Australian businessman Paul Ramsay made a fortune in private health care and regional television. When he died in 2014, he left his A$3 billion fortune to establish a philanthropic foundation. A good chunk of that is being invested in The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a program for revitalising the study of the humanities in Australia. MercatorNet spoke with Dr Stephen McInerney, Executive Officer (Academic) at the Ramsay Centre, about this ambitious project.
MercatorNet: At a time when most students seem interested in narrow career-driven courses, is there really a demand for a top-notch education in the humanities?
Dr Stephen McInerney: If there is not a demand, we need to create one – for there is a perennial need for liberal education in the humanities. As the name suggests, the humanities are concerned fundamentally with the question of what it is to be human, a question that students and teachers consider together through a study of the best that has been thought and said (as Matthew Arnold famously put it).
An education in the humanities, as such, is an education for all of life, not simply for one’s career, although it is at the same time an excellent preparation for any career. To enter into the great conversation of the ages is one of the most exciting things one can do in one’s life – it is one of the key entrées into what Socrates called “the examined life”.
We believe young students, who are naturally idealistic, will be drawn to this exciting adventure of the heart, mind and imagination.
Paul Ramsay’s own studies never went beyond the high school level. What inspired him to make such a generous bequest?
Mr Ramsay attended St Ignatius College, Riverview, and received from the Jesuits what was then one of the best educations available to schoolboys in Australia. Although he did not go to university, he received from his school masters a love of Christian civilization and the great institutions of the Western tradition.
Having read accounts by board members who knew Paul Ramsay personally, I understand that he was troubled by the level of cultural ignorance that he sometimes encountered in the business world and among young people. He thought that too much was taken for granted and that if we did not know and cherish our way of life, we might lose it. This, I believe, is what inspired him to support the establishment of programs that would help our traditions to be known, valued and defended (as they ought to be).
You are launching the Centre at a time when the consensus in academia is that “Western Civilisation” is a code for Western hegemony and imposing our values on other cultures. At the same time, year by year, Australia becomes more culturally diverse. If you focus on the “West” aren’t you marginalising other historic cultures?
The critique of Western hegemony is itself a Western phenomenon, made possible by specifically Western traditions of thought and inquiry, even when the critique comes from the outside.
Here I would use an analogy from the Bible and Augustine of Hippo. Christ taught that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, and Augustine taught that we can only love what we first know. It follows therefore that in order to love our neighbours as ourselves, we must love ourselves, and we can only love ourselves if we know ourselves. With relation to your question, this means we must first know our civilization and love it before we can know and love other cultures and civilizations.
Certainly part of loving one’s own tradition includes acknowledging its imperfections, seeing the beam in our own eye before we consider the splinter in our neighbour’s eye. So, yes, there is room for self-reflection and self-critique. The West has been very good at this (indeed it has been better at self-critique than any other civilization known to history), and this is part of the legacy of our Greco-Roman and particularly our Judeo-Christian roots. People enculturated in their own traditions of thought and imagination are best able to appreciate and evaluate other cultures and civilizations – and to love them as they love their own.
By contrast, self-hatred, which encourages ignorance of all but the negative aspects of one’s own civilization, is not a sure foundation for loving anything, including other cultures and civilizations. There is a subtle but important difference between a healthy examination of conscience on the personal and social levels (which allows us to acknowledge our mistakes and to commit to do better), and a self-loathing critique which can lead to despair and suicide both as a nation and a civilization. One is a sign of sanity; the other, of sickness.
How would you define Western Civilisation; what are its key themes?
Well, initially it’s the thought-worlds of ancient Greece, Rome and Judaism, which came together in a remarkable and entirely unforeseeable way in Christianity. The tradition of Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on Reason or logos, of Greek art, poetry and drama (with the tension between Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian order), united with Roman law and Jewish revelation in a synthesis of Faith and Reason in Christendom, which came to encompass and spread beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.
