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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David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Can we now expect these Daily Nous stories (all figures from Sepshuns and Nothis 2016):

– 98% of philosophy instructors not fired to retaliate for their spouse’s complaint of sexual harassment (cf DN 12-19-16)
– 99% of philosophy PhDs aren’t in the alt-right (cf DN 12-16-16)
– 99.7% of philosophers aren’t required to hand over their passports when giving talks (cf DN 11-5-16)
– 97% of philosophy professors aren’t fired for refusing to lower their standards (cf DN 11-2-16)
– 99.5% of humanities centers not threatened with closure (cf DN 10-25-16)
– 99% of philosophy keynotes aren’t homophobic (cf DN 9-30-16)

Seriously, in each case I assume these stories were published because either (a) they’re of concern in themselves irrespective of the wider picture, and/or (b) they’re at least potentially illustrative of larger concerns (e.g., sexual harassment in the profession; financial pressures on universities; threats to academic freedom in post-Brexit Britain). Insofar as (a) applies to the SOAS story, the wider picture again doesn’t matter. Insofar as (b) does, genuine data about the prevalence or otherwise of similar incidents is relevant, but made-up data isn’t.

(I’m not intending to take a stand either on whether the SOAS demands were reasonable, or whether their content was accurately reported in the press.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Which is fair enough up to a point, but the overarching claim that stories like this are used to support is that a connected group of left-wing social-justice/political-correctness positions are increasingly posing a threat to academic freedom and academic rigor. (I’m not here endorsing the claim, to be clear). That claim is based on lots of anecdotes (e.g., Germaine Greer’s disinvitation, the Kristakis incident at Yale, Katherine Timpf’s column at National Review) rather than systematic data, but that’s also true of plenty of other philosophy-blogosphere issues (e.g. sexual harassment, the risk posed to instructors by armed students). I can see how the claim can be countered by *actual* statistics demonstrating that the anecdotes are highly unrepresentative. I can’t see how it can be countered by just asserting that they’re unrepresentative, with or without the framing device of obviously-fake statistics.

Incidentally, this isn’t a global disagreement with the OP. I agree, for instance, that the mere fact that a group of students say something silly or overstated (no! it can’t be!) is pretty irrelevant absent any evidence that it actually affects university policy.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Since you’ve already predetermined the set of comments you’re going to receive, why bother leaving the comment section open? Just write the comments yourself, and close this.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

It’s an attempt to erect a straw-man by implication, via satire and sarcasm, in order to lure people into arguing with you over whether “everything’s just fine” or not. There’s really nothing else to say about this piece.

And people wonder why I get so annoyed by this blog….Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

If you honestly wanted something better, you would have just asked for it, instead of “LOL check out all these herpdee-derp idiots! Now, all you herpdeederp idiots can comment on my blog post and I’ll LOL at you too!”Report

Klesh
Klesh
4 years ago

There’s a common genre of internet comment about how the website/blog you’re commenting on is a rubbishy waste of time. Is someone making them read the posts and comment, Clockwork-Orange-style? I mean, this is a philosophy blog; exercise your Radical Freedom and read something else if you don’t like it. Or hey, here’s a thought: instead of criticising how this philosophy blog isn’t run properly, open your own philosophy blog and do it right, as you see it! Sorry, shouting into the wind again. I’ll show myself out.Report

Glenn
Glenn
Reply to  Klesh
4 years ago

Tru dat yo!Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

I’m confused these days as to which individual incidents I’m supposed to find troubling and which I’m supposed to dismiss as isolated incidents of no importance. Can someone make a simple flowchart for me?Report

William Behun
William Behun
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

I doubt we could make it simple enough for you.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

I concede right away that dismissiveness is rarely a good response in any serious dialogue. However, Urstoff’s implication that this distinction is one that ought to be “simple” and that it ought to be a matter of mechanical criteria rather than one of judgement places it outside the realm of serious dialogue because the premise is absurd. This, I think that dismissiveness is appropriate. However, the question of how we discern which issues are isolated and which are indicative of a larger cultural tendency is an important one and deserves serious consideration.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Will Behun
4 years ago

So that’s a no on the flowchart, then?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

From the “About” page on the SOAS website:

“SOAS University of London is the only Higher Education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East.

