Political protests might have occupied center-stage in the past few weeks, but a different sort of protest has been taking place on a central London campus. The old urge to upend traditional canons has found its latest incarnation in the demands of students at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The debate is not new, tracing its origin to the wave of multiculturalism that swept through Anglo-Saxon academia in the 1960s. However, the scope of these demands might well be new: The students are requesting that the university only teach philosophers of the Global South, and include Western philosophers only to the extent that they can be considered “critically.”
A simplistic version of this worldview—often peddled by torch-carrying youths in search of an effigy—holds that diversity trumps intellectual value. Although rarely this straightforward, proponents of this view would ultimately agree that we should study women, non-whites, and non-Westerners simply because they are not white, male, or Western.
In truth, what many of these disgruntled rebels want is to bring down the old totems. The claims of “equality” and “diversity” become shortcuts for undermining existing traditions without doing the hard work of understanding their history, content, and merits as well as their limits and shortcomings. That is why this version of the argument is usually framed as a blanket dismissal, to wit: All Enlightenment thinkers are colonialists and racists and therefore should be treated with suspicion (though little textual evidence backs up that claim), and more non-Western thinkers should be included (though surprisingly little thought is given to who these would be and why they are important).
Just as the argument cannot rely on “diversity” as a universal value, it cannot appeal to objectivity. Its proponents cannot lay claim to some external, objective vantage point from where they can judge what amounts to fair representation of non-traditional scholars in traditional disciplines. Unlike medicine or science, however, humanities and the arts lack clear external points of reference, and are instead constituted by internal standards that are arguably never culturally neutral or entirely independent. It is no accident that no one is seriously arguing for homeopathy to be taught to medical students alongside surgical methods, or for Mayan astrology to complement nuclear physics. Pushed to the extreme, the call for a purified, “decolonized” version of art history or political theory upends the disciplines it aims to transform by denying them access to the very subjective standards that constitute them.
More charitably, perhaps, the SOAS students’ argument can be understood as a plea for specialization. If the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world can specialize in Western political thought, what is wrong with a university like SOAS, uniquely dedicated to the study of non-Western traditions, neglecting the dominant in favor of the unrecognized?
This argument is compelling insofar as it seeks to recognize overlooked contributions, or to broaden intellectual disciplines according to intelligible standards. Such changes would fill an unfortunate void in our educational system, which currently leaves graduates with little knowledge about the rest of the world and its history. But the argument runs out of steam when it turns into a campaign to demolish or radically rethink those disciplines. Rejecting alternative views on behalf of a non-Western canon is no different from Georgetown University, for instance, teaching only Jesuit political thought to its students. This would be fine if Georgetown purported to teach only the Catholic tradition, but not if it claimed to teach the discipline of political thought as a whole.
In this second form, the debate is no longer about substance but about method, in which the multiculturalists are refusing to admit that they are only providing one, highly contested view among many. By claiming that political theory is simply not about Kant, Hume, or Locke, or that the literature is not about Austen, Tolstoy, or Mann, the multiculturalist relies on a particular postmodern interpretation of all knowledge as a form of power. If we accept that no element of discourse can be truer or better than any other, then my art or political philosophy has no more right to be taught in universities than yours—whatever yours might be. This is a laissez-faire relativism that would upend the university as the habitat of worthwhile intellectual projects.
What is more, a truly global university cannot afford to be pluralistic only when it comes to geography. Adopting a postmodern agenda that denies the possibility of non-localized knowledge ironically imposes a narrow and controversial methodology in the name of greater inclusion. Most importantly, it is bad pedagogy. Since undergraduate students do not get to study at both Oxford and SOAS, choosing a university should not amount to unwittingly picking a side in intra-disciplinary battles.
The multiculturalists, however, rightly demand that places like Oxford and Cambridge teach more non-mainstream thinkers as part of their core curriculum. Any self-proclaimed global university should take note: Courses on the “African Novel” or “Eastern Political Thought” may well deserve to be included in mainstream literature and philosophy programs, instead of being relegated to “ethnic studies” departments.
But how can universities and departments determine whether and how to include a previously excluded theorist or tradition? A nuanced and moderate version of multiculturalism can provide an answer. Such a realistic project would call for: a) the recognition of disciplinary contributions that Western thought may have overlooked by virtue of its dominance; and b) more capacious and imaginative conceptions of what kinds of contributions belong in these disciplines in the first place.
To succeed in the first task, advocates should present compelling arguments as to why an invitation should be extended to a previously ignored theorist or work, according to the evaluative standards that the discipline already understands and accepts. This is increasingly possible as scholars use a growing number of methodological tools to reach into other, previously inaccessible traditions, universities recruit faculty and students from an ever-more-cosmopolitan pool, and interdisciplinary collaboration enters the mainstream.
The second task, changing the nature of those disciplines, is harder. It requires patience above all else. To succeed, moderate multiculturalists must pitch new ideas in ways that are intelligible to members of their disciplines. Otherwise, there is chaos. If we shut down the Harvard philosophy department and replaced its faculty overnight with comic-book writers, the new dons would not be writing philosophy even if they all agreed that narrative illustration was the new litmus test for the discipline. They might eventually succeed in giving the word “philosophy” an entirely new definition, but they would no longer be engaging in any form of the practice as we know it. To ensure that the practice survives, any transformation in its standards must be accompanied by some continuity in the justifications for these standards.
In a sense this is just what it means to do philosophy. But this need for continuity is present in any attempt to methodologically ground the arts and humanities more broadly. There will always be debates as to whether certain contributions are properly “art,” “history,” or “scholarship,” but these are only intelligible within a community of practice whose members share a vocabulary intended not to coerce or dazzle, but persuade.
The moderate project will also be more successful if it targets less specialized courses within the curricula. It is easier to argue for a drastically different pool of writers in an introductory course on comparative literature than in a course on the 18th-century novel. Subfields within particular disciplines are often extremely geographically and temporally dependent—and that is not necessarily problematic. The university is not the United Nations and not every intellectual nook and cranny must display perfect multicultural representation. What the university must provide is an umbrella big enough to cover all worthwhile projects, whatever their country or culture of origin.
The extreme interpretations of the “decolonization” argument do a great disservice to an important point best made by other means. Like political protesters, SOAS students claim to play an important role in reminding those in charge than they have to justify their power, and not just take it for granted. But as most radicals eventually realize, inciting a revolution from the outside is often perilous, and less fruitful than operating within existing structures to bring about change from within.