Bad ideas flourish in dark places. The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017, released on Monday by the Institute of Public Affairs, exposes the dirty little secret about history teaching in Australian universities. Rather than rigorous learning about important historical events that underpin our democracy, history teaching in this country is drenched in identity politics.
Worse, this distortion of history into political ideology is a bellwether of a more profound political disorder that threatens the future of our Australian liberal project.
In a healthy liberal democracy, we contest ideas and we know our democracy is in good shape when the best ideas triumph and the bad ones are sent packing. The Berlin Wall wasn’t dismantled by soldiers but by ideas about individual freedom that appealed more than communism. Today a different menace threatens our democratic health, one that seeks to dismantle our tool for trouncing bad ideas. We’re not just quibbling over different ideas; we’re also arguing over the value of having a healthy contest of ideas. Skewed history teaching is symptomatic of a contest that will determine the future of our democratic project.
The audit by Bella d’Abrera — director of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program and who has a PhD in history from Cambridge University — of 746 history subjects taught across 35 Australian universities found that more subjects (244) focus on the politics of indigenous issues, other race topics, questions of gender, environment and identity than the story of Western civilisation. More history subjects mention race than the Enlightenment by a factor of four to one. The Reformation is cited in only 12 of the 746 subjects and liberalism is mentioned only seven times. More subjects reference Islam than Christianity.
Drawing on work done by British historian Niall Ferguson, who is professor of history at Harvard University, the IPA prepared a list of 20 core topics in the history of Western civilisation. They include ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, any period of British history, the US revolution, the industrial revolution, Nazism, fascism, communism and the Cold War, and more. The IPA audit found a strong focus on ancient Greece and ancient Rome and the 20th century, “while the events of the intervening millennia are relatively neglected”. In other words, the great historical heritage that built our liberal democracy is not offered by many history departments.
Writing online for The Conversation on Thursday, Trevor Burnard, head of school and professor of history at University of Melbourne, rebuked the audit as misguided, arguing that history departments faced two problems: limited funding and students who weren’t interested in Western civilisation. Referring to his own speciality, Burnard wrote: “The reason British history is less taught now than it once was has little to do with politics, and everything to do with student preferences. I would love for students to be fascinated in what I am interested in. Some are. But most aren’t.”
If students arrive at university with little curiosity about the historical triumph of freedom, it’s because we haven’t passed on that legacy to them. Students aren’t taught the astonishing story of Western civilisation at school or university. And the adult realm of politics is equally useless.
As IPA executive director John Roskam writes in Audit of History Teaching, we’re in trouble when a senior Liberal MP, federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, waves away the most fundamental freedom in a liberal democracy, freedom of expression, as something that “doesn’t create a single job (and) doesn’t open a business”.
When Gillian Triggs, the former boss of the Australian Human Rights Commission entrusted to defend fundamental freedoms, scolded Australia as a country where “Sadly, you can say what you like around the kitchen table at home”, we’re in double trouble.
And taxpayer-funded public broadcaster ABC, committed to all kinds of diversity except a diversity of voices, signals a preference for ideological homogeneity, not a healthy contest of ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment.
As Roskam says, this contest of ideas gave us a “legacy of liberty, of inquiry, of toleration, of religious plurality, and of social and economic freedom. Western civilisation pioneered the recognition of universal human rights.” He quotes Rufus Black, the master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, in The Importance of a Liberal and Sciences Education: “The triumph of freedom and reason is not a law of physics, it is just an idea that has captured our minds for a tiny period of human history. There is no certainty it will continue to do so unless we choose to argue for its values and ensure that we pass it on as it was passed on to us, hard won from authoritarian rule of many forms.”
The historic battles, physical and metaphysical, that shaped our modern liberal project, where we are all equal, regardless of skin colour, creed, sex or sexuality, should be the foundation stone of every history department across Australian campuses. Instead, history teaching is mired in the politics of race, sex, sexuality and identity.
This intellectual regression has its roots in postmodernism, and identity politics has become its political arm. Under the dishonest rubric of “progressive” politics, postmodernism cemented into universities the notion that history and language are corrupted by those who hold power. Ergo history needs to be told through the lens of oppression and language needs to be proscribed to protect victims of the oppressors.
Under the same sham of protecting people, universities are now cottonwool campuses. Last week at Cambridge University, students were given a trigger warning about Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus. The Bard’s work has been added to a growing list of literature — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Ovid and Euripides — now deemed offensive by coddled students and muddled academics. Last week To Kill a Mockingbird was removed from a school district in Mississippi because it also offends students. A decade ago, this anti-intellectualism would have been unthinkable.
Determined to police words and speech, proponents of identity politics label opponents as racists, sexists, misogynists, homophobes and Nazis. The aim is to drive a spoke into that critical piece of intellectual machinery known as the marketplace of ideas because critical thinking threatens their regressive ideas.
Worse, the demand of identity politics that people be treated differently according to race, sex, sexuality and other forms of identity threatens the core premise of our liberal project that all individuals are of equal moral worth. It’s a staggering inversion of the great civil rights battles of the past century, and a reminder that when people are ill-informed about the past, they are likelier to embrace a less liberal future. The latest Lowy Institute Poll where only 52 per cent of people aged 18 to 29 believe that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government” is not shocking, it’s inevitable.
Halting the momentum of regressive identity politics depends on an intellectual army of iconoclasts who understand that the story of our liberal project must be learned, defended and passed on to the next generation. We need free thinkers such as Camille Paglia, the feminist who, this month, exposed how women’s and gender studies departments came to be “frozen at a certain point of ideology in the 1970s”. Only a radical will ask, what has gender studies contributed to the sum of human knowledge? And rebels such as Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist leading the push for universities to reclaim their positions as places of intellectual curiosity. And Lionel Shriver, too, the American author who exposed the fundamental flaw of identity politics during her past visit to Australia: “I don’t believe that membership of a larger group constitutes identity. I don’t think being female provides me with an identity. I don’t think it means that I have a character. That’s not my idea of what character is.”
In his recent book, The Strange Death of Europe, British author Douglas Murray traces the triumph of cultural masochists — “only the nations of Europe and their descendants allow themselves to be judged by their lowest moments”. This pathology of guilt has led to a “guilty, jaded and dying culture” in Europe and this virus is spreading across the West.
And let’s not mince words. When the heritage of Western civilisation is devalued in Australian schools and university history departments, debased by our political parties and human rights bureaucracies, and snubbed by sections of the media too, it becomes a numbers game. I joined the IPA years ago because the voices of freedom need critical mass so that the virtues of freedom can be nurtured, defended and passed on to the next generation to do the same. The way forward is to instil in each generation an understanding that our great inheritance comes from the story of Western civilisation. That’s why Roskam and his team at the IPA are engaged in this critical contest of ideas that must not be dismantled by the self-loathing politics of identity. Consider this a call to arms.
Originally published 21/10/17