Degree Review: Politics at Oxford

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Having spent four years at Oxford studying politics – reading history and politics as an undergraduate, and now political philosophy as a postgraduate – I have seen first hand both the very best and the very worst of the way the subject is taught at the university. The best has been life-alteringly good, especially as a “mature” student who left education the first time round with barely a GCSE to my name. I have been fortunate to study some of the richest works of politics with some of the sharpest academics and students; and I only slightly exaggerate when I say it has become my wish to be buried alongside my exhausted copy of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – not light reading, admittedly, but just one of many books which has given me new ways of thinking about politics. And that, after all, is what a politics degree should do.

Nevertheless, if a deeper understanding of politics is the aim then, in my experience, the Oxford curriculum has some glaring failures – as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter have argued. An obvious problem is the lack of attention given to racism and colonialism. One lecture sticks in my mind, on the popular undergraduate course, “Theory of Politics”. The lecturer (who, incidentally, is no longer at Oxford) assured the packed hall that J.S. Mill, the nineteenth-century liberal, was the quintessential defender of individual liberty. Except Mill wasn’t at all. In fact, as I later found out on an optional and much less well-attended course, Mill happily argued that India and other “uncivilized” nations were too “backward” to deserve freedom; this was the justification for British colonialism.

But only a tiny fraction of politics students take this later course. Indeed, only in my first year as a graduate did I come across race as a subject in its own right, as opposed to something seemingly stuck on as an afterthought to reading lists on “power” and “justice”. It remains all too easy to spend three years at undergraduate without learning about race or colonialism at all.

A related problem is that reading lists can still give the impression that nobody except white, European men has ever written political philosophy. This is partly a consequence of who makes it into “the canon” and onto the reading lists in the first place. All the usual names, from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli, are there – fascinating thinkers, but hardly ethnically diverse.

Yet the problem is not necessarily that we study these philosophers. They have written some of the most thought-provoking works in political theory, and mostly deserve their place in the canon. The real problem lies not so much in who goes into the canon as who doesn’t, and how the canon is presented to us. Not enough is done to point out that western philosophy is exactly that – western philosophy. And even where this is made clear, the curriculum will remain hopelessly western-centric until there are comparable courses on non-western philosophy. As a result, it is too easy to form the impression that western philosophy simply is political philosophy in its entirety.

In fairness, reading lists are far more diverse now than they were even five years ago. But this only begs the question: with more diversity, how does it remain possible to study politics without learning about subjects like race and colonialism, or reading works by non-white authors? In my experience, too much still depends on the preferences of the individual tutors who don’t design the reading lists or give the lectures, but who actually teach the courses in tutorials and inevitably influence the specific topics students cover. Decolonization and race might be on the reading list of twentieth-century British politics, but so are seventeen other topics.

I feel lucky that, for the most part, I had tutors who encouraged me to read widely. There was the tutor who had us dig down into Mill’s liberalism; the medievalist who, during a course on the European Renaissance, let us read about the politics of Ming-era China; the lecturer who suggested we read the chapter on slavery and Amerindians in Tocqueville’s Democracy and America, even though it wasn’t on the reading list.  

But it could easily have been otherwise, and for many students in my cohort it was. Every course has its set of standard topics, the ones that are non-compulsory but almost everybody ends up studying anyway. These standards should change. Reading about, say, race in British politics should be as normal as reading about Thatcherism. If we think that a politics degree should give us ways of thinking more deeply about the world outside our grand lecture halls and cosy seminar rooms, it’s a necessary change.