Take this, you Foucault Kant

Philosophers at London’s Soas (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) think there is something fundamentally wrong with the ways their subject is taught at our schools and universities.

Specifically, they take exception to a curriculum requiring the study of Plato, Hume, Russell, Locke, Descartes and Wittgenstein. I have to agree: this list is grossly inadequate.

There isn’t a single Christian thinker there, and only Plato has a valid excuse of a chronological nature. For example, I don’t see how it’s possible to omit Aquinas – as a theologian, he baptised Aristotle; as a philosopher, he modernised him. Then again, Aristotle himself is left out – possibly on the assumption that, if you put him in, you’d also have to add Aquinas, who is a bit too… well, white.

Then again, no book has influenced subsequent modern philosophy as much as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and there were better political philosophers than Locke even in England, not to mention other countries. In short, one can quibble about who should and who shouldn’t be on the list till the peripatetic philosophers come home. In any case, Soas’s concerns strike me as legitimate…

Just as I wrote this, I decided to take a closer look at their gripes, to see whether their problems are the same as mine. Well, let me tell you – they aren’t. My concerns and theirs are like chicken salad and chicken dung (I promised Penelope I’d stop using the ruder word).

Those Soas scholars feel that our philosophy curricula are in urgent need of “decolonising”, ridding them of the toxic influence exerted by dead white men. To my amateur way of thinking, the chromatic accent could be mitigated by adding Augustine and Tertullian to the syllabus, but these aren’t the names those professional philosophers see in their mind’s eye.

They’ve compiled a universal toolkit designed to build curricula heavily slanted towards sublime Asian, Middle Eastern and African philosophers, those who have enriched the world with such seminal contributions as Knowledges Born in the Struggle; Conceptualising Epistemic Oppression; On Being White: Thinking Towards a Feminist Understanding of Race and Race Supremacy; and Knowledge Sovereignty among African Cattle Herders.

I must admit to woeful ignorance of all these titles and, judging by the passion with which the toolkit authors promote their curriculum, many philosophy professors everywhere are just as illiterate. I suspect that even when Wittgenstein himself taught at Cambridge he ignored the unique perspective on logic and the philosophy of language offered by African cattle herders.

There’s only one way to fill this embarrassing gap, and the toolkit authors kindly tell us what it is. Teachers should stop teaching and start learning. This takes the trans principle out of the smutty sex arena to make it truly universal. For it’s not professors who should teach students, but vice versa.

However, before those colonising academics are ready to absorb new knowledge, they should understand the evil role they play in “racist systems”. It’s only after repenting their sins that they can open their hearts to virtue. Only then they’ll be able to soak up the valuable knowledge imparted by African cattle herders.    

The authors of the toolkit express this idea much better than I can ever aspire to:

“Without this intellectual insight, it is impossible to even find the root of the problem, let alone begin to address it. The teacher in a decolonial classroom must learn to learn from the perspectives and knowledge systems of the students and to unlearn their own colonially mediated assumptions and background knowledge.

“Unlearning means stopping oneself from always wanting to correct, teach and enlighten. Rather, the teacher should be prepared to forgo a singularly authoritative role and be a facilitator of, and participant in, good learning.”

Reactionaries among you may think that “correcting, teaching and enlightening” is a useful definition of a teacher’s job. And to be able to do it, a teacher indeed must perform a “singularly authoritative role”. To my shame, even I stuck to that view throughout my short teaching career and thereafter.

But the toolkit authors explain that my understanding has little to do with education. It’s nothing but pernicious power play. Teachers, like I used to be and so many still are, seek to maintain and widen social divides, which is a “reductive capitalist notion”.

To that end those reductive capitalists insist on using such known weapons of class oppression as tests, exams, essays and incomprehensible philosophical texts. Anyone can see that your average African cattle herder must feel lost and disadvantaged in such a classroom. He’d be much more comfortable with media commonly used by African cattle herders, such as blogs, texts and podcasts.

If essays are still required for old times’ sake, then students themselves should create the topics. And it’s students rather than teachers who should then assess and mark the works they’ve submitted to themselves. Straight A’s all around, no one is culturally disadvantaged, the noxious effects of colonisation lie in smouldering ruins.

