Tag Archives: Western civilisation

Western civilisation: what about it?

Sappho, Ancient Greek poet

“Western civilisation” can be a contentious topic, in part because people interpret it in different ways. Many achievements have been attributed to “the West,” but it has many negatives too. It is not obvious how to assign responsibility for the positives and negatives. Often left out of debates about Western civilisation are alternatives and strategies to achieve them.

In some circles, if you refer to Western civilisation, people might think you are being pretentious, or wonder what you’re talking about. For some, though, the two-word phrase “Western civilisation” can pack an emotional punch.

Western civilisation can bring to mind famous figures such as Socrates, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci — maybe even some women too — and high-minded concepts such as democracy and human rights. Increasing affluence fits in somewhere. Western civilisation is also associated with a sordid history of slavery, exploitation, imperialism, colonialism and warfare.

My aim here is to outline some of the issues involved.[1] I write this not as an expert in any particular relevant area, but rather as a generalist seeking to understand the issues. Whatever “Western civilisation” refers to, it is a vast topic, and no one can be an expert in every aspect. One of the areas I’ve studied in some depth is controversies, especially scientific controversies like those over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. Some insights from controversy studies are relevant to debates over Western civilisation.

After outlining problems in the expression “Western civilisation,” I give an overview of positives and negatives associated with it. This provides a background for difficult questions concerning responsibility and implications.

Western? Civilisation?

In political and cultural discussions, “the Western world” has various meanings. It is often used to refer to Europe and to other parts of the world colonised by Europeans. This is just a convention and has little connection with the directions east and west, which in any case are relative. Europe is in the western part of the large land mass called Eurasia, so “Western” might make sense in this context. But after colonisation, some parts of the world elsewhere are counted as part of the “West,” including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are called settler colonies, where the immigrants from Europe eventually outnumbered the native inhabitants. However, South and Central American countries are also settler colonies but are less often listed as part of the West. So there is a bit of arbitrariness in defining the West.

The word “civilisation” has different meanings, and sometimes multiple meanings, in different contexts. For historians, civilisation refers to a complex society with established institutions such as governments, laws, commerce and rules of behaviour. A civilisation of this sort has a certain size, cohesion and organisation. The Roman empire is called a civilisation; hunter-gatherer societies are not.[2]

“Civilisation” also refers to being civilised, as opposed to being savage.[3] Being civilised suggests being rational and controlled rather than emotional and chaotic. It also suggests civility: politeness rather than crudity. A civilised person dresses properly, speaks appropriately and knows what rules to obey.

Because the word civilisation has multiple meanings and connotations, which vary from person to person, from context to context and from one time to another, some discussions about it mix emotional and logical matters. Contrary to its positive connotations, a civilisation, in the scholarly meaning, is not necessarily a good thing: it might be a dictatorial exploitative empire. In the everyday meaning of being civilised, it sounds better than being uncivilised. Empires that have caused unspeakable suffering sound better when they are called civilisations. Some mass murderers are, in everyday interactions, polite, rational and well-dressed: being civilised in this sense is no guarantee of moral worth.



Many of the features of human society that today are widely lauded were first developed in the West or were developed most fully in the West. These might be called the achievements or contributions of Western civilisation.

The ancient Greeks developed a form of collective decision-making in which citizens deliberated in open forums, reaching agreements that then became policy or practice.[4] This is commonly called democracy. In ancient Greece, women, slaves and aliens were excluded from this process, but the basic idea was elaborated there.

Many centuries later, several revolutions (including those in France and the US) overthrew autocracies and introduced a form of government in which citizens voted for representatives who would make decisions for the entire community. This was quite unlike democracy’s roots in ancient Greece, but today it is also commonly called democracy, sometimes with an adjective: liberal democracy or representative democracy. Voting initially was restricted to white male landowners and gradually extended to other sectors of the population.

Commonly associated with representative government are civil liberties: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary search, arrest and detention, freedom from cruel treatment. These freedoms, or rights, resulted from popular struggles against tyranny, and are commonly seen as a special virtue of the West, a model for the rest of the world. Struggles over these sorts of freedoms continue today, for example in campaigns against discrimination, surveillance, slavery and torture.

Another contribution from the West is art and, more generally, cultural creations, including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance and writing. While artistic traditions are found in societies across the world, some of these, for example ballet and classical music, have been developed in the West to elaborate forms that require enormous expertise at the highest levels, accompanied by long established training techniques for acquiring this expertise.[5]

In the West, manners have evolved in particular ways. On formal occasions, and in much of everyday behaviour, people are mostly polite in speech, conventional in dress, proper in their manner of eating, and modest in their excretions.[6]

The industrial revolution had its home in the West. The development and use of machinery, motorised transport, electricity and many other technological systems have made possible incredible productivity and greatly increased living standards. This has involved inventions and their practical implementation, namely innovation. The West has contributed many inventions and excelled in the process of innovation.

Modern systems of ownership, commercial exchange and employment, commonly called capitalism, developed most rapidly and intensively in the West and were then exported to the rest of the world.

Questioning the positives

The positives of Western civilisation can be questioned in two ways: are they really Western contributions, and are they really all that good?

