Are Soas students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers?
“They Kant be serious!”, spluttered the Daily Mail headline in its most McEnroe-ish tone. “PC students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes be dropped from university syllabus”. “Great thinkers too male and pale, students declare”, trumpeted the Times. The Telegraph, too, was outraged: “They are said to be the founding fathers of western philosophy, whose ideas underpin civilised society. 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.”
The prestigious London University was the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). It hit the headlines last month when journalists discovered that students, backed by many of their lecturers, have set up a campaign to “Decolonise Our Minds” by transforming the curriculum. So shocking did the idea seem of a British university refusing to teach Plato, Locke or Kant that the story was picked up by newspapers across the globe. BBC2’s Newsnight debated whether “universities should eschew western philosophers”. This predictably generated more outraged headlines when one of the guests, sociologist Kehinde Andrews, denounced Soas as a “white institution” and the Enlightenment as “racist”.
For academics and students at Soas, the press coverage itself is the cause of outrage. “When the report came out that we were trying to take white men off the table, it was just bewildering because we had no intention of doing that,” says Sian Hawthorne, a convenor of the undergraduate course World Philosophies, the only philosophy degree that Soas provides. “Our courses are intimately engaged with European thought.”
“We’re not trying to exclude European thinkers,” says a second-year doctoral student, and a member of the Decolonising Our Minds group. “We’re trying to desacralise European thinkers, stopping them from being treated as unquestionable. What we are doing is quite reasonable.”
So what is the truth behind the headlines? Will philosophy students at Soas really not be taught Aristotle and Kant? Do the students and academics have a point that the curriculum is “too white”? And what should be the place of European philosophy, and European philosophers, in an age of globalisation and of a shifting power balance from west to east?
I went to Soas to talk to students and academics. “That’s the one thing,” one student told me, “that no journalist has so far done.”
Read the rest: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/19/soas-philosopy-decolonise-our-minds-enlightenment-white-european-kenan-malik