On SOAS students’ demand to diversity curriculum

Stella Sandford.


Philosophy and philosophers rarely make it into the mainstream news in the UK. But in January 2017 Plato and Kant hit the headlines. “They Kant be Serious! PC students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes be dropped from university syllabus”, shouted the MailOnline; “Newsnight guest DEFENDS calls to ban Plato and Kant because the Enlightenment is ‘racist’”, spluttered The Sunday Express. The Sun upped the ante by adding a few more names to the list: “Barmy SOAS students try to ban classical philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Voltaire from their courses … because they are white”. These figures, along with the likes of Bertrand Russell are, according to The Mail (which The Telegraph’s Education Editor then apparently copied), among the “titans of philosophy” whose names “underpin civilisation”. On the day on which I looked at this The Sunday Express online article appears under a banner of sex videos including “Mila Kunis stripped bare …”, “Katherine Heigl stripped bare …” It isn’t stated whether this is the kind of “civilisation” which Kant et al underpin.

Read on…

A bad experience, and some really useful reflections

I’ll let you go read about the bad experience yourself.  But here’s a taster of the useful reflections.

I think it might help if instructors/ and institutions in general (!) reflected (along with the students) on what to do when a student conveys that something is offensive. Offensiveness is something that should be taken seriously, and one should presume the feelings are legitimate, and try to identify and correct their source. Here it would have been effortless to change examples, or apologize for the literature. There may be cases where just one student is offended. There may even be cases where the instructor can[‘t] imagine why someone is offended or thinks they shouldn’t be. Even here, it is important to respond with an effort to take the student’s perspective seriously. A white heterosexual male teacher is not necessarily in the best position to see why the example of Sultans choosing women can make people feel uncomfortable. The teacher can, at that point, engage with the student to come up with a better example.

People who are charged with offensiveness get angry sometimes, and try to turn the tables and attack their accusers or claim they have been persecuted by “thought police.” It is helpful to anticipate that reply, and to make it explicitly clear that this is not about censorship; it is about effective and inclusive instruction. An islamic student hearing the sultan example will not be any more motivated to learn than a Jewish student hearing an example about a Jewish moneylender. This is not a matter of people being delicate, sensitive, or overly emotional. It is about creating a classroom that doesn’t promote bigotry and where people who ask for respect are heard. The examples are an unfortunate residue of a very sexist period in a field that remains male dominated. Efforts to remove sexist examples are no less important than efforts to diversify the university population. They are part of the same process. To speak out about this is not delicacy or weakness.