Rudd and parts of his captive intelligentsia never fully healed.
My own view strongly accords with Rudd’s, but that is not the point. In this cultural controversy, neither side was “wrong”. It was rather that the values the different sides were willing to defend to the death, as it were, were basic but also incommensurable and irreconcilable. The Henson affair lends itself to different interpretations, but it also draws attention to a key feature of Western civilisation. It is indeed committed to incommensurable and irreconcilable values, and much of the Western tradition is a playing out of attempts at accommodating these conflicting values. In part, this owes something to the West’s debt to Plato and Aristotle and the intellectual commitment to respectful disagreement. But it also owes something to a religious conception of what it is to be human, not a point commonly made in the context of the work of Bill Henson.
The Henson affair lends itself to different interpretations, but it also draws attention to a key feature of Western civilisation.
Western civilisation is anchored in the biblical teaching that all human beings are created in the image of God, and as such have a fundamental dignity or sanctity that must always be respected. This leads to the West’s approach to the individual has having an inherent value that cannot be subordinated to other considerations. It requires respect for the freedom of the individual. It also leads to the West’s commitment to equality: because all human beings are created in the image of God, it follows that all should be treated equally as human beings. Part of this necessarily involves my respecting the right of individuals to have and express an opinion, even if I do not agree with it.
Part of this necessarily involves my respecting the right of individuals to have and express an opinion, even if I do not agree with it.
Much of the history of the West is the playing out of attempts at accommodating such incommensurate and incompatible goods – goods that are apparent from reason and revelation alike. Western art has been central to the exploration of both the consonance and dissonance between such core Western values. Works such as Henson’s photograph are a reminder that the Western tradition has a long history of seeking a pragmatic compromise that goes some way towards reconciling irreconcilable goods.
This reality is played out not only in the high artistic context of perfectly arguable individual preferences as between the works of the Renaissance, cubism and impressionism, but also in the less-elevated context of the ability of Western society to accommodate political views as vastly different as those of Cory Bernardi and Richard Di Natale.
Institutions in Western politics
The institutions of political life in Western countries have been central to their success as states that can sustain societies in which there is respectful disagreement and a commitment to incommensurate values. One central idea here is that it is possible to show profound respect for a value embodied in a given institution, even if one has little or no respect for the individual(s) populating that institution.
Thus, in an Anglo-Australian context, even a republican such as myself can recognise the argument for the Crown as a stabilising and legitimate point of reference within a constantly changing political atmosphere, regardless of whether I look forward to the personal reign of Charles III. In the same way, rational Australians value the independence and commitment to the rule of law embodied in our judiciary, even if every judge we have met was a crashing, insensitive bore. Of course, this act of faith is as nothing compared with our willingness to value the democratic institution of Parliament, despite our general opinion of the politicians who compose it.
Even a republican such as myself can recognise the argument for the Crown as a stabilising and legitimate point of reference within a constantly changing political atmosphere, regardless of whether I look forward to the personal reign of Charles III
Within our own sub-brand of Western political culture, therefore, we have developed over the centuries to the point where we can distinguish between the human being who happens to be the current incumbent of an office, and the office as an institution. This has been a distinctive feature of Western civilisation. An example from a very different political system would be the general respect which historically has been accorded to the office of President in the United States, regardless of the popular opinion of the incumbent. All this represents an immensely sophisticated synthesis and interplay between notions of institutional legitimacy and personal quality.
This is why the current lack of confidence in institutions poses a grave threat to our political system. It represents a step-change in Western political culture, whereby institutions as capsules of shared values are themselves being questioned. Of course, we can attempt to rationalize this, at least in part, as flowing from the exceptionally bad conduct or character of current incumbents of our political institutions. But the current lack of confidence in those institutions goes beyond this. Such a loss of confidence is exactly what should be expected when the lack of understanding of Western history means that people can no longer distinguish between the enduring institutions and their transient incumbents.
If the notion of Parliament begins and ends with Scott Morrison, and never touches Runnymede, and the office of president is understood as Donald Trump without reference to Jefferson or Lincoln, what reason is there for institutional respect?
Western civilization as synthetic culture
Because of Western civilisation’s commitment to respectful disagreement, incommensurate values, and evolving institutions, it has never been truly static. It has constantly been changing as it incorporates the lessons of history. It has always been “synthetic”, in the sense that it is a combining of many different components to provide a connected whole. This provides an important opportunity for Australia, and one which has been neglected by the warriors of the culture wars.
