By Mark Bauerlein
When conservatives and traditionalists battle to preserve the old ideas of Great Books, the canon, genius and beauty, and Western Civilization, they face a hurdle that has nothing to do with ideology or politics. The biases of progressive professors are there in full, of course–all of them are identitarians now—but the leftist premises that prevail are, in fact, weaker than another trait of campus anti-conservatism. It lies in the customary expression of those premises whenever the professors take on a conservative proposal or challenge.
I mean the language of academic progressivism—the diction, phrasing, tone, figures of speech. If you read a few campus diversity strategic plans, curriculum revisions, commission reports, and official responses to controversies, the words start to sound the same. The rhetoric in these announcements and statements and papers is remarkably uniform. The solemn idiom of inclusion and diversity spills out with deadening predictability. If you’re a conservative out to challenge this “hegemonic discourse,” you have to say to yourself, “Oh, brother, can’t you people say anything new?” (The term “hegemonic discourse” was popularized by Marxist critics a few decades ago in order to highlight how a dominant ideology exerts its power through institutionalized language. It applies perfectly to the professors, who are now the Establishment.) The language of the academic left is so routine, unimaginative, witless, humorless, cliché-ridden, and stupefyingly repetitive that a challenger hardly knows where and how to begin.
A nice example took place last Fall in Australia, where an organization called the Ramsay Centre has provoked the ire of the faculty. It’s a pro-Western Civilization group, and it aims to plant Western Civ programs on college campuses across the country. Last year, when it tried to do so at University of Sidney, most of the professors eventually rose up and denounced the effort in the customary terms. Here are news stories on the starts and stops of the program at University of Sydney:
- Sydney Morning Herald: Sydney University staff considering Ramsay Centre boycott
- The Guardian: Ramsay Centre to review Sydney University degree before funding sign-off
- Financial Review: Ramsay Centre woos Sydney University by appointing Professor Ann Brewer to board
- Frontpage Mag: Scholar Blames Christchurch Massacre on – What Else? – Western Civilization
- And here is a story from the Sydney Morning Herald on the few academics at Sydney who countered their progressivist colleagues
There is a website devoted to the protests. It goes under the title “STAFF AGAINST THE RAMSAY CENTRE,” and it bears the ironic sub-heading “For Academic Autonomy and Diversity at the University of Sydney.”
One page on the site contains statements from departments at the university, and they deserve some close reading. Not in terms of the content of the statements, but in terms of the language as described above.
Keep in mind as you read these selections what the Ramsay program would have amounted to in the overall picture of the school. The school is one of the major institutions in Australia, with large undergraduate and graduate programs. It has nearly 50,000 students and more than 3,000 faculty members. All the fields and professions are represented there. If the Ramsay Centre had managed to start a program at University of Sydney, it would have constituted a tiny bit of turf in a massive operation.
- The first department statement comes from Media and Communications. Here is the initial bullet point:
At a time when Indigenous peoples are struggling to have their voices heard, the introduction of this Centre would be a retrograde step, one at odds with the greatest strengths of our Faculty, its diversity and inclusiveness.
What a surprise that the first objection should conclude with “diversity and inclusiveness” (not to mention the victimology thrown in). The terms flow out of the mouths of the professors in mindless rote sequence. It’s not a statement of fact or principle; it’s a litany of secular prayer-terms.
- The next statement comes from Sociology and Social Policy. It includes this distinction:
…the proposed course appears to be organized around the construction of ‘Western civilization’ as being about art, philosophy, literature, and history narrowly conceived, and not about changing social, political and institutional forms, not to mention the evolution of ideas, practices and organizational forms in science, technology, medicine, engineering and indeed business and management.
The keyword embedded here is construction. It’s a form of disqualification. By referring to the “construction of ‘Western civilization’” instead of saying, simply, “the proposed course focuses on art, philosophy . . . instead of politics and economics . . .,” and by adding the scare quotes, the professors turn the Ramsay course into a tactical initiative. Academics do this all the time. It’s a cheap form of social constructionist or deconstructionist epistemology that puts other approaches under suspicion. One should add that the professors rarely apply that constructionist interrogation to themselves.
- The next one comes from Anthropology, and has this:
As a pedagogical and knowledge frame the category Western Civilisation makes no sense. . . . it fails to recognize the contested nature of the epistemology and value claims internal to the history of the Enlightenment . . .
