Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Race-obsessed students at SOAS
Leftists seem incapable of treating people as individuals in their own right. Why should the race of a thinker matter? That he has interesting thoughts should be the sole criterion. I like the thinking of the Buddha; I like the thinking of Jesus Christ and I like the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein and I see no reason why I should bother about the race of any of them. Wittgenstein, for instance, was a skinny Austrian Jew but that has nothing to do with my interest in his ideas
“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.”
Whiteness is not a useful category when talking of philosophy. When people speak, they speak ideas, not identity.
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?
The School of Oriental and African Studies was founded in 1916 “to secure the running of the British Empire”, as historian Ian Brown puts it in his history of the institution. Its aim was to provide “instruction to colonial administrators, commercial managers, and military officers, but also to missionaries, doctors and teachers”. Soas taught them the local languages as well as providing “an authoritative introduction to the customs, religions, laws of the people whom they were to govern”.
Today, of the more than 6,000 students at Soas, almost half come from abroad, from 130 countries, and more than half are black or minority ethnic. Far from teaching students how to administer the empire, the school now helps develop independent, postcolonial societies. It sees its mission also as providing a critique of empire, and of its continuing legacies, a view that extends to the very top of Soas management. “Our minds are colonised, absolutely,” says Deborah Johnston. Johnston is no student, nor even a mere academic, but the pro-director of learning and teaching, one of the most senior management figures at Soas. She continues: ‘‘In most UK universities there has been a dominance of European thought. That’s why we need to do work to decolonise the curriculum, and our minds.”
For some, such views emanating from the very top of the institution entrench the belief that, in the words of an academic at another London college, “Soas is the most politicised of British universities”. Others, however, see the problem not as one of an institution that is too politicised but as one that has not yet rid itself of the ghosts of empire. The curriculum, such critics claim, is still too rooted in a colonial view of the world, too stuffed with European thinkers, and too blind to African, Asian and Latin American thinkers.
Neelam Chhara is a third-year politics student at Soas, and the Student Union officer for “equality and liberation”. “On my course in political theory,” she says, “we discussed 26 thinkers. Just two were non-European – Frantz Fanon and Gandhi.”
Such “frustrations with our curriculum” led students to set up the Decolonising Our Minds group. “We thought: why not show what an alternative curriculum could look like by hosting thinkers and academics that didn’t centre on Europe like our curriculum was doing.”
Meera Sabaratnam laughs when I tell her about Chhara’s reading list. “That’s two more non-Europeans than when I was taught political theory in my undergraduate PPE at Oxford.” Sabaratnam is a lecturer in international relations at Soas. As an institution, it is, she says, much better than most universities. For instance, 39% of academic staff are of black or minority ethnic background – more than three times the figure for British universities overall. Nevertheless, she supports the Decolonising Our Minds campaign. “It is necessary to talk about colonial legacies and to look at how colonialism and racism impact the institution.”
The argument for a more diverse curriculum seems reasonable, indeed unquestionable. After all, philosophers and thinkers come not just from Europe. There are great non-European intellectual traditions, myriad philosophical schools from China, India, Africa and the Muslim world, many of which have shaped European philosophy. Three years ago I wrote a book on the global history of ethics, called The Quest for a Moral Compass, which drew not just on European philosophers, but also on the works of Mo Tzu and Zhu Xi, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, Anton Wilhelm Amo and Frantz Fanon, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Fung Yu Lan. All these different thinkers, I wanted to show, can be woven into a single but complex narrative through which we can rethink global history.
And yet, the debate about a “diverse curriculum” is not as straightforward as one might imagine. Few would contest the idea that European thinkers should not be on the curriculum simply because they are European. But of the major European philosophers that often dominate reading lists – such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Arendt or Sartre – how many are there simply because they are European rather than because their ideas merit study?
Sabaratnam acknowledges the problem. “Framing a course is primarily about content: what are the issues that need to be taught, and who can speak interestingly about those issues? How many European thinkers you include and the balance between European and non-European thinkers is an academic decision. If you want to understand political theory, you can’t avoid engagement with Kant, Hegel and so on.”