This provides an important opportunity for Australia, and one which has been neglected by the warriors of the culture wars.
I have at least one, small, firsthand experience of this. When John Howard was Prime Minister and David Kemp was Minister for Education, I was appointed to a Civics Education Group, which was charged with promoting civics education in Australian schools. The exercise universally was predicted to be a disaster, partly because of its subject matter, but also because of the diverse composition of the panel. Our Chair was the great conservative historian John Hirst. He was joined on the Right by myself and Kevin Donnelly. From the Left was eminent historian and former communist Stuart Mcintyre, joined by educators Ken Boston and Susan Pascoe. The prediction was that the group would not get through its first meeting without homicide.
In fact, we collaborated brilliantly across an eclectic range of Australian culture. We even came up with the idea of publishing sets of civics “readers”, for distribution across the various year levels in Australian schools. A horrified Department of Education looked on as we filled the readers with utterly diverse contents, ranging from the Beatitudes, to Henry Lawson, bits of Shakespeare and even Ned Kelly’s great Jerilderie letter, where he lambasts the police as “splay-footed wombats”. Throughout, we shamelessly took the opportunity to introduce young Australians to the concept of verse, and even illustrated the readers with outstanding examples of high-quality art.
The point was that six Australians with very different personal emphases within Western culture were able to synthesise a compelling educational product.
The point was that six Australians with very different personal emphases within Western culture were able to synthesise a compelling educational product.
Of course, synthesis is not always possible. Some debates involve diametrically opposed positions which cannot be integrated, and indeed must be rejected within a framework of Western culture. But it does not always have to be like this. Sometimes, it is possible to find common ground, and then the possibility of synthesis opens up. I have already noted that architecture often provides an exceptionally powerful representation of such synthesis. I was astonished, when recently visiting the cathedral of the Norman kings of Sicily at Monreale, to see possibly the supreme example of such integration: a twelfth century Catholic Cathedral, envisaged by Norman aristocrats, with walls covered in mosaics devised and applied both by local Catholic Sicilians and Byzantine masters, incorporating Islamic designs executed by both local and recruited Moorish artists.
A twelfth century Catholic Cathedral, envisaged by Norman aristocrats, with walls covered in mosaics devised and applied both by local Catholic Sicilians and Byzantine masters, incorporating Islamic designs executed by both local and recruited Moorish artists.
Without any undue romanticism, this is the kind of synthesis that should inspire us in attempting to bring our own culture wars to a successful end. When presented with competing understandings of Australian culture, colonial history, and the significance of British institutions in Australia, it is not realistic simply to demand that one side offer an unconditional surrender to the other. The current movement for constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples through the modest proposal for an “Indigenous voice” – by definition an institutionalised dialogue – demonstrates the very real opportunities for synthesis in our understanding of Australian culture.
We can recognize that respectful disagreement about understandings of our history and culture is itself a hallmark of Western civilisation. We can celebrate the fact that, as a manifestation of Western civilisation, Australian culture will embody incommensurate and incompatible values. And we can see in our constantly evolving constitutional institutions an opportunity to revisit competing understandings (and memories) of our past and the values we share, with a view to allowing institutions to evolve in a way that is consistent with these shared values and disputed understandings.
Problems faced when talking about Western civilisation
There are three major problems that we face when seeking to end the culture wars in a way that affirms the value of Western civilisation. First, there is the problem of the profound cultural and historical ignorance of contemporary Australians. Second, there is the pernicious effect of postmodernism. Finally, there is the apparent inability of Western civilisation’s local defenders to mount attractive propositions, as opposed to bombastic arguments.
First, there is the problem of the profound cultural and historical ignorance of contemporary Australians.
It gives me no pleasure to say this, but one cannot help feeling that Australia has a deeply shallow and uninformed culture. What I mean by this is the sense that people who regard themselves as sophisticated commentators on Australian society often demonstrate no real understanding of notions such as religion, or of the importance of the historical origins of the institutions that underpin Australian society; the kind of meaningful understanding necessary to appreciate these institutions and how they shape their society.
The area of religion provides numerous examples. Many “cultured” Australians simply have no idea of religion, or the part it plays in the lives of their fellow citizens. I remember trying to explain to an ABC radio journalist the Christian notions of contrition and forgiveness. He was frankly gob smacked. When the Royal Commission into institutional child abuse sought to identify an alternative method of governance for the Catholic Church, its best shot was that the Church should adopt a model of corporate governance. Doubtless in the light of that other Royal Commission into Australian banks, this was sage advice.