SOAS is a remarkable institution. Uniquely combining language scholarship, disciplinary expertise and regional focus, it has the largest concentration in Europe of academic staff concerned with Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

On the one hand, this means that SOAS scholars grapple with pressing issues – democracy, development, human rights, identity, legal systems, poverty, religion, social change – confronting two-thirds of humankind while at the same time remaining guardians of specialised knowledge in languages and periods and regions not available anywhere else in the UK.

SOAS is synonymous with intellectual enquiry and achievement. As a global academic base and a crucial resource for London, SOAS is distinctively positioned to analyse, understand and explain some of the most challenging issues facing us in the world today.

Our academic focus on the languages, cultures and societies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East makes us an indispensable interpreter in a complex world.”

I find it really befuddling that students at an institution which, by its own lights, is focused on study of the language, cultures and societies of particular geographic regions, wanting their curriculum to reflect that in a particular discipline is news. Maybe how they are advocating for that to be achieved is misguided; maybe the institutional structure itself is misguided; but I think I’m actually more surprised that the majority of philosophers on their syllabi are not from these regions than I am that they want it that way, given the way the school describes itself.Report

Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper
4 years ago

None of the headlines quoted by Justin Weinberg support his suggestion that the media were extrapolating the behaviour of some SOAS students to academia more generally. If the articles beneath those headlines did so generalize, those articles should have been quoted here. And the Daily Mail’s supposed factual inaccuracies should have been provided. That would have made this squb about what actually happened here, not about JW’s hobbyhorses.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Chris Cooper
4 years ago

I can’t quite tell if you’re being serious or if you’re going for satire, so apologies if I’m being insulting by responding seriously, but the Daily Mail’s headline reads: “They Kant be serious! PC students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes be dropped from university syllabus ” and then Justin quoted what the students actually asked for (see 6 and 7 above), and sarcastically commented “You can see exactly where they demand that Plato, Descartes, and Kant not be taught, right at lines 6.5 and 8.”

So, he did point out at least some of the Daily Mail’s factual inaccuracies.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
4 years ago

I think part of the issue here is that the story has already made it into the media (I first saw it on a Twitter feed completely unrelated to philosophy). So the inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the issue in the mainstream media is of more concern than the debate itself. Which is not the case for a story about retaliation for sexual harassment that ran in Inside Higher Ed (or was it the Chronicle of Higher Education).

The Telegraph story is as inaccurate as the Daily Mail one, even if it has fewer exclamation points in the title.

Headline: “University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white.”
Body Text: “But students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.” (emphasis added)
…so even if the claim in the article were true, the headline reports it inaccurately. And, as Justin points out, the claim in the article is not true. The students did not say anything about Plato, Descartes, and Kant. And as Kathryn says, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the students to demand that the majority of the philosophers that they study be from the traditions that the school is devoted to. I suppose that there’s more room for debate about point 7, though again I don’t think it totally unreasonable for SOAS to look at the author of “On the Different Races of Man” in a critical context.

Anyhow I’m sure that the people who are het up about SOAS students not learning about Descartes, Kant, and Plato will happily donate to help SOAS hire someone to teach them, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone who specializes in those philosophers in the Religions and Philosophies department. (It’d be interesting to know what the students were concerned about, had any of the journalists writing about this bothered to contact them.)

Chris Cooper:
“If the articles beneath those headlines did so generalize, those articles should have been quoted here.”
I’m not sure it’s Justin’s obligation to provide the quotes when readers can click the links, but here’s such a generalization from the Telegraph:
“It comes after education leaders warned that universities will be forced to pander to the demands of ‘snowflake’ students, however unreasonable they might be.”
(The quotation marks in this sentence are dishonest, as the education leaders in question never used the word “snowflake,” at least not in the article being cited.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

I think it’s entirely plausible that the Telegraph is being dishonest, but to be fair to them, they’re reporting on a conversation between the Telegraph itself and a group of senior UK education figures, not on some conversation with a third party. So when the article cited says, in its first paragraph, “Universities will be forced to pander to the demands of ‘snowflake’ students if controversial changes to the ranking system are approved, education leaders have warned.”, it’s literally claiming that that’s what those education leaders said to the Telegraph reporter. Which for all we know, it was.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

No, that’s not how a reputable newspaper uses quotes. If you have interviewed a bunch of people who are speaking to you on the record, and one of them uttered a word that you want to put in quotation marks, then you include the quotation in which that person used the word. The Telegraph did this in the same article with the phrase “fantastically dangerous”; it quoted that phrase in the third paragraph, and then a couple paragraphs later gave a quotation from Baroness Wolf in which she used the phrase “fantastically dangerous.”

