Millions Of Students Fail To Protest Curriculum (updated)

Millions of college students over the past decade have not protested their curricular requirements or assigned readings, a new study reports. The study, by Daryl B.X. Sepshuns and Yuall Nothis (both of Common Sense University) was published as news was breaking of students making unusual academic demands of their schools.

Sepshuns and Nothis write that “something like 98%” of college students will quietly accept that their professors “know their shit.” Their study confirms the results of every previous study on this topic. This remarkable uniformity may perhaps be “the most agreed upon finding among professors, now that you mention it,” according to one observer.

Such research is hard to square with recent headlines in major news outlets—such as The Telegraph reporting that “University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white,” The Times reporting “Great thinkers too male and pale, students declare,” and The National Post reporting that “Students demand Plato, Descartes and other white philosophers be dropped from curriculum“—until one realizes these are all about one set of students at one school.

The students are at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). They have published a list of “changes” that they “want to see in educational policy at SOAS.” The part of their list getting a lot of attention falls under the heading of “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:

  1. To hold events that will engage in a wider discussion about expressions of racial and economic inequality at the university, focussing on SOAS.
  2. To address histories of erasure prevalent in the curriculum with a particular focus on SOAS’ colonial origins and present alternative ways of knowing.  
  3. To interrogate SOAS’ self-image as progressive and diverse.
  4. 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.
  5. To review 10 first year courses, working with academics to discuss points of revamp, reform and in some cases overhaul.  
  6. 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).
  7. 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.

You can see exactly where they demand that Plato, Descartes, and Kant not be taught, right at lines 6.5 and 8.

In The Daily Mail, philosopher Roger Scruton is quoted on the controversy:

This suggests ignorance and a determination not to overcome that ignorance. You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy. If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.

Scruton was polite enough to not ask The Daily Mail to get their facts straight before asking him a question. The Daily Mail returned the favor by not asking for Scruton’s thoughts on the recently published Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press), a collection of essays edited by Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi.

In a comment on this post, someone who uses a pseudonym will link to what is by now one of a familiar set of stories in which 18-21 year-olds say something about their school that sounds silly to older people. Another pseudonymous commenter will take the story about the SOAS students as evidence of the PC-fication of the modern university, despite the fact that the demands are not likely to become school policy (Erica Hunter, head of SOAS’s Religions and Philosophies department, tells The Telegraph that the students’ viewpoint was “rather ridiculous” and that “I would firmly resist dropping philosophers or historians just because it was fashionable.”)

In an email, Sepshuns and Nothis expressed dismay about the relative lack of attention their work was getting. “This may be the one time philosophy is getting more attention than science in the news.” A philosopher who prefers to remain anonymous adds, “too bad it’s mostly fake.”

Look at them, just sitting there.

(Thanks to Kathryn Pogin for bringing the SOAS story to my attention.)

UPDATE 1: The students at SOAS involved in requesting the aforementioned changes have a Facebook page. Among other things, they write:

Press coverage on the Decolonising campaign at SOAS has focused on the so called “banning” and “removal” of thinkers from [syllabi]. This is a gross misrepresentation of the campaign. We are not asking for thinkers to be removed, but to be studied in their appropriate contexts and for our curricula to encompass perspectives which reflect the diversity of the world we live in. We do not seek to limit access to knowledge but instead interrogate the ways knowledge is produced and taught. This is not the gagging of free speech or free thought but exactly the opposite, a call to open up our syllabuses by campaigning for a critical examination of colonial histories and how these have led to the construction of our curricula today.

UPDATE 2: Sian Hawthorne, a faculty member in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, posts a response by the instructors of the World Philosophies program at the school:

Our response to various media reports about philosophy at SOAS: On the question of ‘Decolonising the Curriculum at SOAS’:

Those of us teaching on the SOAS BA World Philosophies programme welcome the recent press interest in the debates concerning ‘decolonising the curriculum’. These debates challenge both students and staff to think critically about the contexts and purposes of the production of knowledge and its institutional dissemination. However, given the inaccuracy of some media reports, it is important that we clarify that there is no question of ‘white philosophers’ being removed from the curriculum at SOAS; Plato and Kant will remain at the table. Yet beside them, now, thinkers from the rich and longstanding non-Western philosophical traditions of Asia and Africa are taking their rightful places.

We begin with a pointed question: given Kant’s dictum ‘dare to know’, why have these philosophical traditions been routinely excluded from mainstream philosophy curricula in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and the United States? It is a lacuna in many philosophy programmes that students do not learn about Arabic philosophers such as al-Fārābī, Avicenna and Averroes who, apart from their major contributions within their own immediate intellectual contexts, also had a significant impact on the Western natural philosophy, metaphysics, logic and ethics. Even more rarely do students learn of such thinkers as the Buddhist Nāgārjuna (2nd century CE), whose analysis has points of contact with contemporary debates concerning the nature of causality and relativity in speculative and critical realisms, or the Indian logicians Diṅnaga (5-6th century CE), Uddyotakāra (6th century CE), and Gaṅgeśa (c. 12th century CE), who along with many others developed a system of Indian logic to be set beside those not only of Aristotle or the Stoics, but of Frege and Russell. Similarly, the deep philosophical thought developed over the course of thousands of years in China can go without a mention in many a Western Philosophy curriculum. Philosophy students should be encouraged to engage with the challenging work of thinkers like Kwami Anthony Appiah, Franz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Enrique Dussell and Walter Mignolo just as they do with Parfit and Strawson. Should we not all be in the business of engaging, to quote Nietzsche, with ‘what may be thought against our thought’?

It is not merely that students should be exposed to non-Western philosophical traditions. Any critical thinker will want to ask how it could be that the great European philosophers of the Enlightenment could write so profoundly about the liberating potential of knowledge, could hail the slogan of the French Revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, at the very same moment that Europe was colonising much of the globe and participating in the slave trade. Yet decolonising Philosophy is not simply a matter of critique. We mustn’t get stuck there. As we see it, decolonisation is fundamentally about the practice of dialogue; it is a working towards what Hans-Georg Gadamer called ‘the fusion of horizons’ by which understanding across boundaries becomes possible.

BA World Philosophies at SOAS is a unique programme that has been developed to promote philosophical dialogue between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Our students are exposed to both European and non-European intellectual systems, engaging with Kant and Confucius, Aquinas and Appiah and building dialogues between diverse wisdom traditions. The intellectual focus of the degree is on ensuring that our students examine philosophy and philosophical questions in a critical and inclusive way. Our students are given a rare opportunity to become conversant with the systems of epistemology, logic, metaphysics and ethics of a wider range of societies and historical contexts than those of the traditional philosophy graduate. Not only do we have a range of unparalleled expertise in the philosophical traditions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, SOAS offers a strong programme of teaching in this regard by lecturers as conversant in the Western canon as they are in their regional fields of expertise. Indeed, the core syllabus is devoted to identifying points of contact between disparate philosophical traditions — European, Anglophone, and non-European — organised around core philosophical questions, concepts, and approaches in logic, metaphysics, hermeneutics, semantics, and ethics.

In short, we who have developed the BA World Philosophies at SOAS reject the implication made recently by some that it is populist or faddish to develop curricula that are global in outlook, dialogic in nature, and fully and rigorously engaged in questions concerning the politics of knowledge. Rather, we consider it a matter of utmost intellectual integrity to insist on reading together philosophies ‘East’ and West’, and a moral imperative to facilitate free and vigorous dialogue between anyone who wishes to participate.

This post appeared on Facebook. (via John Protevi)

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