Plato, Socrates, Kant and Aristotle are considered fathers of philosophy but students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) want them dropped from the curriculum and replaced with the work of Indian and other non-Western philosophers.
The demand is part of the SOAS Student Union’s efforts to decolonise the institution that is celebrating its centenary. The objection is that the philosophers are deemed white, while the curriculum on their courses is expected to be diverse.
As the student demand makes news in the British media, Deborah Johnston, SOAS pro-director (learning and teaching), told Hindustan Times: "One of the great strengths of SOAS is that we have always looked at world issues from the perspective of the regions we study - Asia, Africa and Middle East.
“Informed and critical debate and discussion about the curriculum we teach is a healthy and proper part of the academic enterprise.”
In a note titled Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution, the union listed the demand as one of its educational priorities in 2017 and said: “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.”
The union’s priorities specifically mention that it wants “to make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or its 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).”
It adds: “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.”
The union’s demand comes in the context of funding cuts and a growing focus in Britain’s higher education towards the idea of “student satisfaction”, which has prompted changes in several universities, including in curriculum.
The SOAS students' demand has prompted much criticism and comment.
Writer Roger Scruton told The Times: “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.”
He added, “If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ arose, I would like to hear it.”
Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, 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.”
Recent campaigns to decolonise universities in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere included the demand to take down the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, while students at Jesus College, Cambridge, demanded the bronze cockerel in the college hall - known as “okokur” and looted during a British “punitive raid” in 1897 in what is now Nigeria - be removed and repatriated to Benin.