If one of their interviewees used the word “snowflake” but for some reason they didn’t want to use the entire quotation in which the word “snowflake” was used, then they should’ve attributed it to that interviewee. And if the person using the word “snowflake” was a senior UK figures who was not speaking for named attribution, then they should’ve attributed it to that person, as in the quotes attributed to “one Vice Chancellor” and “a senior academic.” These are all standard conventions that are familiar to any newspaper reader.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

I don’t really disagree. But your argument is really a reductio of the claim that the Telegraph is acting like a reputable newspaper in that story; it doesn’t specifically identify that its disreputability is in inventing a quote, rather than violating normal reporting conventions.

… but to be honest, I suspect you’re actually right that they’re being dishonest, or at least I have sufficiently little faith in the Telegraph these days not to be inclined to push the point further. Life’s too short to spend too much of it arguing against maybe-slightly-shaky arguments for very-probably-right conclusions.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

At least without getting a publication out of it!

(If I want to make my claim really precise, in the article about SOAS the Telegraph put the word “snowflake” in quotes while citing an article in which education leaders are not clearly quoted as using that word. OTOH it’s the same author so maybe she has inside information that the education leaders did actually use the word. OTOOH it’s not a reader’s job to construct stories about how the newspaper story they’re reading makes sense. But as you said, life’s too short.)Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
4 years ago

Apologies if this has been discussed (I haven’t read all the comments), but I mostly took issue with the following (I checked the statement right after reading the Mail piece because, well, they don’t call it the Daily Fail for nothing!):

“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).”

I don’t follow. If the objects of study at SOAS are the peoples and cultures of Asia and Africa, why does it follow that philosophers who are not of African or Asian origin couldn’t possibly provide a valuable philosophical framework for studying these peoples and cultures?

Does this, then, mean that someone from Africa or Asia shouldn’t/couldn’t provide the foundations of theories about Classical Greece or Rome? Would anyone be comfortable with asserting the following? “The focus of the department of Classical Studies is ancient Greece and Rome and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Greek and Roman philosophers [or their ‘heirs’, whoever they might be] (or the diaspora)”.

To demand that the existent diversity of philosophers be reflected in syllabi is reasonable. To claim that the “majority” of philosophers be “from the Global South or it’s (sic) diaspora” makes little sense.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

“Does this, then, mean that someone from Africa or Asia shouldn’t/couldn’t provide the foundations of theories about Classical Greece or Rome?”

No, but the students didn’t say that either.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

I know they didn’t! I’d hoped that it’d be clear that I was just offering an analogy; apparently not.

To be perfectly clear: it doesn’t follow from “we study peoples and cultures of region X” that “only philosophers from region X should be taught”. That was all I was trying to say. I just used Greece and Rome as an example…Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

Right, no, I understood! Sorry I wasn’t clear. I meant that in asking for the majority of the philosophers represented in the curriculum be from the regions they’re studying, they weren’t implying that only philosophers from those regions would have interesting or worthwhile thing to say about it (if they meant to imply that, better to ask that all be so). I think there’s lots of reasons to be skeptical about any particular quota (e.g., majority), but I also just wanted to voice that I really don’t think the students are saying that someone from another region couldn’t or shouldn’t philosophize about the culture, politics, language, etc. of another.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

They want the “majority” of philosophers to be from the global south. They claim that they study Africa and Asia, “therefore” the philosophers they study should be from that region.

I do not see at all how they are entitled to arrive at that conclusion.