Many “cultured” Australians simply have no idea of religion, or the part it plays in the lives of their fellow citizens.
The same level of ignorance applies to most of our more important institutional arrangements. As a constitutional lawyer, I have been appalled by the comprehensive misunderstandings displayed in this sphere by journalists, captains of industry and even practising politicians. Only a tiny minority could give a rational account of such phenomena as the rule of law, the separation of powers, responsible government or federalism, yet they feel free to ply these terms with confidence. Just as in the case of religion it is impossible to have a serious conversation with someone who immediately dismisses God as a “sky fairy”, so it is hard work discussing political theory with a person who thinks that the Burke you are referring to had a friend called Wills.
It is impossible to have a serious conversation with someone who immediately dismisses God as a “sky fairy”, so it is hard work discussing political theory with a person who thinks that the Burke you are referring to had a friend called Wills.
Commentary about culture presupposes that people are interested in culture. Yet, the kind of commentary to which we are subjected suggests that there is no real curiosity about culture on the part of many of our most prominent commentators. This presents a very serious problem, because the lack of cultural and historical understanding in Australia means that there is no frame of reference for the current culture wars.
We need to acknowledge not only the cause of this ignorance, but also the consequences of it. Thanks to changes in primary, secondary and tertiary education, large numbers of people in Australia have been disinherited from their patrimony. Because they have been disinherited in this way, they lack understanding and interest in their culture. And because of this general lack of understanding and interest, there is no proper reference for debates about culture in public discourse.
Nothing has contributed more to the demise of cultural education than postmodernism. Postmodernism, which has pervaded institutions like universities in Australia at least since the 1980s, has had a much more serious effect on discussions about society than Marxism ever had. Marxism presented the most profound challenge to liberalism in the twentieth century. In doing so, Marxism sought to present an alternative truth in social and political thought. Ultimately, few people were persuaded by this alternative truth, and society continued on its liberal trajectory.
Nothing has contributed more to the demise of cultural education than postmodernism.
The effect of postmodernism has been strikingly different. It does not provide an alternative truth, but a negation of truth. With post-modernism, there literally is nothing to discuss. The result is a “no-truth” society or a “post-truth” society. One consequence of this shift has been the advent of ‘fake news’ in President Trump’s America. An even more profound change, however, has been the rise of “identity”. In a social world in which people are not taught truth in the form of historical context or traditional morality, people struggle to understand themselves in terms of their belonging to communities of people with shared values. Instead, people are left to their own devices. They are left to shape their own personal identities, and then to identify with people who have formed similar identities. Unsurprisingly, this leads away from a politics anchored in the values of Western civilisation and towards identity politics.
In a social world in which people are not taught truth in the form of historical context or traditional morality, people struggle to understand themselves in terms of their belonging to communities of people with shared values.
Of course, it would be a mistake to claim that everyone has abandoned Western values in favour of identity politics. But the tactics of those who remain committed to Western civilisation present their own problems. Often, it seems, the West’s defenders lack the ability to mount arguments that attract others towards Western civilisation. Instead, their tactics tend to involve recruiting bombastic arguments that fuel the fires of the culture wars, but which do little to draw any new recruits to the glories of Western civilisation. They seem too often to conceive of Western civilisation as a basket of ideological grenades, to be hurled as the occasion demands against their enemy, rather than a scintillating, integrated cultural proposition. Sometimes, one is inclined to feel that only someone who lacked any deep appreciation of Western civilisation would mount such a defence of it.
They seem too often to conceive of Western civilisation as a basket of ideological grenades, to be hurled as the occasion demands against their enemy
What is needed, if we are to end the culture wars, is a civilised – an urbane – narrative; one that does not start and end with antagonism. So, we need to refrain from antagonism when we reflect on our culture. We need to aim for synthesis. Tony Abbott, for example, made a fair attempt at such synthesis in an Australian idiom. He proposed that Australian society should be understood in terms of the British institutions through which we received the values of Western civilisation, the enduring presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander institutions which predated the establishment of Western institutions, and the multitude of institutions that have taken root as waves of immigrants have established themselves in Australia, including Asian and African institutions, as well as those from the Americas, many of which have an antecedent history in Western Europe. It may not be your synthesis, but it is at least a plausible attempt.