It’s natural that academics working at a university specialising in Oriental and African Studies should wish to see philosophers from those parts better represented in the curriculum. If their intention were to expand their students’ minds by the study of, say, Lao-Tze or Avicenna (Ibn Sina, if you’d rather), I’d doff my hat and possibly toss it up in the air.

However, first, they propose their toolkit as a panacea against “colonising” thought not only at their specialised institution but at philosophy departments everywhere. Granted, no such department should ignore non-European thinkers, but they should be treated as merely a footnote to the intellectual foundations of our own civilisation.

Second, works like Feminist Understanding of Race and Race Supremacy have nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with the urgent desire to destroy what little is left of our civilisation. It’s just woke propaganda couched in pseudo-academic cant.

Third, the toolkit authors want to replace education with indoctrination, and they clearly take their cue from the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Those feral youngsters were also told they should instruct their professors, not the other way around. And if the academics proved to be slow learners, the Hóngwèibīng were given a carte blanche to smash their ‘dog heads’ – and I don’t mean figuratively.

Then again, I have it on good Soas authority that there would be nothing wrong with that scenario if played out in our universities. The Red Guards were Asian, weren’t they? That means they knew the ultimate philosophical truth better than all those big fat Kants. And if they shared that truth by smashing a few older heads, then good riddance to bad rubbish. What’s there not to like?

6 thoughts on “Take this, you Foucault Kant”

  1. Idiocy and arrogance can be a deadly combination.

    The idea of the students taking charge of the classroom reminds me of an episode of the old radio and television series People Like Us when the crew visited a school where the candidates for head teacher were debating the merits of “teacher centered learning” versus “pupil centered teaching” (or some such – I don’t remember the exact wording after all these years). Thank goodness these are philosophy students and not engineers, where the idea that the professors must learn from the students would have immediate and disastrous effects (as planes fall from the sky, bridges collapse, and skyscrapers crumble).

    1. I could argue that the debauchment of philosophy in the classroom may have even more disastrous, if less immediate and visible, effects. It was, after all, the Word that was in the beginning, and the ultimate task of philosophy is to take people closer to that Word — Jacques Maritain defined philosophy as “the science of first principles”, and I think he was right. Without that, it’s not just bridges that may collapse, and not just skyscrapers that may crumble.

      1. You are absolutely correct and I considered that before writing my comment. But I decided to focus on a discipline with a more immediate impact after I concluded that the ignoramuses protesting for a different curriculum and upside down teaching hierarchy (or none at all) will have little impact on the future of philosophy. The damage has already been done there by those brighter and more nefarious. (And I’m probably wrong there as well. Things can always get worse.) Certainly there is no philosophy student asking for the perspective of the African cattle herder who will ever be considered on par with, say, Nietzsche.

  2. It’s not impossible that an African cattle-herder might be a philosopher: after all, it was a Galilaean fisherman who wrote the Fourth Gospel, and if that book isn’t an important work of philosophy, I don’t know what is.

    And it’s unlikely that even an African cattle-herder who was too stupid to work out how to herd cattle could be quite as unlike a philosopher as the leaders of all British political parties, who are a bunch of sophists. But the distinction between philosophers and sophists will be meaningless to students who are encouraged not to read Plato.

    But there’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is wearing a kippah on his big, wise, wrinkled grey head. Where, in the proposed alternative philosophy curriculum, are such underappreciated philosophers as Philo of Alexandria and Moses Mendelssohn? Where, in the courses offered by SOAS, are Classical and Medieval Hebrew? And why does a search for courses to study on the SOAS site yield 46 results for “Islam” but only 6 for “Judaism”?

    I wonder how many Jews study at SOAS, and how welcome they they feel there. Fewer and fewer every year, I suspect.

    1. That is an excellent point regarding the cattle-herder and the fisherman. However, I submit that if the herder’s philosophy overlapped or coincided with John’s in any way, the students would dismiss it without serious consideration. If not, and while not strictly a philosopher, they might take an interest in the works of the West African writer Robert Cardinal Sarah.

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