Since when does one’s nationality equip (or fail to equip, since they’re not even sure that studying ‘white’ philosophers are necessary. See point 7) one to study the peoples and cultures of a particular region?Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

*”is”necessary not “are”Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

I take it that just as it would seem appropriate to make sure that women’s perspective are the focus of a women’s studies course, they think it’s appropriate for the perspectives of particular philosophers to be represented in a certain proportion in their curriculum given it’s focus. But analogously, if we suppose that women’s studies is appropriately (or at least permissibly) focused on women’s perspectives, of course men can, and have, written all sorts of deeply interesting work on gender, issues of particular relevance to women’s experiences, etc, and some women have written awful, uninteresting, or unrepresentative, tripe.Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

“If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint.”

Do they mean from a critical theory / Frankfurtian standpoint? If not that, what?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Looking at SOAS’s website, the only philosophy undergraduate degree they offer is “world philosophies”, which already looks pretty pluralistic.

If I had to guess (and it’s *only* a guess), the students are thinking more about the political philosophers who will be studied in the pol-theory section of SOAS’s IR and politics courses. (Though that almost certainly does include Plato)Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Thanks David, that makes more sense than the Plato/Descartes/Kant angle. As I mentioned above I looked at the Religiions & Philosophies department and didn’t find any of those philosophers there.Report

Ben Saunders
Ben Saunders
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

I see that, in their Introduction to Political Theory module, “Students will read texts by key thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, J.S. Mill, Karl Marx and M.K. Gandhi”.

I wouldn’t expect Kant to figure – though ‘Perpetual Peace’ might appear either in pol theory or IR – and I’d be rather surprised to find Descartes anywhere in a politics degree.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Ben Saunders
4 years ago

Without any relevant expertise on anything, it does seem odd if the political theory module at the SOAS doesn’t include, say, Confucius.Report

Bill
Bill
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Actually, I wondered whether what’s going here is a kind of ‘truth-in-advertising’ complaint: while the blurb looks pretty pluralistic, It doesn’t follow that the content of the courses offered necessarily live up to that. (The wording seems designed to allow for a fair bit of weaseling, but I imagine this is fairly common practice with catalogue course descriptions.) If so, then it he students might have a legitimate complaint.

It’s a radical thought, but has anyone thought of contacting any of the students involved in this and asking them to give a bit of context on the story? That might be more enlightening than any amount of speculation.Report

pangloss
pangloss
4 years ago

Meh…and academics wonder why academic philosophy continues to slide further into total irrelevance.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
4 years ago

This is a follow up to the thread above, but I can’t seem to post it as a nested ‘reply’.

“I take it that just as it would seem appropriate to make sure that women’s perspective are the focus of a women’s studies course…”

Well, I suppose that at least clears up the core of our disagreement. I don’t think it would be appropriate that women’s perspectives be the *focus* of a women’s studies course. I would hope that a women’s studies course, like any other course, would assign readings on the basis of intellectual merit alone.

This doesn’t mean that one should be insensitive to the fact that there’s a problem with the philosophical ‘canon’ as it stands. As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to realize that many texts have gone unstudied for reasons that have nothing to do with their intellectual worth.

For instance, it is a shame that political philosophy courses focusing on social contract theory fail to mention Mohist state of nature arguments. This is because the inclusion of another kind of theory about the social contract would enrich political philosophy as a whole (just as studying history would enrich contemporary philosophy).

However, I don’t think that Mohist political philosophy should be taught because some students at SOAS study East Asian peoples and cultures.

Then there’s a second related problem. How might, for instance, a course composed of mostly ancient Indian and ancient Chinese thought, for instance be more insightful for someone studying modern India than a course devoted mostly to Kant and Mill? (It’s not!) Is Yoruba thought more useful than Ancient Greek thought for understanding early modern China? (Aristotle’s Categories was translated into Chinese in the 17th century).

‘We study Asia and Africa therefore the focus should be on Asian and African philosophers’.
What part of Asia? What part of Africa? What century? Asia and Africa are massive continents with long histories. One part of Asia may have more in common with, say, Europe, than it does with another part of Asia (compare the affinities between ancient Indian and Greek thought to the lack of such an affinity between ancient Indian and Chinese thought).