Representative government is commonly described as “democracy,” but some commentators argue that it is a thin form of democracy, more akin to elected tyranny. It has little resemblance to democracy’s Athenian roots. The ancient Greeks used random selection for many official positions, with a fairly quick turnover, to ensure that those selected did not acquire undue power. This was in addition to the assembly in which every citizen could attend and vote. Arguably, the ancient Greeks had a more developed form of “direct democracy,” direct in the sense of not relying on elections and representatives.[7]

The kleroterion, used for randomly selecting officials in ancient Athens

However, if direct democracy is seen as the epitome of citizen participation, then note should be made of numerous examples from societies around the world, many of them long predating agriculture. Many nomadic and hunter-gatherer groups have been egalitarian, with no formal leaders.[8] They used forms of consensus decision-making that are now prized in many of today’s social movements. There are examples of societies with non-authoritarian forms of decision-making in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The Iroquois Confederacy in North America had a well-developed decision-making process that predated white American settlers by hundreds of years and, via Benjamin Franklin, helped inspire US democratic principles and methods.[9] A full accounting of the contributions of non-Western societies to models of governance remains to be carried out.[10]

Modern-day civil liberties are needed to counter the repressive powers of the state. However, in egalitarian societies without states, civil liberties are implicit: members can speak and assemble without hindrance. From this perspective, “civilisation” involves citizens of a potentially repressive state congratulating themselves for managing to have a little bit of freedom.

The industrial revolution is commonly attributed to the special conditions in Europe, especially Britain. This can be questioned. It can be argued that Western industrial achievements were built on assimilating superior ideas, technologies and institutions from the East.[11]

As for the West’s cultural achievements, they need to be understood in the context of those elsewhere. Think of the pyramids in Egypt, the work of the Aztecs, the Taj Mahal. Think of highly developed artistic traditions in India, China and elsewhere.


Western societies have been responsible for a great deal of killing, exploitation and oppression. Colonialism involved the conquest over native peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia. Europeans took possession over lands and expelled the people who lived there. In the course of European settlement, large numbers of indigenous people were killed or died of introduced diseases. The death toll was huge.[12]

In imperialism, which might be called non-settler colonialism, the European conquerors imposed their rule in damaging ways. They set up systems of control, including militaries, government bureaucracies and courts, that displaced traditional methods of social coordination and conflict resolution. They set up administrative boundaries that took little account of previously existing relationships between peoples. In South America, the administrative divisions established by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors became the basis for subsequent independent states.[13] In Rwanda, the Belgian conquerors implemented a formal racial distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, installing Tutsis in dominant positions, laying the basis for future enmity.[14]

Imperialism had a devastating impact on economic and social development. British rule over India impoverished the country, leading to a drastic decline in India’s wealth, while benefiting British industry.[15] Much of what was later called “underdevelopment” can be attributed to European exploitation of colonies.[16]

Another side to imperialism was slavery. Tens of millions of Africans were captured and transported to the Americas. Many died in the process, including millions in Africa itself.[17]

Imperialism and settler colonialism were responsible for the destruction of cultures around the world. The combination of conquest, killing, disease, exploitation, dispossession, divide-and-rule tactics and imposition of Western models undermined traditional societies. Some damaging practices were imported, including alcohol, acquisitiveness and violence. When Chinese leaders made attempts to stop opium addiction, British imperialists fought wars to maintain the opium trade. Colonial powers justified their activities as being part of a “civilising mission.”

It should be noted that many traditional cultures had their bad sides too, for example ruthless oppressors and harmful practices, including slavery and female genital mutilation. In some respects, Western domination brought improvements for populations, though whether these same improvements could have been achieved without oppression is another matter.

Colonialism was made possible not by cultural superiority but by superior military power, including weapons, combined with a willingness to kill. Europeans were able to subjugate much of the world’s population by force, not by persuasion or example.

In the past couple of centuries, the West has been a prime contributor to the militarisation of the world. Nuclear weapons were first developed in the West, and hold the potential for unparalleled destruction, a threat that still looms over the world. The only government to voluntarily renounce a nuclear weapons capacity is South Africa.

The problems with capitalism have been expounded at length. They include economic inequality, unsatisfying work, unemployment, consumerism, corporate corruption, encouragement of selfishness, and the production and promotion of harmful products such as cigarettes. Capitalist systems require or encourage people to move for economic survival or advancement, thereby breaking down traditional communities and fostering mental problems.

Industrialism, developed largely in the West, has had many benefits, but it also has downsides. It has generated enormous environmental impacts, including chemical contamination, species extinction and ocean pollution. Global warming is the starkest manifestation of uncontrolled industrialism.


What is responsible for the special features of Western civilisation, both positive and negative? One explanation is genetics. Western civilisation is commonly identified with white populations. Do white people have genes that make them more likely to create great works of art, or to be inventors, entrepreneurs or genocidal killers?

The problem with genetic explanations is that gene distributions in populations are too diverse to provide much guidance concerning what people do, especially what they do collectively. There is no evidence that Mozart or Hitler were genetically much different from their peers. There is too much variation between the achievements of brothers and sisters to attribute very much to genetics. Likewise, the rise and fall of civilisations is far too rapid for genetics to explain very much.

Stalin: genetically different?

More promising is to point to the way societies are organised. Social evolution is far more rapid than genetic evolution. Are the social structures developed in the West responsible for its beneficial and disastrous impacts?

