In recent years, we have seen increasing calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of universities. The widespread attention that such calls gained in the media was undoubtedly due in large part to the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement, which seeks to uncover and address institutional racism, particularly in universities. The task of decolonising universities is a huge one, which requires action on a number of levels and radical change to university structures. We can see the task of decolonising universities as closely linked to other reforms that seek to correct for historic and continuing oppression on the basis of sex, gender identity and preference, disability, and other traits. Put in a very general way, it is possible to see the broad aim of these different movements as the desire to reform universities in such a way that they not only do not contribute to oppression but also that they operate in ways that combat it.
Here I want to make a very limited contribution to thinking about the changes necessary for achieving this task. In particular, I want to discuss the matter of how to go about teaching of introductory courses in political theory and philosophy. Many such courses take the form of a survey ‘from Plato to NATO’, and focus primarily on the history of philosophy or political thought through the lens of great thinkers in the western canon. There are definite advantages to this way of introducing students to philosophy and political theory. One advantage is that it allows students to see the way in which lineages of (western) thought have developed and changed over time, and the impact that this development has had on how our world is conceptualised now. The problem is that this is done at the expense not only of non-western thought but also of marginalised figures operating within the framework of the western canon. Philosophy has a serious diversity problem, and courses like these contribute to that problem.
It’s important to be very clear before continuing: changing our syllabi is far from sufficient as a means of dealing with the history of oppression still so strongly felt in our universities’ iconography, architecture, demographics and broader politics. Such a change is necessary, however. A failure to alter our syllabi can leave students justifiably frustrated and alienated, particularly in the face of the increasing number of appeals for curriculum reform. For that reason, it warrants attention.
How should we deal with the overwhelming white-maleness of the western canon? One seemingly appealing option would be to simply add in dissenting voices. When we ask students to read a historical figure who makes sexist, racist or ableist assumptions, we can also ask them to engage with ideas that are critical of those assumptions, thus inviting students to engage their critical capacities and challenge the perspectives from which canonical authors write. This would have the benefit of directly challenging those aspects of the views of canonical writers that are objectionable. But there are two problems with this. One is that by bringing in critical voices as responses to the canon, we risk fixing them in a marginalised role, merely as commentators to the central discourse and not as generators of novel ideas and ways of viewing the same problems. That is, we risk solidifying the role of non-canonical voices in philosophy as peripheral by viewing them merely in terms of their relation to the dominant discourse. The second problem is that simply adding dissenting voices fails to add positive contributions to thinking about the central themes of introductory courses from non-canonical perspectives. In addition to the possibility of fixing non-canonical writings as marginal contributions, merely adding in dissenting opinions fails to take the positive proposals of non-canonical writers seriously.
Another option would be to ‘falsify’ the canon by including voices that have previously been excluded from it. For example, such courses could teach the writing of those women and non-European philosophers and political theorists (for example) who had access to resources allowing them to record their views¾or, more ambitiously, it could include non-written philosophical contributions, though this might be asking too much. This way of going about things has the benefit that it would expose students and teachers(!) to a more diverse set of positive views than the first option. We can imagine, on this way of approaching things, a serious attempt to engage with the views of non-canonical authors in a way that would have a significant positive effect. This approach also faces a problem though: to falsify the canon by adding voices that have been excluded from it, we would risk obscuring the way in which oppression and exclusion influenced the development of the discipline. While exposing students to a wider range of points of view, presenting the material in the form of a history and development of philosophy would send the wrong message. Part of the history of (western) philosophy is the exclusion of, for example, women and non-Europeans and this should not be ignored. This problem can be overcome through the right framing of the course. It is not a knock-down objection to this way of proceeding. However, there is a better option available, which I turn to now.
A final option (that I will discuss), and the one that I think should be adopted, is that of dropping the ‘Plato to NATO’ format altogether. The ways in which we might be able to make them work are not worth the risks of reproducing what curriculum changes of the kind under discussion are trying to fix and there is a better option available. The better option is structuring courses along key themes or topics rather than ‘great’ thinkers. The central advantages that we draw from this are two-fold: first, by teaching according to key themes or topics, we are able to bring a wide range of voices into the discussion without privileging any of them. Units would be able to cover a range of perspectives, and this could allow students the space to figure out what works and what doesn’t with each. The worry that we saw above, that bringing in dissenting voices would only serve to reinforce their marginalised status, would not arise if we took this approach. We would also not have to worry about misrepresenting the history of philosophy by falsifying the canon. The second advantage is that exposing students to a wide variety of views and asking them to adjudicate between them is also better for their development as philosophers and political theorists. A further risk of the ‘great thinkers’ style of course, not yet mentioned, is that it might seem to welcome appeals to authority. By introducing central topics or puzzles without privileging any thinker’s solutions, we might be able to move away from this.
So, to briefly reiterate: one small way of contributing to efforts to decolonise the curriculum and to stop reinforcing long-felt forms of oppression and exclusion in courses in philosophy and political theory would be to drop Plato to NATO style courses. The risks of keeping such courses are not outweighed by any benefits they might have.
Disclaimer: The content posted on this blog is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the PGCertHE programme, the Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, or the London School of Economics