‘They KANT be serious’ – SOAS, Philosophy, and the Media

Last month, British tabloids commenced 2017 by sending out their journalists to de facto declare the students of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as enemies of Western philosophy. What had happened? The students of SOAS – which someone should tell Jonathan Petre[1] at the Daily Mail is not part of the University College London, but a college of the University of London – had demanded a decolonisation of their curriculum[2]. Here are just some of the headlines:

University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white

UNI KANT TOUCH THIS Barmy SOAS students try to ban classical philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Voltaire from their courses… because they are white

They Kant be serious! PC students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes be dropped from university syllabus

Decolonisation is often being derided as an academic vogue, something fashionable – let us then do something else that is prejudiced as an academic fashion: deconstruction. In this case, let us deconstruct the arguments and claims made in the above articles.

Firstly, it is plain wrong to say SOAS students demanded that any philosophers are to be dropped. In fact, they are calling for a reading list that includes academics which do not belong to the realm of orthodox Western tradition. It helps to have a look what undergraduate philosophy courses are offered at SOAS. There is, in fact, only one: the ‘BA World Philosophies’. For students, and indeed their lecturers, to demand that a course which is deliberately called BA World Philosophies not to exclude, but indeed include, the regions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East does not seem very ‘barmy’ to me. Otherwise, why not call the programme: French Philosophy, or German Philosophy, or, more broadly, history of Western philosophy; and the school, School of European and Western Studies.

Secondly, for the sake of argument, let us assume SOAS students had demanded that, in order to to achieve this goal, some ‘white’ philosophers must be dropped – so what?[3]. Every student in the Arts or Social Sciences only knows too well: there is only so much you can read as part of your undergraduate degree. So, if you actively decide to pursue studies at a college that praises itself to be “the world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”, you can reasonably be granted to demand that the focus of your study reflects the ethos of the institutions, and the focus of the research that is being undertaken therein. Let us now also assume, that the broadening of the orthodox discourse – through regionalisation – leads to a focus in which you no longer have the space for certain academics to be taught. However, the loss of some of those academics, which happen to not fall into your regional specialisation, is a downfall you can be reasonably be expected to endure to delve deeper elsewhere. Of course, a course named ‘World Philosophies’ must not fully exclude ‘Western’ philosophy, but it can certainly exclude elements of it to make much needed space for others, and, most importantly, achieve an overall balance. Also, if that kind of approach bugs you, fear not, you can still study at a department that focuses on a more orthodox teaching of philosophy – which happens to be virtually any other one in the UK.

Thirdly – and that is a point not only about SOAS, but of the kind of approach taken by some journalists towards student liberation causes in general – certain journalists need to put an end to their creating alternative facts in order to feed their narratives. They ought to engage in debate, yes also heavily criticise, challenge assumptions; but they should not make up facts, prejudice, and simplify for the sake of their own arguments. Camilla Turner[4] studied History at Oxford, Jonathan Petre was a student of Philosophy at Cambridge, and Danny Collins[5] was awarded a degree in British Diplomatic History from the University of East Anglia. These are amongst the greatest academic institutions in Britain, if not the world – we should wonder, did those institutions not teach them to do their research, check the facts, and, above all, be charitable towards those putting arguments forward they disagree with?

[1] In the Daily Mail tab, it says: “UCL students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes to be dropped“

[2] Also: https://soasunion.org/education/educationalpriorities/

[3] Tom Whyman does a very good job at pointing this out in the Guardian.

[4] Camilla Turner wrote the article on SOAS in The Telegraph

[5] Danny Collins wrote the article on SOAS in The Sun

Cover Picture: http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/sites/default/files/imagecache/threequaterwidth_cropped/soas_720x220.jpg

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