The modern state is commonly said to have developed in Europe in the past few hundred years, in conjunction with the rise of modern military systems. To provide income for its bureaucratic apparatus, the state taxed the public, and to enforce its taxation powers, it expanded its military and police powers.[18] A significant step in this process was the French Revolution, which led to the development of mass armies, which proved superior to mercenary forces. The state system was adopted in other parts of the world, in part via colonialism and in part by example.

The state system can claim to have overcome some of the exploitation and oppression in the previous feudal system. It has also enabled massive investments in infrastructure, including in military systems, creating the possibility of ever more destructive wars as well as extensive surveillance. The French revolution also led to the introduction of the world’s first secret police, now institutionalised in most large states.[19]

If the West was the primary contributor to the contemporary state system, this is not necessarily good or bad. It has some positives but quite a few negatives.

A role for chance?

Perhaps what Western civilisation has done, positive and negative, shows nothing special about Western civilisation itself, but is simply a reflection of the capacities and tendencies of humans. Had things been a bit different, the same patterns might have occurred elsewhere in the world. In other words, the triumphs and tragedies of Western civilisation should be treated as human triumphs and tragedies, rather than reflecting anything special about people or institutions in the West.

On the positive side, it is apparent that people from any part of the world can attain the highest levels of achievement, whether in sport, science, heroism or service to the common good. The implication is that, in different circumstances, everything accomplished by lauded figures in the West could have been done by non-Westerners. Of course, there are many examples where this is the case anyway. Major steps in human social evolution — speech, fire, tools, agriculture — are either not attributed to a particular group, or not to the West. These developments are usually said to reflect human capacities. So why not say the same about what is attributed to a “civilisation”?

The same assessment can be made of the negatives of Western civilisation, including colonialism, militarism and industrialism. They might be said to reflect human capacities. Genocides have occurred in many parts of the world, and nearly every major government has set up military forces. Throughout the world, most people have eagerly joined industrial society, at least at the level of being consumers.

When something is seen as good, responsibility for it can be assigned in various ways. Leonardo da Vinci is seen as a genius. Does this reflect on him being a man or a person with opportunities? Is being white important? How should responsibility be assigned to the emergence of Hitler or Stalin?

Research on what is called “expert performance” shows that great achievements are the result of an enormous amount of a particular type of practice, and suggests that innate talent plays little role.[20] The human brain has enormous capacities, so the key is developing them in desirable ways. On the other hand, humans have a capacity for enormous cruelty and violence, and for tolerating it.[21]


For those critical of state systems, militarism and capitalism — or indeed anything seen as less than ideal — it is useful to point to alternatives.

One alternative is collective provision, in which communities cooperate to provide goods and services for all. This is a cooperative model, in contrast with the competitive individualistic model typical of capitalist markets.[22] In collective provision, “the commons” plays a key role: it is a facility available to all, like public libraries and parks. Online examples of commons are free software and Wikipedia, which are created by volunteers and available to all without payment or advertisements. Applied to decision-making, deliberative democracy is an alternative close to the cooperative approach.

The rise of capitalism involved the enclosure of lands that were traditionally used as commons. “Enclosure” here means takeover by private or government owners, and exclusion of traditional users. Contemporary proponents of the commons hark back to earlier times, before the enclosure process began.

Free software is a type of commons.

What is significant here is that commons historically, as highly cooperative spaces, developed in many places around the world. They are not a feature of a particular civilisation.

Another alternative is strategic nonviolent action, also called civil resistance.[23] Nonviolent action involves rallies, marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and various other methods of social and political action. Nonviolent action is non-standard: it is defined as being different from conventional political action such as voting and electoral campaigning.

Social movements — anti-slavery, feminist, peace and environmental movements, among others — have relied heavily on nonviolent action. Studies show that nonviolent movements against repressive regimes are more likely to be effective than armed resistance.[24] Compared to the use of violence, nonviolent movements have many advantages: they enable greater participation, reduce casualties and, when successful, lead to greater freedom in the long term.

People have been using nonviolent action for centuries. However, the use of nonviolent action as a strategic approach to social change can be attributed to Mohandas Gandhi and the campaigns he led in South Africa and India.[25] Strategic nonviolent action has subsequently been taken up across the world.


So what?

Why should it make any difference whether Western civilisation is judged for its benefits or its harms? Why should people care about something so amorphous as “Western civilisation”?

Most people who live and work in Western countries make little significant contribution to something as massive as a civilisation. They might be likened to observers, analogous to spectators at a sporting match. Logically, there is no particular virtue in being a fan of a winning team. Similarly, there should be no particular glory in touting the achievements of the “civilisation” in which one lives. In practice, though, it seems as if some protagonists in the debate over Western civilisation do indeed identify with it.

Spectators watching gladiators

This is a psychological process called honour by association. It is apparent in all sorts of situations, for example when you tell others about the achievements of your family members or about meeting a famous person. There can be honour by association via the suburb in which you live, your occupation, your possessions, even the food you eat.

The point about honour by association is that, logically, it is not deserved. When, as a spectator, you bask in the glory of a winning team, you’ve done nothing particular noteworthy, aside perhaps from being part of a cheering crowd. The same can apply to being associated with the greatest accomplishments in the history of Western civilisation. If you are part of a long tradition of artistic, intellectual or entrepreneurial achievement, it sounds nice but says nothing about what you’ve done yourself. It is only honour by association.

