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Kevin Donnelly (screen shot via abc.net.au)

Stephen Keim discusses Kevin Donnelly's use of a discredited IPA study as a benchmark for university education content and the advancement of the Right's long march into privilege, tyranny and 'universal truth'.

WHEN an opinion piece starts by citing an Institute of Public Affairs’ (IPA) "forensic analysis of how history is now taught in our universities", it is probably a good signal that I should read no further.

I thought that the piece, 'Barbarians at the door after the left's long march', published in The Australian, however, might yield some perverse fun.

And to be fair to the author of the piece, Kevin Donnelly, he was writing two days before the IPA study, relied upon by Mr Donnelly for his two key points – the cultural left now controls the academy and the left’s long march has been ongoing for years – was shown to be deeply flawed.

Writing in The Conversation, Paul Sendziuk and Martin Crotty, drawing on their own exhaustive study of the subject, have since shown that the most taught and most popular courses in Australian universities tell the broad story of Western Civilisation (good, in Mr Donnelly’s opinion). And that the courses that look specifically at the influences of gender and race (hated by Mr Donnelly and the IPA) take up fewer teaching resources and student hours.    

Mr Donnelly celebrates “the liberal view of education”. The kernel of a liberal education, according to Mr Donnelly, is the recognition that the grand narrative of Western culture distinguishes the civilised from the barbarian and the educated from those remaining in ignorance.    

The narrative of Western culture must include:

  • the Holocaust;
  • the Inquisition;
  • the torturing and murder of heretics;
  • slavery;
  • syphilis;
  • the burning of so-called witches;
  • religious wars;
  • lynchings;
  • feudalism;
  • civil war;
  • imperial war;
  • employment of children in factories and mines;
  • unsafe working conditions;
  • the banning of trade unions;
  • entrenched inequality;
  • the genocide of native peoples; and
  • the persecution of gay people.

There is a fair space for barbarism and ignorance in that narrative. To be fair to Mr Donnelly, some fine writing and art were produced across the same sweep of history. But to keep things in context, tyrants have patronised the arts and the instruments of torture have been things of great beauty produced by fine artisans. Culture, civilisation and virtue are not synonyms.

Central to Mr Donnelly’s thesis is his citation of Allan Bloom, the author in 1987 of The Closing of the American Mind. Mr Bloom is relied upon for the proposition that a liberal education is based on the deepest thinkers of the past because the works of these writers form a body of learning which we must preserve in order to remain civilised.

It is difficult to follow Mr Donnelly’s argument from this point. He descends into sloganeering and attacking armies of straw opponents. It may best be paraphrased by the proposition that it is wrong for any university or school to reflect upon the extent to which past writing has been impacted upon by social context and power relationships of the time.

By way of example, we may assume that Mr Donnelly would find it offensive for any teacher or student to ask why the wonderful document, 'The Declaration of Independence', posits as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, rather than all men and women are created equal. Or to ask whether the Declaration includes as men who are created equal the slaves of America — including some held at the time by the very authors of the document.

I find of most interest Mr Donnelly’s reliance on Mr Bloom’s restrictive views on what may constitute a liberal education. I just happen to be reading two books that look closely at the heritage left us by Mr Bloom.

Richard Rorty, pragmatist philosopher, looked at education in one of his essays collected in his anthology of works, Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). Rorty and Bloom were classmates at the University of Chicago. Rorty observes that Bloom’s ideas for the content of liberal education are accompanied by doubts about democracy, reflecting the attitudes of his teacher and mentor, Leo Strauss.

This lack of love for democracy is exemplified, according to Rorty, by Bloom’s contention that the purpose of higher education is to help students realise the natural superiority of those who lead the theoretical life. In this regard, Rorty says that Bloom is dead wrong.

Drawing on a pragmatist philosopher of an earlier generation, John Dewey, Rorty suggests that it is the function of primary and secondary education to equip students with the high and accepted ideas of the past. This process of socialisation is not properly, on the other hand, the prime function of the liberal arts at university. Rather, university is about students finding their own individuality and their own ideas about what is important and true. In this way, a liberal education equips the student for his or her part in the democracy by contributing to that sea of ideas to be handed down to another generation of school students.

Earl Shorris, in its 2007 work, The Politics of Heaven, is less gentle in his criticisms of Bloom. Mr Shorris commences by suggesting that Bloom’s book was really about the closing of Bloom’s mind. He calls Bloom a deceitful opponent of democracy.

Shorris says that Bloom was:

  • nasty; 
  • vicious in the classroom (in that he picked on particular students and ridiculed them with insults and sarcasm);
  • a misogynist;
  • a publicity seeker;
  • an elitist; and
  • an opponent of the poor.

Bloom embraced his mentor, Strauss’ idea that study of the great books (the mainstay of Mr Donnelly’s liberal education) should be limited to a small elite who would, in turn, accede to the monopoly of power.

In support of his suggestion that Bloom hated the egalitarian implications of American democracy, Shorris quotes Bloom, himself, on the sample of students who are fit to study the liberal arts. He refers to students of comparatively high intelligence, materially and spiritually free to do pretty much what they want with the few years of college they are privileged to have.

Bloom’s thoughts on race included opposition to affirmative action to reduce structural inequalities. He referred to “the fact that the university degree of a black student is also tainted”. As well as stigmatising the poor and people of colour, Bloom wrote many words arguing that the children of divorced parents were also unsuited to the study of the liberal arts.    

In his opinion piece, Mr Donnelly quotes another writer to argue that education must advance a universal transcendent truth — a strange proposition for a subject as properly contested as history.

It is not the nonsense, however, that surprises me from Mr Donnelly. Nor is it his reliance on what has turned out to be a misleading study by the IPA.

Rather, it is his reliance for prescriptions as to the content of university education in today’s Australia, on the ideas of an American philosopher from 30 years ago whose ideas are more suited to an oligarchy of the rich, privileged and racist than the egalitarian democracy we pride ourselves to be.

There is, perhaps, some perverse fun in knowing that that is where Mr Donnelly is coming from on his long march.

Stephen Keim is a barrister and president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenKeim1.

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