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Dead White Men And University Curriculum

Guest Opinion

Picture Credit: Getty Images, The School of Athens painting by Raphael Sanzio was painted between 1509 and 1511.

The Black Lives Matter movement that recently shook the institutionalized and systematic racism in the United States of America and the larger world also saw the statues of various leaders and famous personalities being toppled around the world, who were classified as racist and imperialist. Cecil Rhodes was among one of them. The students of Oxford University and people around the world demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the Oriel College, Oxford University. The campaign “ RHODES MUST FALL” began at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015, which again got reignited in the events following massive protests against racism due to the death of George Floyd in the United States in May last year. The governors of Oxford University voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in June but it did not amount to immediate removal, the final decision still awaiting judgment in spring this year. The Vice-Chancellor of the Oxford University Louise Richardson had a different view. She said that denying or hiding history can be no route to enlightenment. She emphasized that history must be studied in the context in which it was made and we need to focus on why people believed what they believed. The claim that Cecil Rhodes was a racist would fetch nothing but an analysis of why he thought so will lead us to better understand the causes of racism which will then help us to solve the problem more systematically.

Why Read the Dead-White Men?

The dilemma of removing statues of people with a racist belief in the university campus can be related to larger accusations that are often labeled against universities for not having an inclusive curriculum and for only teaching about the dead-white men. There are often demands for removing the teachings of these dead white men from the curriculum and to include the perspectives of the so-called third world, marginalized sections, the subalterns, and women. The inclusivity of other perspectives in the study of classical political philosophy, literature, history, and politics is most welcome but the emphasis on the removal of the “dead-white man” perspective from the curriculum is neither justified nor desirable. This leads us to delve deeper into the question of why studying about them is important? The answer can be based on moral and prudential arguments. First, reading about the dead-white men is crucial as reading authors, political theorists, historians, and philosophers of all races and gender increase our chances of actualizing our human potential. Second, reading as an activity has been enabled by the use of language which essentially forms the backbone of the civilization. What we choose to read or not to read subconsciously has a result on our values and ultimately on what we become. Therefore on a moral level, no one should be deprived of the progressive character of some of the writings of white men. Third, the readings of dead-white men are essential because the theories or works that they have written, contain universal applications and are not limited to the color of their skin. The joy of poetry and of reading classics of Shakespeare and Plato has not been enjoyed by Europeans or white people alone, but have contributed significantly in providing joy of reading, delving so deep into it as to be transported in the imaginary world and broadening the understanding of people all across the world. Fourth, reading about the dead white men is essential for criticizing them and their work. The rule is to know how to unlearn and criticize. When we claim that the study of dead white men must not be taught in universities, we somehow impose the same stereotypical straitjacket of trying to monopolize knowledge and restrict it which leads to the same exclusionary education that we seek to abolish in the very first place. Lastly, we commit the grave error of looking at an individual in a one-dimensional way. Removing the study and work of predominantly white men solely on account of their race or color will lead to a reduction of their life to the color of their skin. An individual is a lot more than his or her race, gender, religion, and caste. Individuals are multi-dimensional creatures and as Amartya Sen points out their identity cannot be defined in a unidimensional way. Thus, the study of the ‘dead-white man’ is essential to understanding humanity in its entirety.

The Influence of Dead-White Men in Philosophy and Politics

We can understand the importance and universality of the teachings of the dead white men by focusing on some thinkers. The teachings of the dead white men are not limited to their white students but are illuminating the classrooms, minds, and lives of people across the world from the United States to India. Plato (429 –347 B.C.E.), the great Athenian philosopher has made us realize the importance of having a vision. His idealism, though often labeled as utopian, is indeed inspiring. Plato exhorts us to think that the ideal is achievable. He forces us to redefine utopia not as something that is not achievable but as something that can be realized by using the force of determination and radical restructuring of the society. Idealism sustains the world; human civilization has never progressed from what it is but has become what it is using the application of reason to understand what ought to be and then achieving that. The platonic ladder of love is refreshingly and beautifully elucidated as it begins from bodily love and transforms itself into the platonic form of beauty itself where love becomes an "everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor ages, which neither flowers nor fades.”

Now let us look at Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), known as the father of Political Science. He authoritatively asserts that man is a political animal. In my opinion, this statement is a landmark assertion that has opened up the once reserved field of politics dominated by the elites to people from all sections of society. For Aristotle, the universal notion of equality that prevailed in ancient Greece did not suffice and he argued for proportional equality. From him, we can learn that equality is not about treating everyone in the same fashion, rather it is about treating the equals equally and about providing a pedestal to the unequal to become equal. Proportional equality thus becomes the rationale behind the progressive policies of affirmative action in modern society. Aristotle’s belief in the principle of the golden mean can also have a greater application in our lives. His concept of “golden mean” posits that virtue lies between both extremes. This is an important principle that makes life easier and soothing.

Machiavelli, who is believed to liberate politics from religion, is another figure who has often been despised and cited frequently to defend the European imperialist project. Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine diplomat who wanted to unite Italy. His most famous work “The Prince'' is a monumental book on statecraft. He can be rightly credited as being the beginner of empirical political science who rescued it from pure normativity. Machiavelli has taught the world a sort of secularism where the church should not be allowed to intervene in the activities of the state. He also emphasizes that a future prince should not only be as powerful as a lion but also be as cunning as a fox. This advice can be of special help in the modern world of multinational corporations where the application of mind is more important than brute military force. Thus, the thought and philosophies of these dead-white men were not limited to their specific race or time but these teachings are very much relevant and form a part of our lives in the modern world.


Coming back to where we began, Cecil Rhodes was an imperialist. He did think of English as the superior people - ‘the master race’. He was also the person who donated generously to universities spreading liberal education. Rhodes Scholarship was created with his will which empowers students from around the world to come and learn at the prestigious Oxford University every year. In the year 2020, out of 32 students that have been selected for Rhodes scholarship in America, 22 are from people of color out of which 10 are Blacks. My insistence in this article is not to continue with the Eurocentric curriculum nor do I not stand for the overwhelming dominance of white men in the university curriculum. Instead what I stand for and believe that we all should stand up for, is having a deeply holistic, well-researched curriculum in universities across the world. The inclusion of women’s voices, black voices, LGBTQ voices, anti-colonial and immigrant voices, non-Christian voices is the golden thread that needs to be woven into the dominant discourse of subjects like philosophy and literature. The emphasis needs to be on inculcating a hybrid and vibrant culture, delving deeper into the unknown to uncover the truth, and reimagining it from a fresh perspective. We must not deny the contribution of dead white men in developing these subjects but must emphasize including the work of the marginalized sections of society. Their voices need to be integrated into the system like that of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and political theorist born in the Caribbean island, who had what W.E.B Du Bois calls double consciousness of living, the experience of living in both worlds which the dead white men lacked. The cosmopolitan world we live in needs the fragrance of inclusion of voices from around. We should aim at the inclusion of new voices and not the exclusion of the existing literature. Political Philosophy, history, and literature are ready to accept the representation of minority and revolutionary views. The true joy of reading and learning lies indifference and variety, in trying to understand the larger concerns of being and creation itself through engaging in a dialogue across civilizations.


By: Preet Sharma (Guest Writer)

Preet is a third-year student of Political Science Hons at Hindu College. She is a simple girl who loves engaging with complicated political theories . She is also deeply passionate about cooking other than reading and writing