The same applies to guilt by association, which might also be called dishonour by association. If your ancestors were racists or genocidal killers, why should that reflect on you?[26]

Another way to think about this is to note that no one chooses their own parents. Growing up as part of the culture in which one was born shows no special enterprise and should warrant no particular praise. Emigrants often show more initiative. For various reasons, they are not content with their place of birth and seek out more desirable locations to spend their lives and rear their children.

Why study Western civilisation?

Why study anything? Learning, in a systematic and rigorous fashion, has impacts independent of the subject studied. On the positive side, students learn how to think. In the humanities, they learn to think critically and to communicate in writing and speech. On the negative side, or ambiguously, they learn how to play the academic game, to be willing to subordinate their interests to an imposed syllabus, and to be obedient. Formal education has been criticised as preparation for being a reliable and obedient employee.[27]

More specifically, is there any advantage in studying Western civilisation rather than some other speciality? Proponents say students, and citizens, need to know more about the ideas and achievements that underpin the society in which they live. This is plausible. Critics say it is important to learn not only about the high points of Western civilisation but also about its dark sides. Many of the critics do precisely this, teaching about the history and cultural inheritance of colonialism and capitalism. Their concern about focusing on the greatest contributions from the West is that the negative sides receive inadequate attention.

There is another possible focus of learning: alternatives, in particular alternatives to current institutions and practices that would go further in achieving the highest ideals of Western and other cultures. For example, democracy, in the form of representative government, is studied extensively, but there is little attention to participatory alternatives such as workers’ control.[28] Formal learning in classrooms is studied extensively, but there is comparatively little attention to deprofessionalised learning.[29] Examples could be given in many fields: what exists is often taken as inevitable and desirable, while what does not exist is assumed to be utopian.

The next step after studying alternatives is studying strategies to move towards them. This is rare in higher education, though it is vitally important in social movements.[30]

Why study Western civilisation? One answer is to say, sure, let’s do it, but let’s also study desirable improvements or alternatives to Western civilisation, and how to bring them about.

Controversies over Western civilisation

Some controversies seem to persist indefinitely, regardless of arguments and evidence. The debate over fluoridation of public water supplies has continued, with most of the same claims, since the 1950s. There are several reasons why resolution of debates over Western civilisation is difficult.[31]

One factor is confirmation bias: people preferentially seek out information that supports their existing views, and they find reasons to dismiss or ignore contrary information.[32]

A second factor is the burden of proof. Typically, partisans on each side in a controversy assign responsibility to the other side for proving its case.

A third factor is paradigms, which are coherent sets of assumptions, beliefs and methods. The paradigms underpinning history and sociology are quite different from those used in everyday life.

A fourth factor is group dynamics. In polarised controversies, partisans mainly interact with those with whom they agree, except in hostile forums such as public debates.

A fifth factor is interests, which refer to the stakes that partisans and others have in the issues. Interests include jobs, profits, reputation and self-esteem. Interests, especially when they are substantial or “vested,” can influence individuals’ beliefs and actions.

The sixth and final factor is that controversies are not just about facts: they are also about values, for example about ethics and decision-making. This is true of scientific controversies and even more so of other sorts of controversies.

The upshot is that in a polarised controversy, partisans remain set in their positions, not budging on the basis of the arguments and evidence presented by opponents. It is rare for a leading figure to change their views. It is fairly uncommon for a partisan to try to spell out the strongest arguments for the contrary position. Instead, partisans typically highlight their own strongest points and attack the opponent’s weakest points.

My observation is that all these factors play a role in debates over Western civilisation. It is safe to predict that disagreements are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.


Over the years, many authors and colleagues have contributed to my understanding of issues relevant to this article.

Thanks to all those who provided comments on drafts: Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Martin Davies, Don Eldridge, Susan Engel, Anders Ericsson, Theo Farrell, Zhuqin Feng, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, John Hobson, Dan Hutto, Bruce Johansen, Dirk Moses, Rosie Riddick, Nick Riemer, Denise Russell, Jody Watts, Robert Williams, Qinqing Xu and Hsiu-Ying Yang. None of these individuals necessarily agrees with anything in the article, especially considering that many commented only on particular passages.

Further comments are welcome, including suggestions for improving the text.

Brian Martin


[1] My motivation for addressing this topic is the introduction of a degree in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong and the opposition to it. I commented on this in “What’s the story with Ramsay?”, 7 March 2019, https://comments.bmartin.cc/2019/03/07/whats-the-story-with-ramsay/

[2] Thomas C. Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), says the concept of civilisation, from the time it was first formulated in the 1760s and 1770s, has always referred to societies having a state and hierarchies based on class, sex and ethnicity. Often there is an accompanying assumption that these hierarchies are natural.

[3] On the idea of the savage as an enduring and damaging stereotype that serves as the antithesis of Western civilisation, see Robert A. Williams, Jr., Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[4] Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1991); Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[5] Western classical music is not inherently superior to, say, Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian music. However, musical notation and public performance led in Western Europe to distinctive methods for training elite performers.

[6] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, volume 1 (New York: Urizen Books, 1978; originally published in 1939).

[7] David Van Reybrouck, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[8] Harold Barclay, People without Government (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982).

[9] For an account of academic and popular resistance to the idea that the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the US system of democracy, see Bruce E. Johansen with chapters by Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Barbara A. Mann, Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1998).

[10] See Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) for treatments of pre-Classical democracy, and much else.

[11] John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[12] John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings, 1975).

[13] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991, revised edition).

[14] Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[15] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (London: Penguin, 2017).

