Bouvines, Magna Carta, and Why Medieval History Matters

by Institute of Public Affairs on August 5, 2014

According to the 2014 poll by the Lowy Institute, only 42% of young Australians between the ages of 18 and 29 believe ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’.

It may be because many of them don’t know where democracy came from, since some of the most important aspects of Western history are no longer taught at university let alone at school.

The medieval period, for example, gave us the rule of law, parliament, and the concept of the individual. But despite its importance, it is frequently left out of Australian university handbooks. In fact, surprising though it may seem, it currently ranks as the least popular historical period in academia.


There are 39 universities in Australia. Of these, 32 offer a history major as part of their Arts degree. Overall, we estimate that these universities together offer over 750 history subjects. Out of these, only 36 subjects on medieval history are on offer this year.

Out of those 36 subjects are sweeping overviews of most of the medieval period – like this one at Monash University – and subjects on more specialised subjects – including the University of Melbourne’s ‘War, Plague and Heresy‘ (its only medieval history subject) or the University of Western Australia’s subject on ‘The Vikings’. Fourteen of them are about heresywitchcraftwomen, and other very nuanced aspects of medieval culture. But there are no subjects specifically about medieval England.

By coincidence, we just passed a significant medieval milestone. 800 years ago last Sunday, on 27 July 1214, various European armies allied to England were dealt a devastating defeat in the field of Bouvines, Flanders.

Bouvines was a momentous event in English history – in fact, one historian in this article described it as ‘the most important battle in English history that no-one has ever heard of.’

Not only was it the death blow to ‘England’s’ continental (Angevin) Empire, but the disaster at Bouvines enraged the English barons at home and placed them on the verge of revolt.

It set in motion a rapid sequence of events that ended in June 1215 with the famous meeting at Runnymede meadow, when King John was forced to set his seal to a draft Charter that protected the powers of the barons, the freedom of English towns and the Church, and – most importantly – a promise to comply with the ‘laws of the land’.

As historian Ralph V. Turner (the writer of this book) explains inthis article, the completed version of the document – now remembered as Magna Carta – is often remembered as the beginning of the road to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

As Daniel Hannan said in this compelling speech to the Freedom Association, though it was originally a failed peace treaty, it quickly became a powerful symbol of liberty.

Within decades of Runnymede, it was already being evoked by individuals as a protection against arbitrary rule. In 1258, it inspired another group of barons, led by Simon de Montfort, to force King Henry III to assent to a number of further reforms that limited his power and established two regular parliaments. Though most of these reforms were revoked after de Montfort was killed in a civil war, this period of radical reform left a permanent mark on English politics. During the reign of Henry’s son, Edward I, parliament meetings became a regular occurrence for the first time.

Over the fourteenth century, Magna Carta directly inspired developments in the due process of law and the concept of a fair trial, particularly through the famous Six Statutes of Edward III. After its ‘rediscovery’ in the early modern era, it also inspired generations of jurists, philosophers and reformers, and thus was foundational to Western democracy and the rule of law.

Next year will mark the 800 years since Runnymede, and celebrations are already underway across the English-speaking world. In England itself, the Magna Carta 2015 Committee has been set up to promote the anniversary celebrations. One copy of Magna Carta is currently touring in Boston. And the Church of England also has plans to commemorate the anniversary.

Unfortunately, if you wish to study the origins of the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, or the concept of the individual, you would be very fortunate indeed to find a university in Australia that still offers such subjects.

Reading, Watching and Listening

The Battle of Bouvines wasn’t the only milestone to pass within the last week. Another important anniversary – which you are much more likely to have heard about – passed yesterday: 100 years since Great Britain entered the First World War.

Here is a useful timeline of the events of the War. And here is an interesting article from Quadrant on the reasons for its outbreak. Expect more in the next issue of Horizons.

Earlier this month, the English conservative government ‘demoted’ Michael Gove from his previous position as Education Secretary.