Universities as institutions of Western civilisation
Universities are a central part of Western culture. Indeed, they are the oldest continuous institutions of that culture, excepting the Catholic Church. Central to the mission of any Australian university is the need to strengthen students’ sense of belonging to this synthetic Australian expression of Western culture. Indeed, as a beacon of civilisation, a university has a duty to help its society to appreciate the way in which art, ethics, religion and philosophy, as manifestations of that society’s spirit and values, can help society continue to reflect on what matters most as it moves forward.
Universities are a central part of Western culture. Indeed, they are the oldest continuous institutions of that culture, excepting the Catholic Church.
Thus, merely by way of example, we have at the Australian Catholic University developed over time an arts and culture strategy that seeks to draw on the long and rich heritage of the Catholic Church as a patron of the arts as well as the university’s mission to pursue knowledge, respect the dignity of the human person and contribute to the common good. Our commitment is expressed through a variety of different art forms. We strive for good, and indeed distinctively Catholic architecture. We build chapels which contain both ancient and modern Catholic art. We support a Centre that is an international leader in the field of liturgy and maintain choirs on each of our numerous campuses. We acquire and commission numerous paintings sculptures, drawings and significant historical objects, some of which have been referenced in this paper. We annually award Australia’s richest prize for poetry. Perhaps most notably, we have a full campus in Rome, not for the purpose of attracting remunerative international student, but to expose our own students to the historical epicentre of Western culture, and just as importantly to facilitate the intellectual interaction of our own outstanding research academics to interact with their peers from around the world.
We support a Centre that is an international leader in the field of liturgy and maintain choirs on each of our numerous campuses.
We do all this because we understand that we have a duty not only to ensure that the arts flourish, but that our students leave their studies with some sense that one of the principal ways in which their civilisation finds expression is through the arts.
Other universities in Australia might approach the cultural mission of a university somewhat differently, but it would be no surprise that every Australian vice-chancellor’s mind will have been turned to this at some point, and each will affirm a similar commitment to their university as a cultural institution.
That said, surprisingly little is often said about culture when universities are assessed. If the Minister for Education asks, “What is the ultimate value of a university?” fast and furious responses will assuredly assert that Australian universities are of undoubted value as the Australian economy’s second largest export industry. At the moment this sounds like a persuasive argument. But it is contingent upon no other industries becoming more competitive in the international market place. Next year, it might be pet food.
That said, surprisingly little is often said about culture when universities are assessed.
There is a six or seven-hundred-year-old tradition of the university as part of the constitution of a country. This tends to get lost in Australia, because we are inclined to think of the Australian Constitution as the 128 clauses that are found in the document that provided the basis for six British colonies uniting in one indissoluble federal commonwealth under the Crown. Then people get excited to learn that there is no mention in this document of institutions such as the prime minister. But that is beside the point. There are plenty of institutions that form part of the cultural constitution of Australia which are not explicitly mentioned in the 128 clauses of the Australian Constitution: the rule of law as such; the wider value of the separation of powers; a free press; and the apolitical character of the armed forces.
Then people get excited to learn that there is no mention in this document of institutions such as the prime minister.
Universities are “constitutional” in an analogous way. If committed to the “Western project”, universities will constitute a standing, independent and infuriating body of informed and various opinion, guaranteed to critique and test any policy proposition emanating from any government or opposition, as well as to contradict the media line proffered by all and any baron, no matter how powerful or influential. It is deeply problematic that this description of Australian universities is more likely to provoke the grinding of teeth, or even laughter, when presented to any audience drawn from the centre-right of Australian political thought.
That this enduring cultural and institutional value of a university does not immediately come to mind when asked about the ultimate value of a university is deeply problematic. In part, this speaks to failures on the part of the universities themselves, in terms of intellectual mission, values of academic debate and diversity in hiring. But the centre-right itself cannot be excused in this connection. For a long time now, the academy largely has been ignored by the centre-right, save for occasional generic fulminations against their “left-wing” character. The result not only has been that many universities have proceeded to create a near monoculture generally suspicious of Western civilization, but that the natural opponents of such a culture are largely unaware of its character. Hence the popular conservative myth that university humanities departments are populated by “Marxists”, when they actually support numerous followers of Derrida and Foucault.
In part, this speaks to failures on the part of the universities themselves, in terms of intellectual mission, values of academic debate and diversity in hiring.