[16] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974).

[17] For a detailed account of the horrors of colonialism in the Congo, and of the struggles to set the narrative about what was happening, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

[18] Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: Free Press, 1994); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992).

[19] Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi, Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror (London: Sphere, 1983).

[20] Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[21] Steven James Bartlett, The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2005).

[22] Nathan Schneider, Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy (New York: Nation Books, 2018).

[23] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

[24] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia UP, New York, 2011).

[25] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1940, second edition).

[26] This is different from institutional responsibility. When politicians give apologies for crimes committed by governments, they do so as representatives of their governments, not as personal perpetrators.

[27] Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System that Shapes their Lives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[28] Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011).

[29] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).

[30] For example, Chris Crass, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013)

[31] This section draws on ideas outlined in my article “Why do some scientific controversies persist despite the evidence?” The Conversation, 4 August 2014, http://theconversation.com/why-do-some-controversies-persist-despite-the-evidence-28954. For my other writings in the area, see “Publications on scientific and technological controversies,” https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html.

[32] Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises,” Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 1998, pp. 175–220.

What’s the story with Ramsay?

In December 2018, a partnership was announced between the Ramsay Centre and the University of Wollongong. The university would establish a degree in Western Civilisation funded by the centre.

An idyllic scene at the University of Wollongong

            The new degree was immediately controversial. In the previous months, there had been considerable publicity about proposed Ramsay-funded degrees in Western civilisation at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. At both universities, many staff were opposed to the degrees. The ANU proposal did not go ahead, while the Sydney proposal was still being debated. Given this background, opposition to the degree at Wollongong was not surprising.

My aim here is to give a perspective on the controversy over the Ramsay-funded Western civilisation degree, especially as it has been played out at the University of Wollongong (UOW). I write as an academic at the university without a strong stake in the new degree, because I am retired and the issues involved do not impinge greatly on my main research areas. However, a number of my immediate colleagues have very strong views, and I have benefited from hearing their arguments, as well as the views of proponents of the degree.

            The next section gives a brief overview of the institutional context, which is useful for understanding both incentives and concerns associated with Ramsay funding. Following this is an introduction to the Ramsay Centre. Then I outline the major issues raised at the university: decision-making, the conservative connection, Western civilisation and equality of resourcing. The conclusion offers a few thoughts on the de-facto strategies of key players.

It would be possible to go into much greater depth. Relevant are issues concerning the aims of education, the funding of higher education, the impact of private funding and agendas, the question of Western civilisation and the role of political ideology. Others have more expertise on these and other issues, and I hope some of them will contribute to the discussion.

Background: the Australian university sector

Most Australian universities are funded by the federal government, but the funding environment has become increasingly challenging. In the 1980s, the government introduced tuition fees based on government zero-interest loans paid back as part of income tax only when a student’s income reached a moderate level. Introducing these fees provided universities a sizeable income stream, but not a bonanza, because the government cut its direct funding, while opening the gates to a massive expansion in student numbers over the following decades.

            The result was that academics were met with ever-increasing class sizes. The student-staff ratio dramatically increased, almost doubling in some fields. However, this wasn’t enough to fix the financial squeeze. University managements dealt with it in two main ways.

Students in the Hope Theatre at UOW

            Firstly, they aggressively recruited international students, who had to pay substantial tuition fees. International student fees were used to cross-subsidise other operations. Eventually, this income became Australia’s third largest export industry, after iron and coal.

            Secondly, teaching was increasingly carried out by “casual” staff, paid by the hour or on short-term contracts. University teaching was casualised almost as much as the fast food industry.

            Also beginning in the 1980s, the government pushed universities and other higher education institutions to amalgamate. Increased size, through amalgamations and student recruitment, became a goal, augmented by setting up of additional campuses in Australia and in other countries. Universities became big businesses, with budgets of many hundreds of millions of dollars.

            In higher management at Australian universities, finances became a preoccupation. All avenues for income are canvassed, though the options have been restricted mainly to government funding, student fees and research grants. The other side of the coin has been cost containment, including by increasing class sizes, cutting staff numbers and, as mentioned, relying ever more on casual staff for teaching.

            Unlike the US, in Australia there is no tradition of private support for universities. Gifts from alumni are welcome but are usually a tiny portion of income. Philanthropy is not prominent.

Enter Ramsay

Paul Ramsay

It was in this context that the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation entered the picture. Paul Ramsay made a fortune in private healthcare, including buying and running numerous hospitals.[1] He died in 2014, having bequeathed a portion of his estate to setting up university courses in Western civilisation, run with small classes in which students study great books, in the manner of a few other such courses in the US and elsewhere. The Ramsay Centre was set up to manage this bequest. In 2017, the Centre invited expressions of interest from Australian universities to receive funding to set up and run degrees in Western civilisation.

            The University of Wollongong was the first university to announce an agreement to set up such a degree. From the point of view of university managers, this was an attractive proposition. It would involve the largest ever injection of private money into an Australian university to fund a humanities programme, amounting to many tens of millions of dollars. It was enough to employ ten academics and give scholarships to dozens of undergraduates.

            Early in 2019, Professor Theo Farrell, executive dean of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at UOW, outlined the financial benefits of the arrangement in meetings held to discuss the new degree.[2] The faculty was affected by a decline in the number of undergraduate students enrolling in arts degrees, a decline occurring across the state, not just at Wollongong.[3] The Ramsay-funded degree would have both direct and spinoff benefits financially. The students undertaking the degree would have to take a major or a double degree at the university, most likely in the faculty, giving a boost to enrolments.

