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SOAS students have a point. Philosophy degrees should look beyond white Europeans

Tom Whyman in The Guardian

We all know what students are like nowadays, don’t we? Special snowflakes who can’t cope with the real world, who refuse to venture out of their safe spaces to learn anything, who are so achingly PC they won’t even let their institutions serve sushi in the cafeteria. When they’re not wasting their lives on social media or fighting for a fairer world for all, these mewling, overprivileged babies like to spend their time policing their academic superiors on their curriculum choices.

The latest scandal? Step forward SOAS, University of London students’ union, which has outraged basically every outlet in the rightwing press by calling, astonishingly enough, for such great philosophers as Kant, Plato and Descartes to be banned from the curriculum, just because they are white.

As part of a wider campaign to “decolonise” the curriculum, the union has proclaimed, “the majority of philosophers” taught at Soas should be from Africa or Asia, and – when the great names of European philosophy are taught, which is something that should only happen when absolutely necessary – it should be from a critical standpoint, accounting for (for instance) the colonial context in which Enlightenment thought arose.

Read the news articles on this story and you’d be convinced that some great act of intellectual barbarism was about to take place. But in truth, the notion that anything untoward is going on here is mostly nonsense.

Allow me to explain. First, it must be noted that despite the headlines no one, at any point, has actually called for white philosophers to be dropped from the curriculum at SOAS. Even at its most extreme, all the SOAS students’ union demands (and note that their demand has no binding force whatsoever) is that European philosophers only be taught in preference to African and Asian ones when necessary. Adopting this principle, if it turns out that say, Kant, has expressed some insight that is vital for understanding some aspect of reality, then he should be allowed to remain in the curriculum.

This seems fair: there’s only so much thought one can study as an undergraduate, and students should have a right to not waste their time on any second-rate thinkers who happen to have snuck themselves into the western canon. If we’re going to teach philosophy at a university, then it seems more than worthwhile to critically reflect on which philosophers we’re focusing on, and why. Indeed, this is something that Kant himself, whose mature work is pitched against dogmatism in all its forms, would welcome.

Second, philosophers should also welcome the demand that European philosophy be studied in its appropriate social and historical context. This doesn’t just mean PC hand-wringing: it can be used to actively enrich our understanding of these texts. Consider an example such as Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes – one of the founding documents of western political thought. Hobbes argues that we need a state authority invested with absolute power – because otherwise society would collapse into what he calls “the state of nature”, where no one has any security and life is nasty, brutish and short. The state of nature is often called a fiction, but if you read Leviathan closely you’ll notice that Hobbes is actually getting it from early anthropological accounts of Native American civilisation, which he describes as being devoid of any understanding of law. This of course is deeply problematic – and it’s exactly the sort of point that, if we understand it in its proper context, can allow us to get a better, richer understanding of Hobbes (and obtain a better understanding of our social world in general).

Third, even if the SOAS students had demanded that all white philosophers be banned from the curriculum, it’s still unclear to me how much would actually be lost. You wouldn’t know it from reading any of the other news articles on this topic, but SOAS doesn’t actually have a philosophy department – and nor does it offer a BA degree in philosophy. Rather, SOAS offers a BA in world philosophies, which is run by the department of religions and philosophies. Given the nature of this course and the nature of SOAS as an institution, it makes complete sense for the students to want to study more African and Asian thought at the expense of European. Of course if nearby Birkbeck decided to purge its curriculum of European thought, that would be an entirely different issue. But these matters are context-sensitive, and diversity across curricula should be welcomed.

Finally, the stereotype of students as easily “triggered” special snowflakes who use political correctness to police their teachers is one I simply don’t recognise. Most of the students I’ve encountered as a university lecturer are bright, engaged and want to be challenged. And to be honest, that’s something I recognise in the statement issued by the SOAS students as well. This oh-so-scandalising statement reads to me like it must have been produced by students who are deeply invested in their course and care passionately about what they study. As educators we have a duty to respond to and nurture this passion.