Catholic Liberal Education Rises Above Identity Politics

The following is an excerpt of a public lecture, “Stomping on the Shoulders of Giants: How Identity Politics is Corrupting our Youth,” presented last month in Australia by Dr. Bella d’Abrera, the director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs. The lecture was promoted by Campion College Australia, which is the only Australian college in The Newman Guide.

…English columnist Brendan O’Neill commented that “Western Campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics or what is sometimes referred to as ‘the identitarian left’ which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas.” The fact, of course, that this identitarian left are occupying positions in the very institutions which they seek to destroy appears to be lost on them.

Last year, I undertook a systematic review of 746 history courses offered across 35 Australian universities to see exactly what was being taught and how bad things really were.  And as I read through the 746 subject titles and descriptions, it became all too evident that identity is in, and ideas are most definitely out.

The most common themes which came up again and again were Indigenous issues, race, gender, environment, and identity. Keep in mind that we are talking about history here, not political science or gender studies. I found that there were significantly higher occurrences of the words “Indigenous,” “Race”, “Gender”, “Environment”, “Identity” and “Sexuality” than there were “Enlightenment” or the “Reformation.” Furthermore, there were more occurrences of the word “Islam” than there were “Christianity.” All this data supported the notion that history as an academic discipline is not just in decline but has been commandeered by the proponents of this left-wing cultural theory. Identity politics as it applies to history has a tendency to deny a role for human agency and instead sees history as the product of inexorable forces and trends, primarily of an economic and material nature.

I thought I’d give you a sense of what undergraduates are being taught, by listing some of the subjects on offer;

  • A History of Sexualities at the University of Melbourne;
  • Sex, Crime and Scandal; History of Sexuality at La Trobe;
  • Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change at the University of Western Australia;
  • Memory and the Politics of Difference: Sex, Race and Belonging at Flinders University;
  • Global Feminisms: Competing Visions, Varying Histories at the University of NSW; and
  • Race in America, also at the University of Melbourne.

And so on, and so on—I think we can all see a pattern here. The study of history from the point of view of significant historical periods and events has shifted to the study of history purely on the basis of identity. Unfortunately, this has been enormously detrimental to the education of young Australians, because they are no longer being taught about the history and substance of Western Civilisation.

After publishing my report, a historian at one of our universities responded by saying that the more traditional subjects are not offered because the students are not interested. But how can students know what they don’t want, if they don’t know it in the first place? If they haven’t been exposed to the history of Western Civilisation at school, which they are invariably not, how could they possibly be able to make that decision?

The problem is quite clearly not with the students but with the academics themselves. I suspect that it is a combination of both intellectual laziness—it’s much easier to reduce human history to gender and race, than it is to teach it in all its complexity—and I think because they genuinely believe that everything else apart from gender and such like is irrelevant.

…How can we weed out bad ideas and develop the good, if we insist on restricting our thinking to the unsophisticated classifications of race, gender and class? How can society continue to progress if we choose to observe the world through such narrow and limited prisms?

Students studying the humanities in Australia are at risk of finishing their degrees with a distorted view of the world in which the past is viewed as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed. Is it any wonder that the new generation of campus activists work to such a predictable script reducing all arguments to oppression based on identity, when this is all they are fed from the day they enrol?

The teaching of history, or any subject for that matter, through the lens of class, gender and race renders that subject boring, repetitive and anti-intellectual. It neither encourages nor teaches the art of enquiry. It neither adds to scholarship, improves the individual, nor provides wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

…So, all this brings me to Campion College, which is what Miranda Divine called in my discussion with her, a positive oasis in this sea of madness. I also said to Miranda that Campion is small but heroic. Campion is unique because it is the only place in Australia which is entirely free from the scourge of identity politics. It’s the only place in Australia which offers an alternative and a remedy to what I see as a widespread intellectual decay by offering young Australians a genuine liberal arts education.

The idea of a classical arts education has been central to the tradition of Western Civilisation since the 5th century. It was started by the philosophers of Athens, adopted by statesmen and public figures of the Roman republic and empire, and then carried forward by the Catholic Church, where the tradition flourished across Europe.

Alcuin of York championed the idea of liberal arts in 8th century after being asked by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who incidentally could not read and write when he came to the throne, to re-educate his court in the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

Over the centuries, scholars patronised by popes and secular courts, those active in the monastic tradition of St Benedict and later in the universities, helped preserve and gradually re-establish this system of education at the heart of Europe.

Campion’s liberal arts education is unlike anything you’ll find in Australian universities. Rather than focussing on one subject in isolation, it emphasises breadth, and sees all knowledge as connected, with each aspect informing the whole. And it can only do this because it is entirely and blissfully free from identity politics.

A liberal arts education will teach students to contribute to the continuing conversation of Western Civilisation. It introduces students to the unmitigated joy of learning for its own sake, and equips them to participate in Western Civilisation. It will give them the tools for understanding the world. This is the great gift that will enrich the whole of a student’s future life and which gift so many young people are not being given in our universities today.

DR. BELLA D’ABRERA is the director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs. She is a professional historian with a BA in History and Spanish from Monash University, an MA in Spanish from the University of St. Andrews and a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge.

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