Students don't want to learn anymore. They want to teach.
Here's what it really means to 'de-colonize' Plato
The student union at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies made headlines with their proposal to "de-colonize" their institution. In the brash headlines of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, it was students demanding to remove Plato and Kant "because they are white."
The English tabloids aren't wrong.
After demanding that at least the majority of the philosophers studied come from the Global South, the student manifesto says, "If white philosophers are required, then teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called 'Enlightenment' philosophers wrote." School is much easier for students when they teach the professors and not vice versa.
Unfortunately, the students don't seem to know anything. There's something anachronistic and flattening about grouping all philosophers who lived on the European continent "white," a racial identity that had little or no salience to most of them while they lived, worked, and wrote. Or, at least, it didn't have the meaning it would by the end of the colonial period.
It's also reductive to define the intellectual output of an entire continent primarily by the power relations that existed for a few centuries between a handful of colonizing states. The white English philosopher Roger Scruton responded to the student union's response dismissively, asking what precisely is the colonial context for understanding Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason."
The spasms of student attempts at "decolonization" are almost always ill-conceived. Last year Yale students petitioned the English department to "decolonize" themselves, announcing that it was "unacceptable" for the Major English Poets Sequence to feature so many white male authors, like Keats, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Pope, and Milton.
There's something adorably naive about expecting the major poets of a language that was primarily spoken in one section of one island for half a millennium to be representative of all global voices. No one makes this demand of literature in other languages. We don't expect to find Welsh, Brazilian, or Caribbean voices among the major Polish language poets.
Maybe naive isn't the word. In fact it is the modern English major demanding a "diverse" set of voices in English literature that has become the caricature of the colonialist. It is the petitioning students who shout from their privileged position at the diverse world, "Speak English to me, please."
If students really want to encounter classical poetry produced by non-whites, they have options. They can study the relative handful of languages that produced significant literature before the modern period. Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, Chinese, and Urdu come to mind. These are all worthy subjects crying out for more scholarship.
But there's a catch. And it is what catches our activists out. Studying an ancient language to discover non-white voices is challenging and requires real work. You cannot pass the final exams just by repeating a number of fashionable political slogans. And perhaps activist students do not study these languages because they correctly suspect they won't find much written in these languages that qualifies as politically correct by the standards of 2017. In fact, you will find in these literatures exactly the kind of messages that activists least like to hear. Lessons like: Humble yourself and mortify your ambitions.
Perhaps it is the students themselves who should have their views "interrogated" and their discourse of power deconstructed. The activist-student is engaged in a power grab. He wishes to delegitimize the power of professors and even the school itself. That is why the activist student defines knowledge itself as a form of malicious participation in an unjust power system. And he does so because this is the only way of dignifying his own ignorance. It is also the only way that he might shame an academic institution into creating a new administrative role for his kind of sloganeering.
In a real sense, the modern student activist is a kind of shallow theologian. He learns a political catechism, he identifies a scapegoat, and he enacts a ritualized sacrifice of a victim-group, in order to redeem himself and give some dint of credibility to his priestcraft.
Schools put up with this for the money. But why do we?