12 January 2018

Tutors who know best

The open letters attacking the Ethics and Empire project merit careful study. They are revealing, not just about the state of academic history, but about the purposes of academia, as conceived by the current incumbents.

For example, the Oxford scholars — a group which includes three professors of modern history — say that they teach their students

to think seriously and critically about [the histories of empire and colonialism]
yet go on to assert that
Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history, will be engaging with the Ethics and Empire programme [...]

It is interesting that the scholars feel able to announce in advance, on behalf of their own students, and the students of other history tutors at Oxford, a decision on whether students will engage with the project. One might think that the ability to “think critically” would include openness to ideas from heterodox perspectives, as well as the capacity to decide for oneself, independently of one’s tutors, whether a source of information is worthy of consideration. One has to remember, however, that the word “critical” may have a special technical meaning in the context of the humanities.

Here is my advice to undergraduates studying modern history at Oxford. If you want to learn to think seriously and critically, take an interest in the Ethics and Empire research, as well as any other heterodox projects you come across, irrespective of what your tutors may say. Do not commit the same mistake as some members of the history faculty, of writing such projects off a priori.

Of course, in my experience a significant proportion of Oxford students these days are not interested in thinking critically, but merely want to be able to get a good degree and a good reference from their tutors. If you fall into this category, you are unlikely to benefit from considering ideas other than those endorsed by your tutors, and I recommend you stick to those.

In neither case do I recommend repeating unendorsed ideas in your tutorials or exam papers.