It seems very problematic to claim that “philosophers from Africa and Asia and the diasporas” have some special standpoint that allows them to access deep truths about “Asia and Africa” (as if that grouping makes ANY sense).Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

I think you misunderstood. I’m not suggesting women’s studies programs can or should focus on women’s perspectives merely because they are women apart from intellectual merit. I am suggesting they can or should precisely for intellectual reasons, i.e., that it is in the nature of a rigorous women’s studies program that it is concerned with women’s perspectives and experiences. In the same way that I wouldn’t typically assign a reading in biology for a physics course, I wouldn’t typically design a course in African studies that centers around Kant’s political philosophy unless it was to situate it in its colonial context — which seems to be exactly the kind of thing the students are asking for.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

What they’re asking for — and let’s be in no doubt about this — is that the “majority of philosophers” taught be from the ‘Global South’. The reason that they give for this is that they study the peoples, languages, and cultures of Africa and Asia. What I’ve been repeatedly saying is that I find this justification extremely weak.

You talk about ‘African studies’ — perhaps I’m dense, but I think that ‘African studies’ encompasses a whole lot of things just as, presumably, ‘women’s studies’ does. If I were to take a women’s studies course on ‘gender and justice’ (for example), I don’t particularly know that the readings need to focus on the *perspective* or *experience* of women. It’s not obvious to me that an ‘African studies’ course must have the majority of its readings include the ‘perspective’ and ‘experiences’ of Africans.

Some, of course, will.

There is a course at SOAS “Perspectives on African Experience”. Yes it’d be odd if the majority of figures studied here were not African and if the non-African perspectives were not contextualized. In the African Philosophy course, it’d be a problem if they didn’t read African philosophers for the most part; as it is, they read Paulin Hountondji, Kwame Anthony Appiah, V.-Y. Mudimbe, Henry Odera Oruka, and Kwasi Wiredu.

However, what “Theory and Practice of Swahili translation”? [it’s part of the SOAS BA in African studies module]. Given the fact that a *vast* number of people who have theorized about translation happen to be white, should the professor think twice before assigning them for this class? [If your answer is ‘yes’, then I guess there’s no way for us to take this conversation forward.]

Is it really a problem that the majority of theorists about translation theory are non-African? [Maybe it is for the future; maybe Linguistics needs to be more inclusive going forward. But do we need to reinvent the past?] Does Schleiermacher really need to be placed within his ‘colonial context’ (?) before his work on translation theory is assigned?
[I should note that I’m understanding ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ in its broadest sense to include what’s called Theory in North America but passes for ‘philosophy’ in many other parts of the world].

There are endless examples of cases where it is absurd to claim that the ‘majority’ of thinkers assigned be from any geographical region (on account of the object of study) because we need their ‘perspectives and experiences’.

[I have a lot more to say, but I’ll have to leave it for a time when i’m not typing on a mobile device on a bus. Apologies for any incoherence that may stem from this]Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

I meant “what *about* “Theory and Practice…”Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

You’re assuming they’re asking that the majority of philosophers in any given class, irrespective of it’s content, include a majority of philosophers from a particular demographic. That’s one reading of what the students asked for, but it’s not entailed by what they said — why go for the interpretation that thereby imputes irrationality when there’s a charitable interpretation easily within reach?Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
4 years ago

Why not just let the students decide what philosophy is, what counts as a philosophy course, and designate that a PhD in philosophy is less important than a high school diploma. The idea that “they simply accepted their professors knew their shit” but didn’t, seems to indicate these unlearned high school seniors are better able to decide what they should be taught and what is important in the field. This is the mind set that elected Trump. Give them all degrees on their own terms and requirements and see what follows. It won’t be pretty.Report

Jason "Don't Be a Hooligan" Brennan
Jason "Don't Be a Hooligan" Brennan
4 years ago

I don’t much care what SOAS teaches or doesn’t teach it students.

But, contra Weinberg’s argument: A vocal minority can have a large effect on what happens at a university, especially if the majority are complacent and docile, as JW has us imagining above. Consider the nonsense that happens from time to time at Brown. That’s almost always driven by a small number of activist students. The majority of students generally aren’t on their side, but they won’t fight it either.

