Are Humanities and Social Sciences Biased against the West?

The Institute of Public Affairs – the self-styled “voice for freedom” – has carried out an “audit” of humanities and social science courses offered at 10 Australian universities that has been widely promoted in the News Corp press. The audit’s central conclusion is that “humanities are no longer concerned with the intellectual and cultural inheritance of Western Civilisation.”

“Academics have turned the humanities into a political project which seeks to replace the values and institutions of Western civilisation with a fatal combination of nihilism and anarchy,” according to Dr d’Abrera of the institute. The “heritage of Western civilisation” has supposedly been “replaced” by “identity politics” and “divisive” ideas like race, gender and class.

Ironically for a piece decrying the collapse of the “traditional” foundations of these disciplines – for example, the claim that sociology, English and philosophy are now all taught the same way – IPA’s “research” doesn’t offer a single word on its own methods or methodology. Instead, it warns that hundreds of the 1,171 subjects on offer “treat” issues including “gender,” “race” and “class.” 

Does a subject qualify as “treating” gender if it includes a work by Jane Austen? Or does it have to have 13 consecutive weeks of radical feminism? Who knows…

Of course, when echoed in The Australian, reportage of the IPA audit contains some amusing, blatant absurdities. My favourite was a quote from Dr Kevin Donnelly of Australian Catholic University, who decried the “neo-Marxist-inspired mind control and group think” in the humanities and social sciences. Little does he realise how opposed to one another Marxist and identity-politics liberals really are.

I also had a good chuckle at the concern expressed about philosophy students debating biological versus social construction of gender. This was in a course titled, “Race and Gender: Philosophical Issues.”

Anyone who is genuinely curious can see for themselves how, for example, The University of Sydney’s history department subjects are, in fact, still remarkably Eurocentric. There are no courses specifically focused on the history of Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America or Australian indigenous people.

Students can learn about these areas in tremendous programs in area studies and anthropology. In order to understand society, culture and history in these places, we make explicit comparison with the Western conceptual legacy – freedom, individual, body, agency, structure, community, society, nation – the implications of these terms, and their relevance or otherwise to other contexts. So “the intellectual and cultural inheritance of Western civilisation” will never vanish, because it is in the very words that we use to make meaning.

Sadly, in the facile culture wars the idea of Western civilisation is more prominent than debates about its actual content.