This is more relativistic pseudo-philosophical talk designed only to discredit the Ramsay project, not to describe it. What stands out here is the high-handed dismissiveness, which those of us in academia hear all too often. People have been operating on the idea of Western Civilization for a long, long time, but according to this characterization, they have used a nonsensical “knowledge frame.” In other words, Ramsay Centre types are just stupid.
- The next statement comes from Political Economy, which includes this customary point:
. . . it seems clear to us that in reifying a notion of ‘Western Civilisation’ (or ‘Tradition’ as part of the recently announced gestural amendments) little attention and respect is paid to the violent processes of appropriation that have constituted that history.
The term “reify” comes right out of Marxism, and it immediately casts the Ramsay project as a case of either false consciousness or cultural violence, or both. People engage in reification when they want to impose an imagined political order upon others.
- The next statement comes from Government and International Relations. At one point, it plays a race card, complaining that it is unclear how a Ramsay-backed research and/or teaching program could co-exist alongside any serious commitment to valuing Aboriginal knowledge and a strategy for attracting Indigenous staff and students.
In other words, the tiny presence of a Western Civ project in one microscopic corner of the campus will prove discouraging to the historically-disadvantaged individuals we wish to attract. Do you really want to tell first-generation individuals of color that they are unwanted?
- English comes next, and here is one of its intonations:
Our discipline prides itself on teaching both canonical and non-canonical texts in ways that are critical and reflexive, that recognise the implication of texts with social power and the complex interconnectedness of cultures, and that understand the plurality of traditions that contribute to the formation of any one culture.
Social power . . . interconnectedness . . . plurality of traditions . . . What a bore. More clichés, plus some virtue-signalling at the start (“Our discipline prides itself . . .”).
- History follows with a familiar objection targeting the unitary conception of Western Civilization:
We query the rationale for a programme designed around ‘the western tradition’ as a singular entity. Generations of research on the long history of what we now call globalization has made assertions of the existence of a distinct and coherent western civilization unrealistic.
The statement rejects that very notion of “western tradition” as anything linear and “realistic.” Here is the voice of professional wisdom, a rehearsal of academic orthodoxy. Again, keep in mind that the Ramsay project would be but a small island in a sea of globalization studies.
- The final statement comes from several foreign language departments. It says,
As experts in the humanities, we can’t but feel uncomfortable when words such as ‘civilization’ and ‘tradition’ are not inflected in the plural. ‘The West’ is not a homogenous and isolated category.
Again, the same stale point about pluralism, with a bit of academic preciosity added (“we can’t but feel uncomfortable”).
The uniformity of it all makes you ponder why the departments had to issue separate statements. They all come down to the same thing. The “West” is a political invention, and to impose it on the university in 2019 is to commit a political act contrary to the pluralistic, globalist values we hold dear. They announce this progressive wisdom over and over and over, repeating it with all due solemnity, and professional obligation as well.
This is pure orthodoxy, one more insistent than anything the Catholic Church came up with in the Middle Ages. The penalties aren’t as severe, just exclusion from the professional ranks. You don’t agree with us? You must leave. It’s altogether frustrating for conservatives and traditionalists who just want a small piece of the action, which certainly should be granted to them from any body that claims to prize diversity and inclusiveness. But let’s not waste time accusing the professors of hypocrisy.
Let us instead acknowledge that the professors are exactly right to keep Western Civ programs out of higher education totally and entirely and thoroughly. They have sensitive radar for anything that threatens their position, and they sense that even though the Ramsay program would begin as but a speck in the Sydney curriculum, it poses a long-term problem. The History department recognizes it when it makes a troubling prediction:
It seems quite possible that a discrete programme with generous scholarship funding and a ratio of teachers to students far better than the faculty norm will mean that a constituency of students interested in aspects of European intellectual history—and literature, and art—will go into the Ramsay programme rather than the majors in History, English, Art History, and so on.
Yes—that’s the problem. The academic left knows that it can’t compete. If you have a choice of courses and you’re 20 years old, chances are you will favor one on Shakespeare and Milton and Swift that addresses deep human issues of heroism and ambition, sin and redemption, human depravity and reason over a course that preaches white guilt, Western imperialism, and racism. You will drift toward courses that give you inspiration and avoid classrooms filled with resentment. Do you want to take a course with a professor who thrills you with the greatness and genius of Rembrandt and Bernini, or who emphasizes the heteronormativity of the Baroque period? The professors know the answer, and that’s why they have to maintain a stranglehold on the university.