“But,” she adds, “that can’t be the be-all-and- end-all.” There has, she insists, “to be a parallel debate about diversity and representation. There is value in having non-European thinkers and women on those reading lists.”
If European thinkers should not be on reading lists simply because they are European, should non-Europeans be included just because they are non-European, solely for the value of increased diversity? Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and last year’s Reith lecturer on Radio 4, is sceptical. He teaches a course on global ethics, which includes European, Chinese, Arab and Indian thinkers. The key question for him, however, is not “Is the curriculum sufficiently diverse?” but “Is any particular thinker worth studying?”
“If they were uninteresting or unimportant,” he observes, “it would not be much of a defence to say, ‘They are Arab or Chinese and make the course more diverse.’”
The difficulties in thinking about a diverse curriculum can be seen in the founding statement of the Decolonising Our Minds campaign. It does not say: “We need to expand our curriculum to include philosophers from across the globe”. Rather, it insists (under the heading “Decolonising Soas: Confronting the White Institution”) that, “If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical viewpoint.” This suggests that not having white philosophers should be the default position. This might not quite be “students demanding white philosophers be dropped from university syllabus”, as the newspapers claimed, but it’s not that far off.
“When you put it to me like that,” says Sian Hawthorne, “yes, I think that is problematic. However, I take a more generous reading of that statement as saying whomever is taught, whoever’s work is drawn on, it must always be dealt with critically. That is one of the first principles of a university education.”
The students themselves told me that they had not realised what the statement actually said, and would change it.
Do we need to be particularly critical of white philosophers, I asked Hawthorne. Yes, she replied, because “whiteness has been engaged in perpetuating forms of oppression and marginalisation and exclusion”. Does she think that all European philosophy is tainted by racism and colonialism? “Yes. There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate this.”
But by insisting that the work of all white philosophers, from Aristotle to Arendt, from Socrates to Sartre, should be seen as tainted by racism, is she not confusing ideas and identity? Is she not falling into the same trap as racists, suggesting that because one possesses a particular identity, so one’s ideas are necessarily distinct, and linked to that identity? A philosopher is white so his or her ideas are contaminated.
Hawthorne rejects the criticism, and uses as an analogy the way that academics look upon the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was one of the most influential 20th-century philosophers, having shaped the ideas of a host of thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. He was also a Nazi with repulsively antisemitic views. The discovery of Heidegger’s nazism and antisemitism has led to much debate about how to treat his philosophical ideas.
“Do we deal with Heidegger?” asks Hawthorne. “I think we must. But we must do so in the understanding that he was a Nazi. We don’t not read his texts. But we read them carefully. That should also be the case with white philosophers. Just because they’re white doesn’t mean that they’re written off. But we need to be careful.”
This, though, is a false analogy. What concerns many about Heidegger is not his skin colour or his identity but his political views. Asking whether Heidegger’s Nazi views should affect the way that we understand his philosophical ideas is different from insisting that, because Aristotle or Kant or Arendt were white, we should be careful in the way we read their writings.
Those Imperialistic Christian Missionaries
Some Williams College professors want ‘context’ for a monument to spreading the Gospel.
On Sept. 11, 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Rev. Richard Spalding passed the Haystack Monument on his way to the chapel at Williams College. The modest marble pillar is nestled on the spot where in 1806 five students took shelter from a storm and pledged to spread the Gospel world-wide.
In the twilight, the college chaplain noticed a group of students quietly praying at the monument, seeking solace from the day’s horrific events. He realized that, for some members of the Williams community, the unobtrusive monument is more than just a historic site that honors the founding of the Christian foreign-missionary movement. It is holy ground. He has a deep respect for the monument and the students who had prayed there. Yet today Mr. Spalding is a member of a committee to consider whether campus memorials and other spaces, including Haystack, contribute to an “unwelcoming” campus atmosphere.
Williams College President Adam Falk established the panel in December 2015 to review a 1942 mural of the school’s founder Col. Ephraim Williams and his military ally, Mohawk leader Hendrick Theyanoguin. Some students had objected to the painting, which depicts the two men reviewing battle plans. One said that it “white-washes the broader history of the era.”