The May edition of Horizons discussed the controversy that arose after rumour got out that Gove was trying to ‘ban’ To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from schools (he removed neither; here is an article on the issue from The Spectator andhere is Gove’s response in The Telegraph.)

His four years as Education Secretary have indeed been controversial. This article by Robert Peal from Standpoint argues that he is ‘the most dynamic education secretary… [England] has ever seen.’ Here is another article on his legacy in education.

Last month in Horizons, I argued that school Latin is not ‘nostalgic fantasy’ and that it can be valuable to students in all schools of all sectors.

This very encouraging article is about Haberfield Public School – a small government primary school in NSW which is about to introduce Latin. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the response so far has been fantastic:

There was so much interest in learning Latin at Haberfield Public School that when the idea was first mooted with parents last term, more than 160 students put their hands up, far more than the three classes the school could accommodate.

Earlier this year, a new book containing selected writings of the English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott –Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922-86 – was published by Imprint Academic. You can read an informative review and an overview of Oakeshott’s life by John Gray here, from Literary Review.

Earlier this month, I argued in The Australian ($) that the English curriculum for all Australian students should not be left to a small group of hand-picked ‘experts.’ I pointed to our existing English curriculum, with its lack of Western literature and grammar content, as an example of what happens when the experts have their way.

The next day, a response ($) was published in The Australian from Mr. Gary Collins, the President of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE).

AATE was one of the key groups involved in creating English for the Australian Curriculum – a government-funded resource which provides materials for ‘English’, including outlines for units like “Living with trash,” “Consumer culture,” and “Protest.” You can view it here.

Mr. Collins kindly sent us the full unedited version of his letter. A part of it is excerpted below.

…Later in the piece, Forrest asks where writers like Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens are to be found in the curriculum…

Most works by Milton or Dickens would be best left to Years 11 and 12 and even there they need to be carefully chosen. I’m currently participating in a book club reading of Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son but 35 years in high school English classrooms tells me that I could never have successfully sold it to the majority of teenagers [emphasis added].

This illustrates the problem perfectly. It is a shame that some people have so little faith in school students that they don’t consider them capable of appreciating the great English literary Classics. If they never have the support, encouragement, or opportunity to read Dickens, then of course it will be difficult to ‘sell’ it to them!

On that note, the UK government recently published the new updated GCSE reading list for English Literature (for students aged 15-16). Scroll down to page 14, and you will find that works like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and (indeed!) Great Expectations are prescribed texts, along with various plays by Shakespeare.

Apparently teenagers in the UK are considered capable of reading Dickens, unlike their Australian counterparts.

Why school Latin is not “nostalgic fantasy”

Christopher Pyne’s recent announcement that Latin will be one of the 11 languages other than English covered in the national curriculum is encouraging.

Not everyone, however, has been celebrating. Ten days ago, The Courier Mail in Queensland ran headlines labeling the move “absurdus maximus.”

According to journalist Tanya Chilcott, it is “patently absurd” to place a dead, “irrelevant” language like Latin on the curriculum alongside major world languages like Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic.


And Van Badham in this article in The Guardian is also clearly opposed to the move. She describes Pyne’s move as “the Coalition’s latest nostalgic fancy” and even claims, “Latin and Greek are a means of demarcating privilege through a shared language of educational exclusivity.”

This is not the case. In fact, Latin is taught to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in struggling schools in inner-city London because it instils the very skills that overcome disadvantage.

In Victoria, Latin is currently offered by a number of different schools, ranging from Melbourne Girls Grammar, to Alia College, to Dandenong High School.

In this article ($), Yasmin Haskell, a Classicist from the University of Western Australia, argues that studying Latin opens up “a dizzying double vision of familiarity and unfamiliarity.”

As this article from The Spectator and this one from The New York Times argue, studying Latin can have many benefits.

Reading, Watching, Listening

This month, John Roskam wrote this article in The Australian Financial Review ($) on taxpayer-funding of arts degrees.

