Flat White

The ANU fails western civilisation

2 June 2018

4:04 PM

2 June 2018

4:04 PM

Manning Clark must be mightily vexed from wherever he now exists (as an admirer of Soviet Man, Manning did not, of course, believe in God) with ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

Last Friday Schmidt informed that he had taken a difficult decision, to withdraw from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for the teaching of an undergraduate degree on western civilisation, over concerns on the level of autonomy the ANU would have over the course, that, in keeping with its eponymous course title, teaches, well, the History of Western Civilisation.

According to Schmidt, the ANU “approached the opportunity offered by the Ramsay Centre in a positive and open spirit, but it is clear that the autonomy with which this university needs to approve and endorse a new program of study is not compatible with a sponsored program of the type sought,” he said.

“Not compatible”? What could he mean? Saudi and Middle Eastern benefactors provided funding for a Centre of Middle Eastern Studies and Chinese money provided funding for the building of a lavish ‘China In the World’ facility.

So ‘what’s ‘not compatible’ about the teaching of western civilisation, do you think?

The Ramsay Centre’s for Western Civilisation, chaired by former Liberal elder statesman John Howard was funded from a bequest from healthcare millionaire Paul Ramsay, and negotiations with the ANU had progressed to the point of an undergraduate degree proposed to start in 2019 with a teaching and administrative staff of 12.

The ANU – disclaimer here, Flat White undertook both her undergrad and post-grad degrees at ANU in the years when it could boast of three of the finest Indonesianists in academe and had a proud and productive Department of Asian Studies – has in the last decades become the captive of its own ambitions, a university enmeshed in ‘foreign student’ capture.

Some of its troubles are caused by capacity – rather, the lack of it; currently, many foreign students are housed in the grandly-named Fenner Hall, the ageing but venerable structure that stands on Canberra’s main entry highway, Northbourne Avenue, into the city.

Fenner Hall stands on what is now gold- strike real estate, for Canberra’s light rail will pass directly underneath it, and the ACT government is already rubbing collective hands over the money that will roll into its coffers from developers wanting to buy the site.

Somewhere must be found for all those foreign students, who need a roof over their heads, so the nearly-new and eminently useful lecture theatres of what was once the Manning Clark building, were flattened, as was the much-loved Union quad, to make way for … more housing for foreign students. No wonder Manning is mad!

Lectures and evening book launches that once attracted Canberra’s bookish middle classes have now been transferred to the opulent, but hard-to-find ‘China in the World’ facility, its architecture reminding of the more imperial features of the Forbidden City.

And not just the dead but the living were inconvenienced. Lectures – including for medical and engineering students, have sometimes had to be taken in the ANU School of Music’s revered Llewellyn Hall, a vast and splendid concert space with superb acoustics but hardly comparable to the three demolished purpose-built Manning Clark lecture theatres.

Even Nature seems to have had it in for the ANU; earlier, after heavy rains, Toad Hall, student accommodation overlooking picturesque but now maligned Sullivan’s Creek, was flooded when the Creek burst its banks and tides of mud flowed into lower level structures.

As an astrophysicist, Vice-Chancellor Schmidt should be accustomed to dealing with the vagaries of the physical world; whether he is more at ease dealing with pressure from the country that sends ANU its greatest number of foreign students – some barely able to speak English but happy to Google and cut-and-paste their answers – is another matter.

Most ironically, many foreign students at the ANU would be interested in a course focussed on the history of western civilisation. Pity it will not be taught at the ANU.

Illustration: Hammer Film Productions.

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