Universities are facing new demands that students be protected from required reading of white authors or that departments take steps to combat white dominance, particularly in English departments. We have previously discussed demands at Yale of English students to eliminate the requirement of reading white authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare. Then there were the Penn students in the English department removing the portrait of Shakespeare and replacing it with a black writer. Now students at the respected University of London are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant be removed from philosophy courses in favor of minority writers. Before these students destroy one of the best university systems in the world, they may want to at least consider a Descartes quote: “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)’s student union reportedly has demanded that students should be taught philosophy in a way that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” are from Africa and Asia.
The student union at SOAS insists that many of these philosophers were the product of colonial discrimination and privilege and that departments must now “decolonize” the curriculum and any teaching of “white philosophers” from the Enlightenment should be taught from a “critical standpoint.”
Here is the section from the SOAS proposal that has attracted the most attention:
Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution:
Decolonising SOAS is a campaign that aims to address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism within our university. We believe that SOAS should take a lead on such questions given its unique history within British colonialism. In light of the centenary and SOAS’ aims of curating a vision for itself for the next 100 years, this conversation is pivotal for its future direction.
Our aims are a continuation of the campaign last year:
To hold events that will engage in a wider discussion about expressions of racial and economic inequality at the university, focussing on SOAS.
To address histories of erasure prevalent in the curriculum with a particular focus on SOAS’ colonial origins and present alternative ways of knowing.
To interrogate SOAS’ self-image as progressive and diverse.
To use the centenary year as a point of intervention to discuss how the university must move forward and demand that we, as students of colour, are involved in the curriculum review process.
To review 10 first year courses, working with academics to discuss points of revamp, reform and in some cases overhaul.
To make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).
If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.
In the end, the content of these courses is a matter of academic freedom, though many scholars do teach the context of writings as part of understanding the writers. However, demanding that the majority of philosophers be non-white is itself racist and artificial. Plato, Aristotle, and others were vital parts of the foundation for Western thought.
The SOAS proposal comes at a precarious time for English universities, as discussed today. England is considering a rating system for universities driven by the popularity of courses or schools — pushing schools further toward a market-driven model of education and away from classic high education training.