            A secondary benefit was claimed: because the Ramsay-funded students had to have good results in high school and because they were being paid, they were more likely than other students to finish their degrees. If true, this would aid the faculty’s overall retention rate, something the government would favour.

            The Ramsay money would support the employment of ten academics and two professional staff. One of the academics is Dan Hutto, senior professor of philosophy, appointed head of the new School of Liberal Arts hosting the new degree. There are to be nine newly hired academics, all of them philosophers. Though hired for teaching, their relatively light teaching loads would free them up to do research. Their presence potentially could turn UOW into a philosophy powerhouse, beyond its current dynamism led by Hutto.

            From the point of view of its advocates, the new degree thus brought great advantages to the faculty and the university. It involved the injection of a large amount of money with spinoff benefits for the rest of the faculty. And it would position UOW as a prominent player internationally among great-books programmes and in philosophy.

            Acceptance of the degree was not straightforward. As soon as it was announced, academics and students expressed opposition. Here, I look at the grounds for opposition under several categories: decision-making, the conservative connection, Western civilisation and equality. In practice, these concerns are often mixed together.

Anti-Ramsay protest, UOW, 1 March 2019. Photo: Adam McLean, Illawarra Mercury


Discussions between the centre and UOW were carried out in secret. Only a few people at the university even knew negotiations were occurring. Critics decried the secrecy.

            University officials said, in defence, that these sorts of negotiations are carried out all the time, without any public announcement. Indeed, there are many examples in which major developments have been announced as fait accompli. For example, in November 2018 an announcement was made that the university had purchased colleges in Malaysia.[4] There was no protest about this; indeed, few took any notice.

            On the other hand, the Ramsay Centre was already controversial elsewhere, separately from Wollongong. As the Australian National University negotiated with the Ramsay Centre, there was considerable publicity, especially when university leaders decided against having a Western civilisation degree because of concerns about academic freedom. At the University of Sydney, major opposition emerged to a Ramsay-funded degree, with protests and much media coverage.

            In this context, the secrecy at UOW seemed anomalous. It was true that university management often proceeded on major initiatives without consultation with academic staff, but this was not a typical case: it was already known to be controversial.

The conservative connection

On the Ramsay Centre board are two prominent political conservatives: former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. For quite a few staff at UOW, the presence of Howard and Abbott tainted the Ramsay Centre and its funds.

            As explained by Farrell, the board of the Ramsay Centre has no input into what was taught in the degree. Negotiations with the centre were with two academics that it employed, Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney, not with the board.

            One of the concerns expressed about the degree was that Ramsay Centre representatives would be members of the selection committees for the newly hired academics. For many academics, the idea of non-academic ideologues sitting on academic selection committees was anathema. Farrell countered by emphasising that members of the Ramsay Centre Board, such as Howard and Abbott, would have nothing to do with appointments. Only the Ramsay academics would be involved. A typical selection committee would have the two Ramsay academics, one outside academic, up to six UOW academics including Farrell as chair of the committee. Farrell said that it was not unusual for non-UOW figures to sit on selection committees. In other words, there were many precedents for the processes relating to the new degree.

            Farrell noted that in his experience most selection committees operate by consensus, not voting, but that if it came to a vote, UOW members had the numbers. In response to a question about what the Ramsay academics would be looking for — the worry being that they would want candidates aligned with particular political positions — Farrell said that in his interactions so far with the Ramsay academics, their main concern was that the appointees be good teachers.

            At a meeting for faculty members about the new degree held on 11 February, Marcelo Svirsky, senior lecturer in International Studies, raised a concern about the reputational damage caused by the connection between Ramsay and the university. Farrell said the university’s reputation internationally would be enhanced via connections with Columbia University and other institutions with similar sorts of degrees. Such connections were important given how difficult it was to build affiliations with leading universities. Domestically, Farrell said that information about the content of the UOW degree was gaining traction in the media, counteracting earlier bad publicity about the proposed degrees at other universities. He explicitly denied any risk to reputation.

            It is fascinating to speculate what the response to the Ramsay money would have been had Howard and Abbott not been on the board. Many academics vehemently oppose the political positions of Howard and Abbott, making it difficult to accept any initiative associated with the two politicians. In the wider public, the involvement of Howard and Abbott mean the Ramsay Centre is inevitably caught up in the emotions associated with right-wing politics and the so-called culture wars.

            Would there be the same academic opposition to money coming from a centre linked to leading figures from green or socialist politics? This can only be surmised, because if a green-red twin of the Ramsay Centre were funding a degree, it would not be called a degree in Western civilisation.

Western civilisation

For academics in some sections of the humanities and social sciences, “Western civilisation” is a term of opprobrium, not endearment. It is useful to note that in several fields, critique is one of the standard tools: accepted ideas, practices and institutions are subject to critical scrutiny, often with assumptions and beliefs skewered. For example, in my field of science and technology studies, challenges to ideas such as scientific progress and “technology is neutral” are fundamental to much teaching and research. Yet, in the wider public, conventional ideas about science, technology and progress remain dominant. Therefore, teaching in the field necessarily involves questioning conventional thinking.

