The Great Conversation, not The Great Battle...


Physiologie du Flaneur [CC0]

The Great Books of the Western World were the subject of political controversary within the Australian university sector recently when a bequest by the late Paul Ramsay went looking for an institutional home. Instead of selling the intellectual tradition that includes what Harold Bloom referred to as the Western Canon, conservatives talked up a paternalistic, colonising, right-wing culture war waged against, well, against everything that was not considered "Western" I suppose. But why? Here I examine the efficacy of a Great Books degree from the perspective of the political flâneur. My aim is to outline the importance of the liberal arts tradition, but without the populist sentiment of defending an elusive "way of life" that I apparently share because of the geographical and temporal accident of my birth.

When the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation's program went to the university sector, the proponents chose an ideological battleground that ensured any discussion was polarised, ultimately doing a disservice to the liberal arts tradition. By wielding Australia's first Great Books degree program as an apologia for Western thought, as if the West's intellectual history were under attack from some unsympathetic "other", the culture wars raged on. 

I refer to Harold Bloom above because he made no apology to what he regarded as the "School of Resentment". I refer to this group as an unidentifiable echo chamber of left-leaning or alt-left types who fuel and are fuelled by the echo chamber of the alt-right. In Australia, read the opinion columns in The Guardian (ideology: it is free) or the "Commentary" section in The Australian (ideology: you have to pay) and you can visit these populist ideas. (But try not to dwell there for too long or you'll lose your flâneur status.) 

Neither left nor right can agree because their identities are tied up in their approach to the "laden" idea known as "identity politics": the left tends to embrace identity politics whereas conservatives (who staunchly identify as conservative) see identity politics as the enemy. Or to put it another way, identity politics is "simply shorthand for a concept or idea that you dislike". 

This strange view of identity politics was used recently to critique the university sector for its apparent left-leaning world view in teaching history. The Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing thinktank, recently published some "research" which:

...reveals that history has shifted away from the study of significant historical events and periods to a view of the past seen through the narrow lens of class, gender and race.

This major piece of research demonstrates what we have long known; that in general, the substance of Western Civilisation, which is essential to understanding our present and shaping our future is not being taught to Australian undergraduates studying history.

It was interesting that the "findings" were based on an assessment of university teaching against a normative list of an "essential core" of historical subjects "based on the notion of the canon of significant historical subjects devised by the British historian Professor Niall Ferguson" (d'Abrera, 2017, p. 10). To suggest that historical accounts can change or that our understanding of the past can evolve with new information doesn't rate a mention, but neither does any critique of Ferguson's list.

It is interesting that Niall Ferguson, a well-regarded historian, has been chosen as the baseline for how history ought to (normatively) be taught. Nevertheless, his book titled Civilization: The West and the Rest speaks volumes for where the IPA's version of Western thought is situated in a global context. It's not that there isn't something to learn from Ferguson's prolific works, but the IPA's take on it lacks any sense of sophistication that a liberal arts scholar would "punch full of holes" at a moment's notice (to mix some more clichés about such a clichéd understanding of history).

Tony Abbott's 2018 article in Quadrant argued that the high culture of Western Civilisation was something to be celebrated. While I agree with the idea that the Great Books ought to be celebrated, I am much more inclined to agree with Harold Bloom than I am to agree with Mr Abbott. For instance, Bloom's idea of the West was encompassing. He saw two distinct branches of the Western Canon: one stemming from William Shakespeare (see Bloom's lecture below) and the other stemming from Dante Alighieri.

It is difficult to put into this short space the extent of Harold Bloom's work, but I am his biggest fan. I emailed Harold Bloom after reading his incredible Anxiety of Influence and he replied the very next day. I was saddened when he passed away, but to put his work in ideological perspective, even The Guardian's obituary does poetic justice to this genius who lived during my lifetime. (I don't ever want to lose this email, so here is a screenshot below of my fleeting contact with the great man.)

Vale Professor Harold Bloom. Larger than life and one of my major scholarly influences.

Harold Bloom provided an approach to reconciling what I know of paternalism, colonisation, and all of the so-called culture wars as they relate to "cancel culture" with the best parts of the Great Books. For me, this is what Hutchins referred to as The Great Conversation; he made it a conversation about as opposed to a battle against ideas. It is interesting that the Ramsay program adopts the traditional Oxford/Cambridge liberal arts tutorial as its method while at the same time appearing to resist the very pedagogical approach it has adopted.

Let me digress. I subscribe to Mark Manson's Mindf*ck Monday email. Yes, I know he can be a potty mouth. This weeks' email focused on the concept of "mastery". Manson's second principle of mastery is:

[C]reate feedback loops. That means stop hiding in your basement and show your shit to the world (or a highly qualified teacher/mentor/coach/person/thing.)

It's not an easy thing to do, but my blog has been a way to put my thoughts out there for so for many years now I don't worry about it so much. If you are interested in Mark Manson's approach to mastery, watch his video below:

But let me get back to Harold Bloom and Mortimer Adler (check out this link) and then to Robert M. Hutchin's The Great Conversation, the reason I started writing this article in the first place. Bloom was able to recognise the importance of "other" civilisations without entering into a war against them. Tony Abbott didn't say as much as others claimed he said about the superiority of "The West" in his Quadrant article (see commentary on the NTEU website). But the sentiment was there.

Hutchins' Great Conversation is exactly that - it is not the Great Battle or a Crusade against an imaginary "other" civilisation. It is a collection of books that has elements of the rest of the world in it that happened to coincide with historical events. These events brought it all to the Anglo-centric world in the same way that I was born into this civilisation - by accident. It certainly isn't something to be celebrated as if it were awarded by some meritocratic god.

If we really want to get down to brass tacks then we need to know that if it were not for Islamic scholars, the writings of the ancient Greeks would have disappeared. Or if the Church had succeeded, Western philosophy would not exist. All of these things are as factual as the events described by the IPA's "research".

And the conservatives' views on how to read these books echoes the traditional church's way of reading the bible; not in a spirit of free thinking inquiry but in the way you are told to read them. Adler would never subscribe to such a view. To be sure, neither would Bloom or Calvino.

My point is that the Great Books are certainly great, but by themselves and not in opposition to some other books that might also be considered "great". Bloom argued that Islamic scholarship may rightly have a place in the "West", much like the history of Israel found a normative space in the IPA's "typical" list of historical events.

But scratch the surface and the classification of books that are great that happened to be written in the West are hardly the stuff of right wing conservatism. Karl Marx was German and is clearly a product of the West, but conservatives don't give socialism its rightful place in history, even though Hutchins and Adler certainly did.

It is a shame that the culture wars have interfered in a great idea that could have resulted in a Great Books degree in Australia that followed the liberal arts tradition. I hope it can still happen. But while the culture wars rage on, the best of the West has gone down the proverbial rabbit hole. In the meantime, the sentiments of Hutchins (as echoed by Adler and Bloom) are as relevant today as they ever were.

If I can offer any guidance to students who are attracted to the liberal arts tradition, it is this: Learn to think for yourself. Trust people but don't trust their knowledge. Be curious. Scratch the surface and challenge orthodoxy. Bloom did this; Hutchins and Alder encouraged it, the Enlightenment was about challenging orthodoxy, not about waging war against some other imagined civilisation. And remember these are "great books", not great weapons to be wielded against imagined adversaries. 

Liberal democracy is alive and well, if a little battered. The liberal arts tradition has been flogged by the alt-left and the alt-right, but it survives in the hearts of those who can see beyond the culture wars.


d'Abrera, B. (2017). The Rise Of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. Melbourne: Institute of Public Affairs.