Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have been attacked for wanting to a broader range of philosophersColin Smith

Misinformed educational conservatism has hijacked the free speech argument to shut down a discussion we absolutely need to be having: why we study who we study. The Telegraph not only misinformed its readership that SOAS’s student union had “demanded” the removal of philosophers from its curriculum “simply because they are white” but also asserted that the idea of questioning a predominantly white curriculum might be “political correctness getting out of control.” 

Naturally, rather than considering the possibility that the School of Oriental and African Studies might actually want to prioritise the study of African and Oriental philosophers, it looks like the right-wing press is looking for another excuse to bash students for challenging and critiquing the status quo. Not only are the ‘special snowflake’ assertions tired and boring, they’re utterly unfounded.

The unthinking rush to defend the likes of Kant and Plato, whilst constantly attacking student bodies for hypersensitivity and censorship is plain and simple hypocrisy. The Daily Mail and The Telegraph couldn’t be more offended. Vilifying and exaggerating SOAS’s calls to decolonise its curriculum is the British establishment getting defensive. Feeling like Western values are being placed under critical light, their response is to simplify the debate into one about skin colour and miss the point completely.  

Ironically, our so-called free speech warriors are attempting to neutralise a genuinely interesting and important discussion. English philosophers like John Stuart Mill, who championed open debate for both societal freedom and personal growth, would not be best pleased. This is not only a debate about black or white, colonial or post-colonial. It’s also about education: what might be the reasoning behind our curriculum, and do universities have a responsibility to justify it?

“Philosophical excellence does not warrant a kind of hero worship which permits us to overlook racism, sexism and hosts of other prejudices.”

There is little doubt that philosophers like Kant and Plato have made invaluable contributions to the canon of Western political thought. Having been lucky enough to come across other enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau as an HSPS student, I would never suggest their names be wiped from the map. They have provided ground-breaking, foundational ideas about sociability, democracy, and the nature of the modern state.  

That being said, given the explicit racism and sexism in their writing, I’ve found the lack of substantial post-colonial and feminist criticism on my reading lists frustrating. There is a sense that since the prejudices of these authors were so ingrained and widespread, to highlight them would be to detract from the goal of gaining a basic understanding and analyses of some very complex ideas. There is probably some truth to this, and SOAS Students’ Union’s discussion should remind other universities that there is a balance to be sought in our critical approaches.

Philosophical excellence does not warrant a kind of hero worship which permits us to overlook racism, sexism and hosts of other prejudices. Their writing should be understood within its context, but also rigorously critiqued by exposure to contemporary perspectives. It is insufficient to simply excuse these thinkers based on their time of writing. Mill, who wrote less than a hundred years after the enlightenment period, made a case for the perfect equality of men and women long before gender equality became a mainstream Western value.

Our time on a three-year undergraduate degree is limited, but there is a discussion to be had about the philosophers and perspectives we prioritise. White Western philosophers frequently spoke of a ‘civilised’ West, and ‘primitive’ East, and almost exclusively theorised about men. A challenging education should demand critical engagement these issues, and the opportunity to consider them in contrast to philosophies elsewhere. Instead, free speech is being used as an excuse to defend a narrow and obstructive philosophical education.

Sir Anthony Seldon showed us just this in his response to the SOAS Students’ Union’s motion. He claims that “there is a real danger of political correctness 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.” It’s almost as if he was worried that were we to shift our focus away from Western philosophy, we would find nothing but blank, empty space. That’s exactly the problem that SOAS wants to address.

The student union’s website states that it puts the deconstruction of the “myth of the universal truth” in Western philosophy at the heart of its campaign for decolonisation. Prioritising the exploration of non-Western philosophy is an intellectual endeavour in challenging the conceptual dominance of Western Europe. It shows us that different cultural and social experiences produce different philosophical and political models, broadening our understanding of the world and strengthening our capacity for critique.  

‘To understand the world as it was’ must surely be to demand more from higher education that just the narratives of white Western men in colonial Europe. Their lived experiences are not unimportant, but they are limited.

It is not only more interesting to place the thought of enlightenment thinkers at odds with non-Western philosophers like Gandhi or Confucius, but necessary for well-rounded education in a globalised world.

SOAS’s student body places a large focus on post-colonial studies, which would be natural given its regional focal points. It matters that while white Western philosophy predominates, there is a student body challenging its intellectual authority, and calling for a greater diversity of thought.  That, after all, is what free speech is all about.

There is an alternative, additional discourse within academia, and the voices of the SOAS’s student union should be welcomed in contributing to it.