            For some, “Western civilisation” brings up images of Socrates, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein: great thinkers and creators from Europe. It also brings up images of parliamentary democracy, human rights and liberation from oppressive systems of domination. These are some of the positives of Western history and politics.


            There is also a seamier side to Western history and politics. Colonialism and imperialism sponsored by Western European states resulted in massive death, displacement and enslavement of Indigenous peoples. In Australia, white settlement caused death and the destruction of the culture of Aboriginal peoples.

            As well as the legacy of colonialism, the history of Europe has its own dark aspects, for example the Crusades, the Inquisition, the horrors of the industrial revolution and the Nazi genocide. A full account of Western cultures needs to address their damaging as well as their uplifting sides.

            While Western civilisation has been responsible for horrific deeds, these have been carried out with convenient rationales. Colonialism was seen by its defenders as part of a civilising mission, bringing enlightenment to savage peoples. Yet the aftermath of this mission continues to cause suffering. For example, in Rwanda, Belgian colonialists imposed the categories of Tutsi and Hutu on the population, helping lay the stage for the 1994 genocide. In Australia, poverty and incarceration of Aboriginal people are among the contemporary consequences of colonialism.

Not on the reading list for the degree in Western civilisation

            For many academics, it is imperative to challenge the glorified myth of the beneficence of Western culture. It is part of the scholarly quest to attain insight into what really happened, not just what is convenient to believe, and this often involves pointing to the unsavoury aspects of history and politics that others would rather ignore or downplay.

            In this context, the very label “Western civilisation” is an insult to some scholars in the area, because the term “civilisation” has positive connotations unlike, for example, “Western barbarism.” For scholars, the label “Western civilisation” suggests a focus only on one side of a complex and contentious past and legacy.

            Hutto, in presenting the subjects to be taught in UOW’s Western civilisation degree, emphasised that about half of them involved studying texts from other cultures, including texts concerning Buddhism, Islam and Indigenous cultures. To fully understand Western culture, it is valuable to appreciate other cultures: a respectful dialogue provides more insights than concentrating on Western items alone.

Printing was invented in China

            As well, some of the texts that Hutto proposed from Western writers offered critical perspectives on Western societies. In these ways, Hutto distanced the degree from Abbott’s claim that it would be for Western civilisation,[5] instead positioning it as something different. In Hutto’s view, the degree uses the study of great works of Western civilisation, in conversation with non-Western traditions, as a way for students to develop their critical capacities, using evidence and argument to back up their views. In short, Hutto’s aim for the degree is that students learn how to think, not what to think. Students are bound to be exposed to critical perspectives, including in the major or degree they are required to take in addition to the one in Western civilisation.

            The degree as designed by Hutto might clash with the conceptions of some Ramsay Centre board members. It might also clash with the public perception, at least as informed by media coverage, that the degree would be one-sided advocacy for Western contributions. Intriguingly, if Howard or Abbott were to express reservations about UOW’s degree, this would temper the media and public perceptions of one-sidedness.

            One of the problems with the concept of Western civilisation is that, in the public debate, it is seldom defined. Some critics might say that to talk of Western civilisation is a category mistake, attributing a reality to an abstraction whose meaning is contested. The variability of the meaning of “Western civilisation” may lie behind some of the disputes over the degree carrying this name.

Equality of resourcing

Ramsay’s large donation seems like a boon to a cash-strapped university, enabling the hiring of staff and the running of small classes that otherwise would be infeasible. On the other hand, UOW’s planned degree creates tensions between the privileged few and the rest.

UOW’s building 19, where the School of Liberal Arts will be located

The academics hired to teach the new degree would seem to have some extra benefits. In particular, they will be teaching small classes, of no more than ten students, of high-calibre students. In contrast, their colleagues, namely the rest of the academics in the faculty, are saddled with tutorial classes of 25, plus lectures sometimes with hundreds of students.

            For some academics, this contrast is a source of considerable disquiet. Imagine someone working in a field where offerings cover the same topics as proposed in the Western civilisation degree. They might well say, “We have the expertise and experience in the area. Why are we being squeezed while newcomers are given generous conditions to teach the same topics from a philosophical perspective?”

            There has been no formal response to questions of this type. One reply would be to say that there are all sorts of inequalities between staff, only some of which are related to merit. The most obvious inequality is between permanent and non-permanent teachers. Some of the teachers on casual appointments are just as qualified as those with continuing appointments. There are also inequalities between academics, especially in research. For example, some researchers are exempted from teaching on an official or de-facto basis.

            Academics tend to be highly sensitive to inequality in treatment, in part because professional status is so highly valued. There are regular disputes about workloads: seeing a colleague with a lighter teaching load can cause envy or resentment. That a whole group of new academics seems to receive special conditions can bring this sort of resentment to the fore.

            The students selected for scholarships to undertake the Western civilisation degree have to satisfy several conditions. They must be Australian citizens or permanent residents, young, recently completed high school and have obtained a high score in the examinations at the end of high school. In other words, mature-age students and international students are excluded from consideration. Scholarship students will receive an annual stipend of $27,000, paid for up to five years.[6]

            To some, the special privileges for scholarship students are unfair, especially the restriction to young Australian students. To this, a reply might be that inequalities between students are commonplace. The most obvious is between domestic and international students, the latter having to pay large tuition fees. Students on postgraduate scholarships are privileged too. This sometimes can be justified on merit, though the difference between students near the scholarship cut-off point may be tiny.


