So there has been a minor outcry over the student union of The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, asking for the removal of white philosophers from the curriculum. According to the Telegraph ‘students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.’ The general external response to this was to call the students snowflakes. Thereby suggesting that the students were too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own.
The student union demands are part of a global decolonization movement that has been gaining ground over the last couple of years. The purpose of this post is not to contribute to the decolonisation debate. Because. Read. Every. Single. Thing. I. Have. Ever Written… Ever.
Nevertheless, two things strike me about this story, especially as lessons for academia. Firstly, we have been overwhelmed with faux news and the initial story was at the very least misrepresented. We do have a responsibility to fact-check information that we receive. SOAS’ students union in a press release stated inter alia, ‘We are not asking for thinkers to be removed, but to be studied in their appropriate contexts and for our curricula to encompass perspectives which reflect the diversity of the world we live in.‘ Which means that the position of the student union was entirely blown out of proportion. It seems to me that it is at the very least unwise, given the current state of the world we live in, to create a false impression to attack. Even BBC Newsnight did not present the SOAS student Union’s actual view when they briefly interviewed Dr Kehinde Andrews about the story. News houses have a responsibility to engage with truth and not a false perception of it. As the great philosopher, Thumper (Bambi: 1942) stated ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.’ In this case if you cannot speak the truth, be silent.
Secondly, it perturbs me that our default position seems to be that student voices are invalid or uninformed or not worth listening to. Academic freedom requires us to engage in debates, even the ones we do not agree with. Otherwise, we engage in the practice of silence rather than the practice of freedom, we disengage rather than teach. While we may not have much responsibility to the wider public to ensure critical thinking, we have a weight of responsibility to listen to our students. I believe it our responsibility as academics to foster critical thinking in our students, even when our deeply held beliefs are challenged. We cannot teach critical thinking when we silence dissent. We cannot have our cake and eat it. Either we are teaching independent reasoning or not. If our students use the tools we have given them to challenge our thinking, we should be able to engage and not silence. If we fail to to engage with the debate and try to silence it, then we are the snowflakes. Not our students.