Options for teaching the western canon: no more ‘Plato to NATO’-style courses

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

6 thoughts on “Options for teaching the western canon: no more ‘Plato to NATO’-style courses

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  1. Great conversation going on here! Some tough questions and ones that need to be asked and answered. However, it’s also important to bear in mind that quite a few of these issues around marginalisation and valorisation of certain viewpoints come about as a result of bias. I am not sure that we can completely eliminate bias (happy to be corrected on this), but I am sure it can reduced, understood better, and its effects mitigated.

    I can see how examples help in imagining what proposals and ideas translate into in everyday teaching practice. To that end, I offer this example of a decolonial political theory course led by Manjeet Ramgotra from SOAS: https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/decolonisingsoas/2019/02/04/on-teaching-political-theory-to-undergraduates/ Would love to hear your thoughts about it.

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    1. Thank you Lee-Ann for your comment and for the link.

      I found the approach that Ramgotra takes a really interesting one. The idea of pairing historical and contemporary authors with the aim of being able to think more critically about both of them in the end is a really interesting one. Some of the specific pairings also seemed like they could be very fruitful (Aristotle and hooks particularly). One thing I thought about the approach was that it was really asking a lot from the students. Not only must they learn the specific content of the authors, but also engage with methodological and meta-disciplinary questions surrounding the way in which we speak about and frame different debates. Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but this might be too much for students in their first year. With that said, the worry that the way in which political theory is taught in the first year leaves an impression that might be hard to shake in later years is also a pressing one. One option might be to have an initial unit on methodology in political theory that explicitly discusses these things, before then moving on to the kinds of comparisons described in the post. Either way, I would be very interested to see the syllabus for that course!

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  2. Thank you for your comments Polly and Jake. Both speak, in different ways, to the practical issues that my suggestion raises, and both help to bring out how complex and difficult the problem of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is.

    A first thing to say in response is that I’m not sure how I could ensure that the revised course would avoid the problems of the current way of doing things. Polly is right that the construction of reading lists isn’t neutral, and I don’t want to suggest that a thematic rather than thinker-oriented approach is going to change that. Jake is right that coherence of narrative is perhaps an important part of course design. To be completely honest, I couldn’t, without help, construct the kind of reading list that I am trying to imagine here. This is partly due to the fact that my training has been almost entirely in the western philosophical canon. This relates to a point that Jake made, which is that the changes I am suggesting might also seem to require that teachers gain expertise in areas that they may currently not know about. Doing so well would take considerable amounts of time and resources. Again I am not sure how to address this problem. This is particularly the case when we realise the connection between linguistic and philosophical traditions. It would be unfair (and impossible) to require proficiency across a number of different traditions spanning different geographies, linguistic traditions, philosophical traditions, and histories. Perhaps this might speak to the need for more joint teaching of classes, with teachers of different specialisms teaching different units. However, in defence of the point I wanted to make in the post, I think that dropping the thinker-based curriculum is an important first step in opening up the possibility of reform. But this should be taken only as a very small and incomplete step in the direction of a goal whose achievement would require a large number of additional complex strides.

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  3. Hello Luke, thanks a lot for your thought-provoking post! I really enjoyed reading your reflections on the inclusions and exclusions through which philosophy has emerged – dynamics that certainly resonate with my ‘home’ discipline in media and communications, and I’m sure many others. I particularly liked your final thoughts about re-thinking the centrality of ‘great’ thinkers in your discipline. As a feminist media researcher, I entirely agree that moving beyond fetishized ideas about certain individuals’ uncontextualized ‘greatness’ is crucial for producing less oppressive scholarship and teaching in today’s world.

    When reading your post, however, I wondered how you saw the thematic selection process working in both a practical and a political sense? By this, I mean that we know from years of feminist, Marxist, black, queer, and decolonial writings that generating topics for enquiry is never a neutral process. The very fact that we have ended up with subject-specific ‘canons’ that exclude huge sways of various communities simply because they were not white, rich, heterosexual men bears witness to the fact that selections are never made objectively. For me in my work at least, canons are never simply arrived at accidentally – they are product and producer of heteronormative, gendered, classed, and racialised power. I’m therefore wondering how you might ensure that your revised canon, or what you call subject-specific enquires, might successfully resist and rethink such historical legacies of domination? Given that, to my mind at least, such hierarchies are still very much still ‘with us’ in the academy and beyond, I’m in other words wondering how teaching through topics rather than thinkers might successfully challenge the Bantuization of certain writers to the margins, while the centre remains dominated by the status quo. In other words, I really like your ideas, but I am curious as to how they might work ‘in practice’? And what’s to stop some students selecting topics that feel ‘safer’ for them vis-à-vis others, thus potentially maintaining the current centre/margin model your insightful post intends to dismantle?

    This aside, thanks so much again for a really thought-provoking piece. I really enjoyed reading your post, and especially liked the energy invested into thinking seriously about how we might apply decolonial theory to our courses and module design in practice. Thanks a lot!

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  4. Hi Luke,

    Thanks for your blog post. I found the build up to your recommendation compelling so I will skip forward to your final option to replace the ‘Plato to NATO’ format with a thematic organisation of course content where you believe there is most to be gained.

    (1) I like the idea. I wonder, can you give an example or two of such a theme that could be used to thread together a wide range of voices? Part of the difficulty of such a course design must be to agree upon which themes to give attention to and then how to do it in a clear and coherent way.

    (2) What form of assessment would match with this kind of course design? As I read your blog post, I couldn’t imagine what could be gained from such a change if students were still expected to write short and superficial essays in an end of year, 3-hour exam. Are there any changes/ innovations in assessment that would align more closely with your proposed change?

    (3) Does your contribution point towards a much larger change in faculty expertise? Adding more voices to a syllabus has to stem from a knowledge base that cuts across and out of western political thought. I guess, as an outsider, I’m interested in knowing how close this is to being achieved? (I don’t mean to be like the child in the back seat of the car who shouts ‘Are we there yet?’). I wonder if there are any good examples out there to follow?

    (4) I agree entirely with this part of your description of the benefits of a thematic ordering ‘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.’ This seems like a crucial opportunity for first-year students to work out where they stand on important political and social issues. I often get asked by students if they are allowed to make argument X, Y or Z. In part, this is an outcome of a ‘great’ thinkers framing of course content that, in the mind of the student, pitches them against a philosophical great. They’re intimidated by the greatness more than the ideas.

    I realise that I’ve phrased all of my comments as questions. Please don’t worry about all of them and thanks again for a great blog post.

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