To appreciate the struggle over the Ramsay-Centre-funded degree in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong, it is useful to think of the key players as using tactics to counter the moves of their opponents. Thinking this way is a convenience and does not imply that players actually think in terms of a strategic encounter.

            The proponents of the degree seem to be driven by two main considerations: the availability of a large amount of private money to be injected into the humanities, and the opportunity to build a world-class philosophy unit. To acquire the Ramsay money and build the philosophy unit, it was useful to counter likely sources of opposition, in particular the opposition of academics in cognate units concerned about the ideological associations with the Ramsay Centre and the concept of Western civilisation.

            To forestall the sort of rancorous public debate that occurred at the Australian National University and Sydney University, which might scuttle the degree before it was agreed, the degree proponents negotiated in secret. This did indeed reduce public debate, but at the expense of a different source of concern, the secrecy itself.

            To counter concerns associated with the ideological associations with Ramsay and Western civilisation, Dan Hutto, designer of the degree, went to considerable effort to include in the core subjects respectful intellectual engagements with non-Western cultures, and to include negative as well as positive sides of Western culture.

One of Western civilisation’s technological innovations

            Critics and opponents of the degree were not mollified. Some simply ignored the innovative aspects of the subject offerings and assumed that any degree labelled “Western civilisation” must be an apologia for Western colonialism. Other opponents, though, focused on procedural matters, for example the fast-track approval of the degree despite its possible risk to the university’s reputation.

            One of the consequences of the degree is the introduction of a privileged stratum of staff, with much lighter teaching loads, and of students given scholarships to undertake the degree. For proponents of the degree, there is no easy way to address the associated staff and student inequality. However, this inequality has not played a significant role in the public debate. There are numerous other inequalities within universities, so perhaps the introduction of one more, despite its high profile, is not a likely trigger for public concern.

            One of the positive outcomes of the new degree is the debate it has stimulated. Hutto has grasped the opportunity by planning to have the students discuss, in their first week in the degree beginning in 2020, the debate about the degree itself. For those so inclined, the new degree provides a golden opportunity to articulate critiques of Western civilisation and make them available to staff and students in the new School of Liberal Arts. Although Tony Abbott claimed that the Ramsay-funded degrees would be for Western civilisation, it is quite possible that many of the degree graduates will develop a sophisticated understanding of Western civilisation. Perhaps, along the way, members of the public will learn more about both the high and low aspects of Western cultures.

            What would Paul Ramsay think of the furore over degrees in Western civilisation? Perhaps he would be bemused that his bequest is receiving much more attention than he ever sought for himself during his lifetime.

I thank the many individuals who have discussed the issues with me and who have offered comments on drafts.

[1] In the debate about Ramsay Centre funding, Paul Ramsay and Ramsay Health Care have scarcely been mentioned. Michael Wynne, a vigorous critic of corporate health care, developed an extensive website with information about numerous heathcare corporations in the US and Australia. While being critical of for-profit heathcare, Wynne has relatively generous comments about Paul Ramsay himself and about Ramsay Health Care, at least compared to other players in the corporate scene. See:

• “Corporate Medicine Web Site,” https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/

• “Ramsay Health Care”, https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/ramsay_main.html

• “Paul Ramsay”, https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/ramsay_leaders.html#Paul Ramsay

Wynne’s pages on Ramsay were last updated in 2005, but after this Paul Ramsay played a less direct role in Ramsay Health Care.

Screen shot from Michael Wynne’s website on corporate healthcare

[2] I attended meetings on 16 January and 11 February 2019 held for members of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Theo Farrell and Dan Hutto told about plans for the new degree and answered questions.

[3] Another factor, specific to UOW, was the setting up of a Faculty of Social Sciences that, despite its name, does not house the classic social sciences of sociology, political science and economics. This faculty set up a social science degree that is in direct competition with the arts degree, attracting students that otherwise would have contributed to the budget for the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

[4] Andrew Herring, “University of Wollongong continues global expansion into Malaysia,” 19 November 2018, https://media.uow.edu.au/releases/UOW253448.html: The media release begins as follows: “The University of Wollongong (UOW) has continued its global expansion by acquiring the university colleges of Malaysian private education provider KDU from long-standing Malaysian investment company Paramount Corporation Berhad (PCB).

Subject to Malaysian Ministry of Education approval, the deal will see UOW wholly-owned subsidiary, UOW Global Enterprises, immediately acquire a substantive majority equity interest in the university colleges in Kuala Lumpur and Penang—including the new campus under construction in Batu Kawan.”

[5] Tony Abbott, “Paul Ramsay’s vision for Australia,” Quadrant Online, 24 May 2018, https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/04/paul-ramsays-vision-australia/. Quite a few commentators blamed Abbott’s article for hindering acceptance of a Ramsay-funded degree at the Australian National University, e.g. Michael Galvin, “Abbott single-handedly destroys Ramsay Centre for Cheering On White People,” The Independent, 17 June 2018; Peter van Onselen, “Ramsay Centre has Tony Abbott to blame for ANU’s rejection,” The Australian, 9 June 2018. Note that the preposition for is contained in the full name of the centre: the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

[6] Entry to the degree course is open to students of any age, and to five non-residents. The conditions mentioned apply only to those receiving Ramsay scholarships, and even then exceptions can be made. An ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) of 95 has been mentioned as an expectation for scholarship recipients. Other factors will be taken into account.

Brian Martin