This confusion does produce some humorous results. The recent controversy over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seemingly has prompted some adherents of the centre-right to “discover” there is a “problem” with the universities. Some seemed genuinely shocked. From personal experience, I can testify that many parts of many universities have been antipathetic to multiple aspects of Western culture and the values upon which it is based for many, many years. In the mid-seventies, as a student in an English tutorial, I was told that no analysis drawing upon Christianity was to be applied to William Blake’s Holy Thursday. In the mid-eighties, as a young law academic, I was advised against developing a specialty in criminal law, because I would only “get myself into trouble as a Catholic” around issues concerning the beginning and end of life. In the mid-nineties, as a senior academic returned from serving as Crown Counsel for the Kennett government, I was informed that one professor would not support my promotion on the grounds that no-one who had worked for a Liberal government should ever be appointed a professor.
The recent controversy over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seemingly has prompted some adherents of the centre-right to “discover” there is a “problem” with the universities.
I was informed that one professor would not support my promotion on the grounds that no-one who had worked for a Liberal government should ever be appointed a professor.
Even the travails of the Ramsay Centre itself reveal a certain confusion of the centre-right around universities. Of course, the base of the problem derives from the fact that many (if not most) universities and their academics are congenitally terrified of the mere idea of a course in Western civilisation. But the centre-right itself is not without some responsibility. On the one hand, supporters of the Ramsay Centre instinctively understand that most universities will be hostile to their endeavour, particularly those that are long-established and have had the time, money and self-confidence to imbibe an indifferently Western sentiment. At the same time, however, the innate institutional conservatism and elitism of such supporters impels them vainly to importune precisely such institutions for approval. As Louis XVI remarked on the way to the guillotine, it would be funny if it were not so serious.
One other point in relation to education may be mentioned. The neglect of Western civilisation has occurred alongside a mania with all things STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is now fashionable to maintain that STEM is all that matters. Aficionados of this STEMmania seem to think that STEM can be studied – and, indeed, flourish— – independently of any concern for culture. The truth is very far from this. STEM cannot really exist outside of culture. It is Western civilisation that nurtured modern science, and the great renaissance men, such as Leonardo da Vinci, combined a deep interest in STEM with a deep interest in what we would now regard as the arts and humanities. But more than that, they would have found it inconceivable that you could divide the pursuit of STEM off from the pursuit of the arts and humanities. STEM-mania is a comparatively recent approach, and it is likely to be a transient and ephemeral one. In the fullness of time, great minds will again assert the centrality of the Western tradition for the pursuit of STEM. Universities need to lead the way here, by resolutely reasserting their ultimate value as institutions of the country’s cultural constitution.
It is Western civilisation that nurtured modern science, and the great renaissance men, such as Leonardo da Vinci, combined a deep interest in STEM with a deep interest in what we would now regard as the arts and humanities.
Need for a narrative
It is a truth generally acknowledged that it is good when a war ends honourably. There was much at stake in the culture wars, and those who fought were justified in their belief that it was important to fight. In ending the culture wars, we need to look to the future. There is a need for a shared rich and modern narrative for the troubling times in which we now live. A better appreciation of Western civilisation’s commitment to respectful disagreement, incommensurate values, and evolving institutions, ought to provide for that.
A better appreciation of Western civilisation’s commitment to respectful disagreement, incommensurate values, and evolving institutions, ought to provide for that.
Imagine an Australian youth whose parents immigrated to Australia from the Middle East shortly before he was born. He craves a high-minded narrative; a sense that his life has some purpose beyond himself; a sense that there is an ethically serious way to live his life. Is it any surprise that he finds no high-minded narrative in contemporary Australian culture?
His parents, we might imagine, since coming to Australia, have come to understand Western culture as consisting of pornography, consumerism, materialism and the pursuit of personal identity through the gratification of personal desire. This hardly merits the designation of “civilization” and is light years from the Western civilisation that I love. But when this is people’s experience of Western culture, is it any wonder that they feel excluded from the narrative of Western civilisation? Is it any wonder that they can find in Australia no counter-narrative to the narrative of jihad?
But when this is people’s experience of Western culture, is it any wonder that they feel excluded from the narrative of Western civilisation?
We have succeeded in strangling the cultural imagination of Australians. In ending the culture wars, we need to rekindle their imagination by exposing them to the possibilities that the synthesis of Western civilisation offers for a shared narrative in Australia.