There were a number of responses, including this one – again by Yasmin Haskell, the Classicist who wrote one of the pieces on Latin above. She asks ironically, “what public benefit can flow from our young people studying Plato, Virgil, Shakespeare, Goethe, John Locke, Adam Smith, or god forbid, old Javanese?”

We couldn’t agree more – students should study Plato, Virgil and, Shakespeare. The problem is, relatively few humanities faculties across Australia still offer units on them anyway. Instead, most have a variety of equally-subsidised ‘social studies’ units.

Dan Hannan wrote two fascinating and very relevant articles for The Telegraph this month. In this one, he discusses the slow decline of the UK Liberal Democrats and the reasons for their crushing defeat in the recent EU elections. (For more on this, see Nick Cater’s recent piece here ($)).

In this one, Dan discusses the legacy of Magna Carta. Responding to this article by Owen Jones, he describes it as “the Anglosphere’s defining text” and “the Torah of the English-speaking peoples – the text that sets us apart while, at the same time, speaking universal truths about the human race.”

Last of all for this month is this fascinating essay on the success and future prospects of Western Civilisation by Bryan Caplan from George Mason University, published on Library of Economics and Liberty.

On 5 June 2014, my article – “Who put the Ramayana, not Dickens, in curriculums” – was published in The Australian. In it, I argued that the English curriculum for all Australian students should not be left to a small group of hand-picked ‘experts’ and pointed to the lack of grammar and literature coverage in the existing Australian Curriculum for English.

On 6 June, a response ($) was published in The Australian from Mr. Garry Collins, the President of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English.

Due to changes made by editors at The Australian, he kindly forwarded us the full unedited version of his letter. It is pasted below for your interest.

IPA research scholar Stephanie Forrest writes that the coverage of grammar in the Foundation to Year 10 national English curriculum is “sketchy” (“Who put the Ramayana, not Dickens, in curriculums”, 5/6). I can only conclude that she must have been looking at a different document from the one on the website of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.

Most people familiar with the curriculum agree that one of its notable features is the degree of detail on grammar to be found in the Language strand. And it is a sensible approach to grammar that focuses on how different choices from the language system produce different kinds of meaning.

Later in the piece, Forrest asks where writers likeShakespeare, Milton and Dickens are to be found in the curriculum. My observation is that plays likeRomeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are often taught with junior secondary English classes. Most works by Milton or Dickens would be best left to Years 11 and 12 and even there they need to be carefully chosen. I’m currently participating in a book club reading of Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son but 35 years in high school English classrooms tells me that I could never have successfully sold it to the majority of teenagers.

Perhaps Forrest knows better, but her biographical details on the IPA website indicate that her 2013 BA Honours degree was in classics and history and there is no mention of her ever having been a high school English teacher.

Garry Collins

President, Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE)

Paternalism a public-free zone: Janet Albrechtsen

by Institute of Public Affairs on June 4, 2014

This morning, Janet Albrechtsen published an excellent piece on about the rise of paternalism in Western society, in which she commented on the appearance of protesters from the Socialist Alternative at last month’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium.

If you subscribe to The Australian online, you can view the full article here. Otherwise, the first paragraphs are posted below:

Last month, students from the Socialist Alternative tried to gate-crash a conference in Melbourne on Western civilisation. John Roskam, the ever-so-polite head of the Institute of Public Affairs hosting the event, spoke with them outside, asking what they wanted.

Optimistically, Roskam hoped they might want to learn about Western civilisation. Sarah Garnham, the young woman speaking on behalf of the young socialists, insisted she wanted to talk to federal education minister David Kemp. Huh? When Roskam pointed out that Kemp had not been federal education minister for about 13 years, the young socialist muttered about him writing a report about education reform. Sadly, fuelled by hip-pocket outrage, she and her comrades were not interested in ideas of Western progress — only shouting down the free speech of others with their own rowdy voices.

But, then, they are not alone. Even bigger ideas of Western progress are not revered as they once were. According to the latest Lowy Institute survey, only 42 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 years believe that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’’. And, depressingly, that’s down from 48 per cent last year.

