A caveat first: this article comes from The Daily Mail, and I haven’t been able to verify it from other news sources. On the other hand, I have verified the students’ demands to which it refers (see below). Further, the Mail article gives quotes from the likes of Sir Roger Scruton, which would have to have been fabricated by the paper. Finally, you’re not going to see many pieces like this published on progressive websites or even in the “mainstream” press. So make of it what you will.
What was reported is that some students at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London have demanded that the works of many famous philosophers be dropped from the curriculum—or looked at more critically—because they are white. That apparently means that those philosophers are exponents of colonialism. From the Mail:
. . . .students at a University of London college are demanding that such seminal figures as Plato, Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell should be largely dropped from the curriculum simply because they are white.
These may be the names that underpin civilisation, yet the student union at the world-renowned School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is insisting that when studying philosophy ‘the majority of philosophers on our courses’ should be from Africa and Asia.
The students say it is in order to ‘decolonise’ the ‘white institution’ that is their college.
Entitled ‘Decolonising SOAS: Confronting The White Institution’, the union’s statement of ‘educational priorities’ warns ‘white philosophers’ should be studied only ‘if required’, and even then their work should be taught solely from ‘a critical standpoint’: ‘For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so-called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.’
And yes, that statement does exist; it’s at the link below and this is a real excerpt (my emphasis in the text):
Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution:
Decolonising SOAS is a campaign that aims to address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism within our university. We believe that SOAS should take a lead on such questions given its unique history within British colonialism. In light of the centenary and SOAS’ aims of curating a vision for itself for the next 100 years, this conversation is pivotal for its future direction.
Our aims are a continuation of the campaign last year:
To hold events that will engage in a wider discussion about expressions of racial and economic inequality at the university, focussing on SOAS.
To address histories of erasure prevalent in the curriculum with a particular focus on SOAS’ colonial origins and present alternative ways of knowing.
To interrogate SOAS’ self-image as progressive and diverse.
To use the centenary year as a point of intervention to discuss how the university must move forward and demand that we, as students of colour, are involved in the curriculum review process.
To review 10 first year courses, working with academics to discuss points of revamp, reform and in some cases overhaul.
To make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s [sic] diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).
If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.
Now they don’t give any names of white philosophers, and of course there is some justification (point 6) for including a big dollop of Asian and African philosophers (Confucius comes to mind) given that the school deals with Oriental and African studies. What’s not clear is the nature of the courses that are taught: are they general philosophy courses, for instance?
What I object to is that special criticism must be leveled at white philosophers instead of philosophers of color, as well as the assumption that what white philosophers say must always be colored by colonialism. After all, some philosophy must surely be pigmentation-free, not all philosophers were part of the Enlightenment (e.g., the ancient Greeks), and a big part of philosophy deals with questions bearing on all humans, including ethics.
Finally, these are demands, not school policy, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be adopted.
There’s been some pushback, as reported by the Mail (again, I haven’t found these quotes independently):
Last night philosopher Sir Roger Scruton lambasted the union’s demand, saying: ‘This suggests ignorance and a determination not to overcome that ignorance. You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy. If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.’
The vice-chancellor of Buckingham University Sir Anthony Seldon said: ‘There is a real danger political correctness is getting out of control. We need to understand the world as it was and not to rewrite history as some might like it to have been.’
What we see here is that whiteness itself is taken to be a flaw, rather than particular views of white people. Are Peter Singer and John Rawls, for instance, polluted by colonialism? What bothers me the most is point 7, where the scrutiny of one’s views must be severe in inverse proportion to the darkness of their skin. In philosophy courses it is, of course, essential to have a critical attitude, but is it not possible to evaluate the value of philosophical views without considering the ethnicity of those who propose them? And are African and Asian philosophers not going to be taught “from a critical standpoint”?