Threads of the tradition are disunited and reunited, in new ways, in subsequent eras, in the Renaissance, the divisions of western Christendom in the Early Modern period, the Ages of Enlightenment, Revolutions and Modernity, and are complicated and enriched by the encounter of Europeans with other cultures and civilisations around the globe.
There are adventures of the spirit in figures like Luther and Teresa of Avila; adventures of the mind in Aquinas, Rousseau, Mill, Kant and Nietzsche; actual adventures of exploration and conquest, from Caesar in Gaul and Britain, Columbus in the Americas, to James Cook in the southern hemisphere. And there are adventures of the heart in Cervantes, Shakespeare and so many others.
Conceptions of the best political order pre-occupy thinkers from Plato and Aristotle, through to Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, and are crystallised in documents from Magna Carta to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and more.
The role of economics (whether as part of a larger tradition of ethical inquiry, as Aristotle and Aquinas conceived it) or as a science informed by an alternative anthropology and psychology, as Adam Smith and Karl Marx conceived it in their very different ways, are other features.
And all these things are attempts to explain and advance sometimes competing ideas of what it means to be human, which themselves relate to first and final questions, such as “Why are we here?”
Then there is the great tradition of Western art, which begins in the classical world, is given new impetus by the Byzantine Christian defence of iconography and sacred images (on the idea that the invisible God was made flesh in Christ and could therefore be depicted), flourishes in the Italian Renaissance, and is challenged by the return of iconoclasm in the Reformation, which in practice increasingly shifted the focus of the visual arts in Protestant Europe away from the sacred towards secular subjects. I could go on… and we’ve not even considered music!
What sort of curriculum will your students follow?
We are very attracted to the Great Books model employed at institutions like St John’s College, Annapolis and Santa Fe, Columbia College in New York, and the University of Chicago, which we wish to adapt to the Australian setting.
Great Books programs, as the name suggests, emphasise the study of Western civilization through a focus on core texts that have stood the test of time – that are classics, in other words. The program at St John’s has changed very little over the past 70-80 years, even as the nature of the student population has changed. This is one reason why it has been described as offering the “most future proof” degree in the United States, one that is not going to change dramatically from year to year, generation to generation, irrespective of changes in staff. This helps forge an identity among the students and staff within and across the generations. We hope to achieve something similar with our partnering universities.
Typically in Great Books programs the emphasis is on the Socratic method of teaching, rather than traditional lectures, with students discussing a great work with each other and with their teacher, although there is some room for the teacher to declaim on a topic if it is appropriate to do so – whether to introduce the discussion, or to redirect and refocus it. So the program is both conservative, in the sense that it wishes to conserve a body of thought, but radical, in a way, in its pedagogy. No program is perfect but we believe that the Great Books model – which has hardly been tried in Australian universities – will prove an innovative and exciting addition to the suite of humanities programs offered in Australia.
The Centre has an impressive Board of Directors, with two former prime ministers and leading politicians and businessmen. You’ve obviously hit the sweet spot for them. Why do they think that top students will benefit from an immersion in the humanities?
Basically for the same reasons that Paul Ramsay did and for the other reasons I’ve already identified above. For more specific insights I would direct your readers to the speeches made by the Chairman, former Prime Minister John Howard, and fellow board members, Mrs Elizabeth Stone and Mr Kim Beazley, and our Director, Professor Simon Haines, at our recent launch. These can be viewed online.
Mr Abbott was unable to attend the launch due to personal family reasons, but the speech he intended to deliver was printed in The Australian and is available at its website.
Could you give us a brief run-down on how the Centre will work at undergraduate and post-graduate levels? When will it kick off?
We are currently in the process of finding universities to partner with in this project. It is our hope that the BA (Western Civilization), on the Great Books model, will commence at one or two partnering universities in 2019. Undergraduate scholarships for the program will be awarded prior to that and commence at the start of the academic year in 2019. We hope to start awarding postgraduate scholarships for study at a select group of overseas universities later that year.
Stephen McInerney, senior lecturer in literature and formerly associate dean of studies at Campion College, has just been appointed executive officer (academic) at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in Sydney.