Daniel Hutto will start to sell the curriculum he has designed for the University of Wollongong’s contentious new Western civilisation bachelor of arts course in on-campus town hall meetings over the next few weeks. For the privately funded Ramsay Centre, it will be the culmination of a tortured series of negotiations with universities across Australia over the past year.
Announced last December, when many Wollongong academics had already left the university for the year, the Western civilisation course proposal has already attracted criticism from academics at various universities who believe it promotes a xenophobic, Western-oriented slant on various academic disciplines.
The apparent secrecy and the timing of the Wollongong deal has also raised eyebrows.
With a board including former Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, the Ramsay Centre has been seeking a university partner for many months. Rejected last year by the Australian National University, where vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt cited concerns regarding academic autonomy, and prompting heated debate at the universities of Queensland and Sydney, the course has finally found its first home at Wollongong.
Hutto has spent recent weeks finalising the curriculum, an outline he is now ready to explain to his colleagues, along with the finer details of the Ramsay proposal, funding and agreement.
“There’s so much negative perception that people are not rationally assessing these options,” the professor says, adding that the Ramsay Centre’s difficult history with the course has inflamed the debate. “It’s quite incredible,” he adds. “People will say to me, ‘It doesn’t matter what you say, I won’t believe you.’ ”
A philosopher originally from the US, Hutto will direct the new Western civilisation course, overseeing nine new academic hires to teach the Ramsay scholars and the selection of an initial 30 student recruits, each of whom will enjoy a substantial scholarship amounting to $27,000 a year.
He expects opposition to the course to falter once people understand the real benefits that more than $50 million of funding over eight years will bring to humanities at Wollongong. The funds will increase the numbers of humanities academics at the university, he points out, a profound benefit that wouldn’t happen without the Ramsay Centre money.
Hutto says the Ramsay funding will provide the university with teaching in subjects it cannot currently offer including various schools of philosophy.
He cites an email he wrote in 2017 responding to the Ramsay Centre course idea. “I am aware of the many serious concerns and reservations that have been raised about this funding opportunity, especially its questionable political agenda, its fiscal sustainability, its potential lack of fit with our liberal values,” he says he wrote.
“Still, bearing all that in mind, I believe if we decided that we want to make a serious bid, then we can highlight some innovative features of our program that give us an advantage.
“In our hands, this is precisely not going to be a romantic casting of our eyes back over the history of ideas. Also, crucially for us, preserving (to put it crudely) what is best from the West need not be an either/or proposition. It can complement rather than compete with our pluralist, progressive program of bringing those ideas into dialogue with other traditions of thought, both in our research and our teaching.”
So far, he adds, his curriculum hasn’t deviated from these early ideas, and the only external pressure he has felt has come from players other than the Ramsay board.
In contacting 40 or so internationally renowned academics to join the new school’s board, he says he has met with minimal negative reaction to the new liberal arts bachelor’s degree, which he concedes is predominantly a Western-focused course based on so-called great texts, but which he insists has substantial links to other traditions.
“We will have a course on the philosophy of religion; we’re going to be making comparisons with the Bible and Koran,” he says.
“We’re also going to set that against a philosophy of religion question about how do these different traditions think about the relations between reason, faith and revelation.”
The course will also consider indigenous thought regarding self and the environment, he says.
Although called a course on Western civilisation, the program is “extremely respectful of other traditions of thought”, he points out. “There’s not even a sniff of the idea that the only kind of approaches that are valuable come from the West. That would be totally ridiculous.”
Hutto has been primarily dealing with the Ramsay Centre’s director, Simon Haines, and another Ramsay Centre employee, Stephen McInerney, both literature academics. He says one of their few suggestions so far was to add more women writers to one of the subjects. Other than that, ideas have remained largely untouched, according to Hutto.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous that I would somehow be in charge of an institute that was going to be somehow propounding whitewashing,” he insists. “It couldn’t be more ridiculous.”
Once the course is up and running by early next year, Hutto says he will invite Haines and McInerney to visit and see the new school.
“The board members, that means Tony Abbott and company, they’re not entitled to visit us at all,” he says. “The Ramsay Centre academics can, on invitation from me, and not to audit or assess (the course).”
He believes they will come simply to ensure the course is one of quality, and he is sure it will be. “If I decided I didn’t want to do this, I would just quit and I would automatically retake up my associate dean position. I’m not going to get any more money for doing this. The headaches I think are worth it because the program is worth it.”
Hutto has met Abbott and Howard only once, he says.
He knows the troubled history of Ramsay Centre’s proposed course, with concerns fuelled by board member and federal Liberal backbencher Tony Abbott, in an article in Quadrant magazine, describing the centre as being “in favour” of Western civilisation and claiming that Ramsay staff would be making curriculum and staffing decisions.
At Wollongong, though, the Ramsay Centre board has been remarkably hands-off, he says. “Perhaps Ramsay evolved its approach by the time it came to us.”