CLIVE KESSLER. “Western Civilization” in our universities: Killed off by its latter-day champions.

Who killed off the “Western Tradition” in our Universities? Its current neo-liberal champions and those who share their crocodile tears.

In the great national argy-bargy of the moment, both sides are wrong.

I can no longer endure, equally, both the IPA-type bleating and the Murdoch-esque bloviation about the expulsion of Western Civilization, the “Western canon”, from our universities and, just as bad, the disingenuous assurances of the current generation of university “place-holders” that no such thing has happened, that there is no such problem. There is a lot about the West and its historical influence in our university curricula, they glibly insist. Just count them!

Courses that mention Western Civilization? Yes. But overwhelmingly these days these courses, and the whole intellectual tenor and academic climate of our faculties of the humanities and social sciences, together project a consistent (even obligatory, one might say) position: that Western civilization is not much good, that it has done much evil; that the Enlightenment tradition of the West is a fraud and cruel deception, and one that must be toppled from its pedestal, decentred, and exposed and deconstructed for what (little) it is worth.

The key underlying intellectual foundation of this position is the absurd (and manifestly illogical) contention that —— because there is no absolutely convincing way to prove that any one philosophy or outlook or worldview is objectively better than any other —— any such worldview or civilizational outlook is and must be as good as any other. What a non sequitur! Yet nobody may say “Boo!” to or doubt it.  Try doing so in any of today’s Australian universities and see what happens to you! You will soon have a brilliant future in your past.

The IPA and Murdoch press bemoan daily the expulsion of Western civilization, the Enlightenment tradition, from our universities by this malign postmodernist plague. But how did it happen, how did it take hold? Who ushered it into universities and empowered it there? How did postmodernism triumph?

Not alone and on its own merits, only with powerful sponsorship and protection.

Some of us remember how it happened, because we saw it from close-up, as participants in the process or concerned observers of it.

The story is not a pretty one. And it is not one that today’s ideological warriors against the postmodernist take-over of our universities can happily recall, or want to. For the sake of their own public reputability, they dare not.

In simplified form it goes like this.  During the Reagan-Bush-1 years in the USA, and especially after the 1989 collapse of “the other side”, an attack was mounted against the humanities and social sciences. They were, even by their own self-description, just “critical”, they contributed (or so the uncomprehending critics of “critical thinking” averred) nothing positive. So they deserved and had to be cut back.

The only parts of their work that would be allowed, and positively supported, were those that were positive and usefully applicable: human relations (meaning personnel management and the like) and the “culture and communications” studies that might be congruent with the new technological era. Anything else, meaning primarily the “critical intellectual traditions” of Western philosophy and its offshoots it the social sciences and the like, were to be cut back and squeezed out. And, above all, denied recognition and legitimacy. After all, they were “critical”, not constructive. They only criticized, it was held, and had no positive contribution to make.

Pretty soon, in the Clinton era, the USA retreated from this position. While the damage had been done, what had been targeted as useless and anti-national was there allowed to return to some place inside the groves of academe. But the ill-informed critique was such an appealing and useful line to the intellectually shallow but politically determined utilitarians and economistic neo-liberals in places like Australia that they never let go of it. They clung to an argument, never departed from a course of action, that suited their agenda and purposes.

This same onslaught against the critical intellectual legacy inherent in the Western tradition occurred in other places to, not only Australia. I noted it elsewhere, and wrote a commentary upon how it had taken hold in a neighbouring county that is of concern and well-known to me, Malaysia.

Those who throng the IPA and The Australian these days to denounce the outright confrontation between

the abandoned “Western tradition” (or the part of it they have allowed to survive in our universities) and the mandatory new postmodernist orthodoxy and anti-Western postcolonial polemics forget something: that they are themselves the authors of this distressing state of affairs. It was they who drove much of the Western intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment from the universities: who drove out the opposition that they knew and could argue with, since they at least shared common philosophical assumptions and a common intellectual-historical past; and who so produced the present stark situation where the Western tradition, and they as its self-proclaimed but selective champions, are confronted by and must argue the case against those who have nothing in common intellectually with them. Theirs is a difficult situation, but one that they have brought upon themselves. They deserve no sympathy in their present predicament.

Why not?

They don’t have an “interlocutor” or dialogue-partner whom they can talk to?

Well, they killed off the one that they had.

That’s a bit like murdering your parents, and then pleading for the court’s mercy as an orphan.

How did this situation come about?

It came about when the new academic managerialists with their commitment to, or powerful but contingent support from, the doctrinaire neo-liberals, decided that the “critical” part of the Western intellectual tradition had to be eradicated from the universities. And how did they do it? By mobilizing and unleashing and supporting the then-young post-modernist and post-colonialist insurgents to discredit the exponents of the older Western critical tradition and its core disciplines; to undermine and then replace them, and to supplant their university-based influence in public intellectual and political life.

Many of us saw it happen, here and elsewhere. And it was not pretty. As I wrote when reviewing the Malaysian case, but the analysis also applies here in Australia:

Managerialist views, basically mistrust, from above have combined with and then co-opted post-modernist ressentiment from below to squeeze the disciplines, to impugn and then erode their legitimacy, to deny their intellectual authority and then to deprive them of both the material resources and the institutional space that they need in order to operate and also thrive.


 How has this collapse occurred and been staged?  Behind the anti-disciplinary alliance of academic institutional managerialists and the insurgent post-modernists has been the “great transformation” of our own time: the advance, and the seemingly irresistibly advancing intellectual “hegemony”, of neo-liberal thinking and ideology, politics and policy. No less than the breaking down, in the post-1989 “unipolar” world, of national boundaries — and of the potentialities for grounded resistance from within nation-state structures — the advance of the neo-liberal ascendancy in our time … has required a similar weakening and then breaking down of familiar, long-established disciplinary boundaries, and with them of the structures of intellectual authority, and the resulting capacity for effective intellectual critique and opposition,  that resided and were grounded within them.

This was my view expressed in a study of the growth, and then obstruction, of the social sciences in Malaysia in the years from 1974 to 2006.

Published in an obscure place, undeserving of our attention here in Australia, some might say.

But I should add that this same view was published, presumably with some kind of editorial intellectual and political approval at the time, in (would you now, in 2018, have guessed it?) The Australian.

Submitted under the title “How did postmodernism triumph?”, the argument outlined above was published in a somewhat more elaborated form as “Between a postmodernist and a hard case” in the “Higher Education” section of The Australian on 9 June 2010. It is still worth reading.

Try it!

The author is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology in SoSS: School of Social Sciences at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.





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2 Responses to CLIVE KESSLER. “Western Civilization” in our universities: Killed off by its latter-day champions.

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    As in many/most current and past debates it all depends on the definition of words and terms. In the present case the meaning of “western civilization” and “post-modernism” needs to be defined, rather than left to the interpretation of advocates of one type or another, lest we all fall into the realm of Orwellian “Newspeak”.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    Managerialism is a product of the Enlightenment traditions.

    In my uni classes the excess of Foucault and the po-mo crowd are past (thankfully) – though this may be because I’m at a small uni (UTas).

    It is time to examine the mixed inheritance of the Enlightenment and the Western Tradition. With the kind of money they have The Ramsay Centre could have made a huge contribution. Perhaps the best outcome will be if they set up an institute of their own and produce publications supervised and reviewed by uni lecturers and such.

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