At any rate, this post strawmans the other side. Or, more precisely, there’s a smarter version of the view being critiqued here which JW isn’t responding to.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
4 years ago

I think that we’re all agreed that the SOAS students are asking professors to assign texts keeping in mind certain biographical facts about the authors of those texts. “…should be from the Global South…” etc. This seems to be unambiguously true.
I’ve claimed that assigning texts on the basis of some kind of connection between the objects of study and place of origin of the authors of those texts seems arbitrary and, frankly, absurd. I suggested that one should pick texts for their intellectual merit (given the course focus) alone. Kathryn then suggested that picking texts for intellectual merit and considering biographical facts about the authors of those texts are not mutually exclusive since, for example, “ it is in the nature of a rigorous women’s studies program that it is concerned with women’s perspectives and experiences.”
I took issue with this and was told that my reading of the students’ stance was uncharitable. If this is indeed the case, I’d like to better understand what precisely is being argued for by the students as well as those who are defending them.
Perhaps it might be in the nature of a rigorous X studies program to be concerned with X’s perspectives and experiences. However, the students are not asking that SOAS *include* particular perspectives. They are asking that particular perspectives be the *majority* and that if “white philosophers” (because, of course, there are no white people in the ‘Global South’) *have* to be taught, then they must be taught from a “critical standpoint” (an example of the ‘critical’ standpoint being acknowledging the colonial context that Enlightenment philosophers within).
Well OK, it seems that many (and maybe all) of SOAS’ programs in X studies (African, South Asian, Arabic & Islamic, Near Eastern, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, and Middle Eastern are the ones I checked) *include* courses that focus on the perspectives and experiences of people from X with texts by those people and many of these departments, even focus on minority voices within that area. So I don’t see what their gripe is with the ‘area studies’ course offerings (if I may be permitted to use that term). So let’s grant that X-studies courses should include the perspectives and experiences of X-people. They do.
However, the students seemed to be complaining specifically about *philosophy* being taught at SOAS. And, since ‘philosophy’ is not about any one group of people, one would hope that they teach a range of philosophical traditions. The only philosophy BA is in World Philosophies. https://www.soas.ac.uk/religions-and-philosophies/programmes/ugcourseunits/undergraduate-modules-in-world-philosophies.html. And I’d say that its inclusive of a range of philosophical traditions were it not for the fact that they do not include Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy in their first-year “Traditions of Philosophy” courses. You *can* get a BA in World Philosophies at SOAS without ever reading Plato. The course description for “Anglo-European Philosophies and Critical Dialogues” states: “Despite the overwhelming presence of western theorists, the course aims at fostering a positive dialogue with the diversity of other philosophies and religious experiences.”
So this can’t possibly be what the students have a problem with.

It was speculated that the issue might be Politics and IR. Some of their politics undergrad modules running *this academic year* include: “Decolonising the World”, “Comparative political sociology of Asia and Africa,” “Introduction to Comparative Politics,” “States, people, and power in Asia and Africa,” and “The international organisation of world politics”; the readings do not seem to be mostly by “white philosophers” but, again, surely it wouldn’t be a problem if it were the case since the BA is in “Politics and IR” and not “Politics and IR of ‘Asia and Africa’” [and it’s arguable if it would be a problem even if it were, but I’ll go with the least controversial claims for now].
People go to SOAS to get a range of degrees. Unlike an American liberal arts college, you apply for a particular degree program and then take classes within it.
Kathryn, you seem to be claiming if they’re studying the peoples and cultures of say, Asia (inasmuch as one can talk about “Asia” as a unified object of study; one can’t, really), then it’s reasonable that the BA in Asian Studies includes the perspectives and experiences of Asian people. Fair enough. The BA seems to do just that.
However, this is *not* what the petition says. The petition groups “Asia and Africa” together (which I find ludicrous) as the object of study at SOAS and then claims that, *therefore*, they the *majority of philosophers should be from the Global South (or its diaspora)*. If my BA is in Asian Studies, I don’t know why a philosopher from Brazil (part of the ‘Global South’) would be better placed to provide a philosophical framework for my studies than a philosopher from Germany (part of the ‘Global North’).
But perhaps this, too, is an uncharitable reading. Perhaps the students mean that *Asian* philosophers should be taught to those doing a BA in Asian studies; leaving aside the contention that possessing a particular nationality does not qualify one to theorize about it, my earlier point stands. Where in Asia? When in Asia? Should it be even more specific then? You can see how that would be absurd.

This is, I think, a good stopping point for what is turning into an essay.Report

Mooneye
Mooneye
Reply to  Mooneye
4 years ago

(*”it’s inclusive” not “its inclusive”)Report