While Australia is not about to be overrun by a socialist system of government, there is a 21st-century form of tyranny emerging. It is, as David Gadiel from the Centre for Independent Studies said, the tyranny of paternalism. From health and education to human rights, large swaths of social policy are being delegated by parliament to unelected bureaucrats at the expense of democracy. From regulations about swimming pool fences to diktats about the number of pain relief tablets you can buy at a supermarket, here is rule by the anti-democrats. And as the power of bureaucracies expands, our power as citizens shrinks.

This rising paternalism is the antithesis of Edmund Burke’s notion of civil society. Instead of Burke’s little platoons of family and community, woven together by the collective wisdom of people, of experience, of tradition and custom, the new paternalism is a form of mob rule by the claimed wisdom of the political class over the rest of society.

The Left has always understood that getting, holding and growing its power through unelected bureaucracies is critical to creating a public-free zone where real power vests in the closed world of bureaucrats, judges and other elites. But the paternalistic zeal is no longer solely a leftist pursuit: it has become the schema of the broader political class.

westciv-emailThe Foundations of Western Civilisation Program was founded in 2010 to defend the values and the heritage of Western Civilisation.

We owe many aspects of our free society – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the rule of law, and parliamentary democracy – to the legacy of Western Civilisation, and traditions and institutions that have evolved over a long history spanning several centuries.

This legacy is precious, but vulnerable. In the twenty-first century, there is a tendency for many Australians to take the traditions of Western Civilisation for granted.

The Program has already involved the publication of many important books and research monographs, including In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt and100 Great Books of Liberty.

To make a tax-deductible donation in support of theFoundations of Western Civilisation Programclick here.

‘Liberty and Democracy in Western Civilisation’ Symposium – Videos now online

The 2014 Western Civilisation Symposium, ‘Liberty and Democracy in Western Civilisation,’ was a great success. Thank you to everyone who attended.
In case you missed out, the full videos for the symposium are now online.


Here are some highlights: the keynote address by English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton; Q&A panel with Roger Scruton, Andrew Bolt and John Roskam; panel discussionfeaturing Nick Cater, Claudio Véliz, and Jennifer Oriel; and Janet Albrechtsen talking about the dangers of big government.

Roger Scruton visited Australia as a guest of Campion College and the Institute of Public Affairs. During his short stay, he made a number of appearances in the media. You can hear him on ABC local radio here in an excellent interview with Richard Fidler.

He also appears on this episode of the Bolt Report and on this episode of The Miranda Devine Show at 0:57:45.

Here is a review of Roger’s latest book – The Soul of the World – from The Wall Street Journal ($). And here is a review fromForbes of another recent book, Notes from Underground – a fictional novel based on his experiences working underground in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.

Reading, Watching and Listening

On Tuesday 6 May, Dr. David Kemp delivered the 47th Alfred Deakin Lecture at the University of Melbourne on liberalism and good government. You can read the speech here.

Dr. Kemp also appeared on the final panel discussion at the Symposium on 9 May, where he, Professor Greg Melleuish of the University of Wollongong and Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson discussed the future of freedom in Australia.

The future of freedom is certainly a topic that has been discussed in symposia before. Recently, some rare recordings were discovered of the First National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society (1965), which includes lectures by Milton Friedman, Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk. You can listen to their speecheshere.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove shocked the left-wing academia after a rumour arose that he had removed To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE reading list.

The media controversy has blown out of proportion, with some commentators even accusing Gove of ‘banning’ these books from classrooms.

As it turns out, the rumours aren’t even true. You can read Gove’s response to the accusations here.

Following Gove’s review, GCSE English Literature students will be required to study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail, including at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry, and diction or drama from the British Isles written after 1914, all of which need to have been originally written in English. Which makes sense, given that this is, after all, an English Literature curriculum.

Meanwhile in Australia, we don’t even have a reading list for 15-16 year olds – though we do have a counter-productive, jargon-drenched and vague English curriculum that strongly emphasises cultural differences, different languages, and ‘texts’ from other cultures (many of which were not originally written in English).