Mr. Falk ordered the painting covered while the committee conducted its work. The panel ultimately recommended the mural be uncovered and remain in place. Committee members suggested that a caption be installed to “contextualize” the work, that a website with background material be developed, and that the college consider bringing in “indigenous artists” to respond to the mural.
Mr. Falk’s charge also included a directive to consider other campus spaces that could be “problematic in a modern context,” that is, potentially triggering for those who regard themselves as perpetually oppressed.
The College Fix reported last month that the panel is now taking a look at the Haystack Monument, and a headline in the Christian Examiner suggested it could be removed. But the committee’s chairwoman Karen Merrill is adamant that removing the monument is not on the table. She insisted that the committee is only trying to find ways to bridge “the gap between the Williams of the past and the Williams of today.”
Williams seems to be adopting what is known in the academy as “contextualization”—a way to preserve history while providing alternate perspectives. In theory, it seeks to honor the principles of free speech, open debate and rigorous inquiry that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. In practice, however, contextualization often turns into an exercise in self-flagellation that provides the professional victim class the soapbox on which to air its latest grievances.
How might Williams go about “contextualizing” the Haystack Monument?
The monument’s bicentennial celebration in 2006 provides clues. The weekend events included twilight vespers, panel discussions on the meaning of mission work today, and Sunday worship services. But the event also featured a critical reflection in which Prof. Denise Buell argued that Christian missionary work is “a justification” for violent forms of cultural imperialism.
All of this reflects what Glenn Shuck, a scholar who taught courses on the history of Christianity at Williams for over a decade, calls the college’s “ironic relationship” with the monument: It is a memorial to something important that happened on campus—but not something of which the college’s faculty is necessarily proud. According to Mr. Shuck, many Williams faculty members regard efforts to translate the Bible into other languages to spread Christianity as inherently racist and imperialist, a view he does not share.
Despite the recent media tempest about the Haystack Monument, the statue seems relatively uncontroversial among students. I spoke with about 15 students walking by the monument this week, and none knew what it represented. Once told, not one took offense.
Why would a college undertake a review of spaces and structures about which there is no current controversy? Perhaps, as class of ’62 graduate Herbert A. Allen Jr. wrote in a letter to The Williams Record, the college is simply trying “to stay ahead of intellectual lynch mobs.” But in suggesting, even inadvertently, that an unobtrusive monument to Christian missionary work is offensive, Williams has lent legitimacy to the perpetually aggrieved and has risked encouraging the piqued mob.
Male Muslim students at Sydney public school given permission to refuse to shake hands with women - because it is against their religion
Muslim students at a Sydney public school can refuse to shake hands with women even at an awards ceremony.
The Hurstville Boys Campus of Georges River College introduced the policy to allow Muslim boys to instead put their hand on the heart as a greeting.
The Year 7 to 10 school's two principals told guests at its 2016 presentation day, including notable community members, that students may decline the gesture.
The practice comes from the Muslim teaching of hadith that states: 'It is better to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you.'
The NSW Education told The Australian it approved of the 'agreed protocol' that was developed through consultation between staff, parents and students.
'The department requires its schools to recognise and respect the cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds of all students, with the intent to promote an open and tolerant attitude towards a diverse Australian community,' it said.
The department said principals were best placed to know the needs of their communities when following that requirement.
Such a literal interpretation of hadith, which describes the practices of the prophet Mohammed is controversial even among Australian Muslim leaders.
Australia's Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohammed shakes hands with women as did his predecessor, Fehmi Naji El-Imam, and Islamic schools do not even have the policy.
Former Islamic Council of Victoria secretary Kuranda Seyit said many young students were taught to take it 'too seriously' and it should apply in a school context. 'For some young adults, when they meet people of the opposite sex, to shake someone's hand suggests a friendship,' he said.
Mr Seyit said it was an issue because Australians do not understand the custom and could be embarrassed if they were 'left hanging'.
'Students should be able to shake hands with the teacher or the principal, or receive a greeting from a visitor to the school,' he said.
Posted by jonjayray at 1:49 AM