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The 17 Group – Ramsay Debate on Western Civilisation

The next meeting of the 17 Group will take place on Wednesday the 3rd of April at 7 pm in Unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End.  It will be addressed by two Speakers, Pat Buckridge and Peter Wertheim, on a panel, of which the Chair and Respondent will be Tom Cochrane.

The topic will be:  “Above and beyond (and behind) the issues raised by the Ramsay Centre debate  —  Should courses in Western Civilization be taught in universities and other institutions of education, and if so, how? ”

Summary of first of the talks: 

In Defence of Western Culture

Pat Buckridge

There’s a widespread view in humanities departments in Australian universities and throughout the English-speaking world that reading, studying and teaching what’s come to be known as ‘Western Culture’ are at best pointless and outdated activities, but perhaps also disrespectful, offensive and dangerous, inasmuch as they entail exposure to that culture’s inherent and inescapable racism, imperialism, sexism, homophobia and general bigotry. The controversy about the Ramsay Centre – not the focus of this talk – is partly an expression of this view, though it’s clearly also an expression of legitimate concerns about university governance (though not, in my opinion, academic freedom).

I want to contest this view, not from the position of someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Western culture. My own formal ‘training’ (for want of a better word), is in English literature, and my forays beyond that – into other literatures and art-forms, history, philosophy, politics, etc. – have been, and remain, curiosity-driven, unsystematic and inexpert.

And that, I want to argue, is the point. Western culture is a vast, heterogeneous accumulation of facts, ideas, people, stories, events, texts and objects. It’s too vast for all but a few polymaths to get across in depth and detail; but it’s out there for me and for everyone else to explore and experience bits of it – and to do that for most of our lives if we find it rewarding. It’s a resource to which everyone should be offered access, and if our education system is not at least trying to provide that access for our population – and I don’t think it is – then it should be.

I plan to develop this pretty simple-minded defence of the study of Western culture – essentially as an inexhaustible, lifelong source of intellectual and emotional engagement, interest and pleasure for everyone – against some of its more persistent recent detractors: anti-colonialism, and certain forms of leftism and feminism. And I’m going to try, wherever possible, to use examples from my own experience of designing and teaching a ‘Great Books’ course for the last fifteen years of my working life at Griffith University.

None of this is seeking to deny or excuse the crimes and cruelties that have been perpetrated in the West over the centuries, and often enough rationalised by Western religions and ideologies – sometimes even by Western literature. On the contrary, it’s to say that knowing about these horrors, actually coming to an understanding of how they happened, is more likely to stop them happening again than willed historical ignorance and forgetting. It’s also to say that a lot of good and great things have been achieved over two and a half millennia – politically, artistically, scientifically and technologically – which need to be balanced against the horrors. And in any case, neither the horrors nor the achievements are unique to the West. 

Summary of the second talk:

Peter Wertheim:

One translation of the first verse of Dante’s Divine Comedy which I consigned to memory many years ago runs as follows –  Midway in this journey we call our life, I chanced to find myself in a dark wood where the right way was wholly lost and gone.  I hope to apply my understanding and love of this verse to the present situation facingEuropean Australia and the crisis which I believe is engulfing it and the rest of the Western world, which is made evident day by day by events.  Because in the modern world the west has been materially and militarily dominant, this crisis inevitably continues to involve the rest of the world.  I include nature in this.   

As an old person now –  that is, old in the body and soon no doubt to make the transition to whatever the next realm yields – I am grateful for the opportunity to offer to the group what my friend Dan’s energy and dedication has kept going.  I am glad I had a hand in its founding.  I hope that the present crisis is once again making it clear to us all that it is not only individual and collective humans that pass away, but also nation states in the various forms they have taken over what we call history.  This process when it occurs, as it is reoccurring now, shakes the identity not only of us as individuals but also whatever groups or cultures or nation states we happen to identify with – conscious and often unconsciously.    Hence, it is a time when more and more people experience profound insecurity and the fear associated with that insecurity and the development of chaos.

I aim to sketch out, using Dante’s verse, my understanding of some of the causes of the situation we find ourselves in, and especially focussing on Australia and its history.  I do this because by destiny I found myself from birth an Australian citizen and as such I regard myself as having obligations to understand what is good in Australian life and what is destructive. I believe a further obligation is to try to conform my individual life to what is good as I see it and try to root out in myself first what is destructive to others not only in interpersonal life but the life of the nation state to which I belong.

To repeat, Part one – I will first apply my understanding of what Dante wrote to the present crisis of the west which we as a western nation share.  Here I will consider imperialism in its various forms and argue that it is a major contributor to the chickens that are now coming home to roost.  A feature of imperialisms as far as I can tell is that they are great blowers of their own trumpets and equally great deniers of the evils they have done.  As regards to Australia and its history, this denial has taken place from the very beginning and has never yet been honestly dealt with either by the British crown that oversaw it or the present Australian European nation. On the contrary, the continual denial adds daily insult to injury.

Part two – I will offer what wisdom I can about how we might move towards a better and more balanced world than what we are now landed with.  Believing as I do that each of us has wisdom in us, I reach out to all who attend to help us all understand and begin to move beyond the present crisis.  As it happens, for reasons I will outline, despite the above, I am in a more hopeful state of mind than I have ever been in my whole life.

I’d like to thank Pat for his contribution which has been helpful to me.  I look forward to the discussion.

Peter Wertheim

Short biographical notes:

Pat Buckridge studied and taught literature at UQ and the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, and then, from 1981, at Griffith University. He retired from Griffith six years ago, and now spends much of his time attending reading groups, being a grandparent, and having lunch with old friends.

Peter Wertheim came from Melbourne in 1964 to lecture in philosophy at UQ until 1978.  His special interest was social and political philosophy. Since leaving the university, he has continued to study cross-cultural spiritual traditions, giving special attention to Aboriginal visions of life.  His personal life in the wider sense has been central to his development as a person but cannot be communicated adequately in this bio.  These days, as an old person, he regards himself as very fortunate to have the support of many friends, family, and his partner and her family.

Tom Cochrane has spent most of his working life in Universities, in library and IT roles. The intersection of these roles and a commitment to improved access to research and information, led to involvement in initiatives such as Open Access and Creative Commons. In younger days his research was on early twentieth century Queensland, focussing on a period of conflict between the London money market and Queensland in the time of Premiers Ryan and Theodore. He has served on Boards and Committees of a number of cultural institutions and government research and IT bodies.

When we got there Leon just happened to be reading an article by Ernest Germain from  the July-August 1947 issue of Fourth International, a complete collection of which journal he keeps on an adjacent shelf and occasionally leafs through when he can’t find other great works from the Western Canon within easy reach.  Apprised of the topic of this month’s meeting which he says he probably won’t be able to attend, he pointed to this passage which he thought we “might think relevant” and asked with his most Western and cosmopolitan irony “who do you think this is about, comrades?”…. :  “ In spite of a childhood spent on a farm, he was influenced not so much from the peasant forces of his people as from the living forces of the imperialist world’s great capitals to which his first two emigrations took him: London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Madrid, New York. Of all the great Russian revolutionists he was without doubt the most “European,” the one who absorbed Western civilization most thoroughly, who impregnated it with that revolutionary dynamism which existed intact within the Russian working class; and thus succeeded in giving it its highest expression in this century.”

We said we had no idea.

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