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OPINION: The Ramsey Centre's Western Civilisation degree has found a home at the University of Wollongong and is viewed by some critics as a rejection of Indigenous Studies perspectives.
Bronwyn Carlson

23 Dec 2018 - 1:15 AM  UPDATED 23 Dec 2018 - 1:20 AM

As an Indigenous alumni and former staff member of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong (UOW) I am appalled at the recent announcement UOW will be offering a Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation funded by the Ramsay Centre. Even more shocking was the way in which UOW negotiated the deal without any input or consultation with staff and students, or with the local Aboriginal community.

The $50 million deal, largely done in secrecy, was clearly designed to be delivered at a time when most staff would be thinking about holidays, so minimal resistance was predicted. This was a strategic manoeuvre made with full knowledge that many stakeholders would oppose an addition to the curriculum that had already been rejected by the ANU and Sydney University, both of whom expressed consternation about academic freedom and the ‘need’ for “Western civilisation” to become a separate area of study, given its prominence already in humanities studies.  

The public backlash on social media has been strong. Dr John Gilroy and other Indigenous scholars have expressed they no longer wish to be associated with Wollongong’s alma mater. Dr Marlene Longbottom, the only Indigenous Post Doctorate Fellow at UOW, has said she wants it known she is deeply disturbed and does not support the partnership.

UOW also received international criticism with Professor Jeff Berglund from Northern Arizona University tweeting, “You’re making a global laughing stock of yourself UOW. Psst: It’s nearly 2019. Western civilisation has centred university educations for hundreds of years.”

In addition, former student and graduate from UOW and renowned journalist, Van Badham, has expressed her disappointment at Wollongong’s decision, stating “UOW has taken the grubby money of the organised, hard right ‘Ramsay Centre’ to impose Tony Abbott’s anti-intellectual ‘western civilisation’ agenda on what should be an independent academic institution.”

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I left UOW in 2017 after it became apparent there was little investment in Indigenous Studies. When I started working there in 2012, I held one of five positions dedicated to teaching Indigenous Studies. In a few short years the program had been reduced to two staff members with no plans to support and build the program.

Like me, my former colleague in Indigenous Studies, Dr Colleen McGloin was appalled yet not shocked at this development as we have both witnessed the decimation of the UOW Indigenous Studies program and the lack of future-thinking about the contribution of Indigenous knowledges in the academy.

In a Facebook post Dr McGloin wrote:

Many of us could see and feel the tide of change, the relentless marching of the right as it described itself as ‘non-ideological’. Just grateful I learned from dedicated scholars whose primary concern was students’ intake of knowledge, not the institution’s intake of funds.”

Indigenous Studies is committed to critiquing colonialism and ensuring students are introduced to the fact there are different forms of knowledges and ways of viewing the world which may hold answers for a better future for all. Perhaps this education is what is feared the most by those behind the Western Civilisation degree.

It’s no surprise to see the board of the Ramsay Centre is predominately ultra-conservative, white males, including former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. Their politics and opinions in regard to Indigenous histories and knowledges are well known.

John Howard has been vocal about rejecting any inclusion of Indigenous perspectives into the school curriculum, claiming to do so would be an attempt to rewrite Australian history. In 1996, while delivering the Sir Thomas Playford Memorial Lecture at Adelaide Town Hall Howard claimed everyday Australians are being “force-fed by those self-appointed cultural dieticians”.

As Indigenous scholar and acclaimed writer, Professor Tony Birch has noted, Howard would use the populist term “black armband history” to refer to any inclusion into the academy of Indigenous histories or knowledges. So, despite the claim by advocates of the degree that it is designed to teach students how to think and not what to think, and despite claims that the degree has no political or ideological function, it is quite clear that $50 million is an enticing carrot for a regional university such as UOW.

Abbott, who once declared himself the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, is well known for his efforts to erase us from the landscape. Who can forget his infamous statement claiming Sydney was nothing but bush before 1788, or that the arrival of the First Fleet was good for us, as it brought Western civilisation. Or when he said, “The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it. 

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Torres Strait Islander scholar and lecturer in Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, Josephine Bourne, posted on Facebook that the establishment of a centre to promote Western Civilisation should not surprise those of us who have been involved in Indigenous Studies for a while. She went on to point out that Indigenous Studies scholars have made a consistent contribution to the academy for many decades now which has disrupted the colonial narrative that has pervaded the national story for over two centuries.

“We have been re-claiming our stories and critiquing the master-narratives made up by colonial powers for over two hundred years,” Bourne wrote. “I think the emergence of multiple narratives from groups (people of colour, women, gender diverse communities, children, youth and others) that have traditionally been silenced by the power structures of western civilisation have rattled the 'advocates' (can't think of a better word right now) of western civilisation. We have indeed made them feel very, very uncomfortable.”

Indigenous Studies opens the door where truth telling can begin – something that is desperately needed in this country if we are to imagine a better future for everyone. It is a body of knowledge, an episteme that is feared by the likes of Howard and Abbott who are both responsible for unfathomable wrongs against Indigenous peoples.

Students who enrol in Indigenous Studies often share reflections of their realisation that they know little about the truth of colonialism, and the fact that the colonial project in Australia is far from done. They feel a sense of betrayal. For non-Indigenous students also, Indigenous Studies provides an opportunity to consider the truth-telling of other forms of knowledge, historical facts that are now enshrined in the formal national apology, in land rights negotiations, and in a national consciousness regarding the on-going effects of colonisation.

These are not simply history ‘re-writes’ that constitute a revisionist view of Australia’s history. They are substantiated facts. They have come to light through Indigenous people, and Indigenous Studies.

UOW management has shown its colours with this clandestine deal that has refused negotiations, discussions – or any input from its body of scholars and the Indigenous community. Isn’t democracy supposed to be one of the hallmarks of “Western civilisation”? 


Bronwyn Carlson is a Professor of Indigenous Studies, Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University. Follow Bronwyn @BronwynCarlson