The Concept Of ‘Western Civilisation’ Is Past Its Use-By Date In University Humanities Departments
Catharine Coleborne , 22 Nov 17

The Ottoman empire facilitated the movement of ideas and people across Europe and Asia. Wikimedia

A number of NSW and ACT universities are vying for the opportunity to access funding from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which aims to “revive” liberal arts and the humanities in university education in Australia.

John Howard: launched the Ramsay Centre on Monday. Dean Lewins/AAP

The centre, launched on Monday by former prime minister John Howard, has the support of former Labor leader Kim Beazley, and former prime minister Tony Abbott. The centre defines “western civilisation” through classical studies, including ancient Greek and Rome, the European renaissance and enlightenment, modernism, and Christian thought and philosophy. It seeks to put European cultural production at its heart.

The idea is to reform the current Bachelor of Arts degree in Australia by reinforcing the traditional western foundations of it. The centre will partner with universities to create the degree, and offer scholarships.

The announcement is a welcome endorsement of humanities disciplines such as literature, history, philosophy and classics. Yet the shaping of a Bachelor of Arts curriculum around western European concepts of knowledge should be viewed very carefully.

The concept of “civilisation”, and particularly “western civilisation”, rose to prominence in universities after World War II. However it quickly became outmoded. The Ramsay Centre announcement suggests a return to retrograde understandings of the arts at a time when we should be expanding our sense of the humanities to include the increasing number of students from diverse backgrounds.

For example, in 2016 nearly half of all preschool children in NSW came from language backgrounds other than English. Universities will eventually need to cater to these students as they make their way through the education system.

A hierarchical view

The “civilisation” model of history, which suggests peoples and empires existed separately from one another, and rose or fell over time, is now viewed as deeply flawed. The problem with this view of peoples and cultures as civilisations is that it is hierarchical, with some civilisations viewed as superior to others.

Such hierarchies of thought tend to inscribe inequalities between groups and peoples. The model is challenged by leading international scholars of world history.

Western civilisation is a concept partly based on the belief that the world can be divided neatly into west and east, for example, the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, and those of Asia and Islam. However this denies centuries of complex systems of trade, communication and cultural exchange between different peoples.

For instance, the 19th-century Ottoman empire, which included parts of western Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe, was seen as an eastern civilisation. But in fact, it was never separate from the west: its peoples and cultures interacted with western European peoples and cultures.

Immediately after WWII, it was important for historians to reassert the dominance of western nations because it allowed the Anglo-American victors of war to tell their story as having a longer history. This history tended to be written inside elite institutions, including English universities. These imperial universities were not yet very open places, and non-European students from colonial backgrounds (and many women) only rarely gained entry.

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