Taking the fall for the empire

After the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the former prime minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa (1890-96) and mining magnate, from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the protest spread to the University of Oxford. Oriel College has been under pressure from the #rhodesmustfall movement to remove the statue of their alumnus and benefactor which adorns the front entrance of the college.

Rhodes, the man who once dreamed of an imperial railway stretching from the Cape Colony to Cairo, has become a reviled symbol of colonialism, racism and possibly Western hegemony. He was certainly not the only imperialist with Oxbridge credentials, but he was among the richest and most notorious. The relationship between big money and the academy, which purports to speak truth to power, will always be polemical.

Oriel College recently announced that its governing body has decided to keep the statue in place after receiving many requests to preserve it as well as support from a counter-protest student movement. In addition, there were allusions that the college risked losing £100 million (US$145 million) in gifts if the statue was removed. The students in the anti-Rhodes campaign have vowed to continue protesting.

Cambridge University has escaped the turmoil at Oxford University although the former boasts equally contentious historical figures. Jan Christian Smuts, the second prime minister of the Union of South Africa (1919-24 and 1939-48), was the chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1948 to 1950 and an alumnus of Christ’s College. Smuts was a strong proponent of racial segregation and white minority rule.

Like Rhodes, Smuts publicly proclaimed that Africans were child-like, lacking the sophistication of the Europeans and incapable of governing themselves. Professor Mahmood Mamdani opens the first chapter of his book Citizen and Subject with this infamous quote from Smuts.

Yet Smuts was regarded as a progressive in his time. He was willing to debate these issues with Mohandas Gandhi while most of his contemporaries would not have countenanced a non-white leader.

Smuts was also deeply involved in the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War and contributed to writing the charter of the League of Nations. There is no statue of Smuts at the University of Cambridge to stimulate a protest movement there. However, there is a statue of him in Parliament Square in London, not far from the statue of another prominent South African statesman, Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps this is an example of dealing with the thorny colonial past through addition rather than divisive agonising over the removal of statues which are part of British history.

Who will be left standing?

In the United States, there are a number of similar student protests over symbols and the renaming of institutions and buildings linked to eminent individuals who are now perceived to be nefarious.

Yale University is facing demands from students to rename Calhoun College as John C Calhoun was a vociferous advocate of slavery.

Amherst College in Massachusetts has agreed to stop using Lord Jeffery Amherst as a symbol and mascot and may rename its campus hotel, the Lord Jeffery Inn. Some students want the college to be renamed since Lord Amherst supported infecting Native Americans with the smallpox virus.

There have been sit-ins at Princeton University as part of a campaign to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on the grounds that the former president of the United States was a racist.

Were Wilson’s views much different from some of his predecessors and even successors? Were Calhoun and Amherst worse than Wilson?

The difficulty with this issue is that there are so many historical figures who have transgressed by current standards and there are no clear guidelines in terms of where to draw the line. However, as in the Rhodes case, the debate can be influenced by the number of people who are willing to stand up to defend the legacies of Calhoun, Amherst, Wilson and others.

The anti-Rhodes platform has become conflated with many other issues, ranging from institutional racism to demands for an anti-colonial curriculum and reading lists that reflect more work from people of colour.

Does the debate over the legacy of colonialism change who we read or how we regard them? It is difficult for students of colour to esteem the great social thinkers that we are trained to admire when we learn that they would not have considered us sufficiently civilised to read their work.

One has to try to separate the content from its creator, however. Hegel claimed that Africans had no history. Kant, Hume, Mill, Frege, Heidegger and Hayek voiced authoritative opinions on race which, by current standards, are blatantly racist or anti-Semitic. Likewise, prejudice abounds in the canon of English literature with such memorable Jewish villains as Shylock and Fagin.

Enid Blyton has already been taken off many reading lists because of racism, but should we stop reading Shakespeare and Dickens? DH Lawrence, a seemingly liberal figure in terms of his social background and the sexuality in his novels, gave a scathing account of his impressions of the darker races.

Once the great purge begins where will it end? Who will be left standing?

Is a backlash coming?

As the agenda of the protest widens it is inevitable that a backlash will ensue as more students find themselves drawn into the debate. Many students come to top tier institutions for the best education rather than for an anti-colonial education. In some fields, like area studies or development studies, it makes much sense to include more readings from scholars from developing or non-Western countries.

In many ways the education system reproduces historic inequities, but should all reading lists in every subject be scrutinised to reflect geographic balance? English-medium education is bound to be biased towards scholars whose writings are published in English.

Many books or articles which are published only in Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, Arabic, French or Spanish may not find their way onto the reading lists at English-speaking institutions.

At the heart of this debate is the issue of balancing the needs of international students, especially those from former colonies, with those of students from the United Kingdom and Europe.

A student who chooses to study in Europe, America or Japan obtains an education that is fundamentally European, American or Japanese respectively.

There is also the issue of which universities Oxford wishes to benchmark with. Can Oxford maintain its status among the top-tier universities in the world if its curricula are significantly different? And why are these issues pertinent only in Oxford? Surely they are relevant to all universities in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Academic exchanges may be one means of accommodating different perspectives and needs. Spending a term – or more – at a university in another country may offer the opportunity to introduce more diverse education for those who desire it.

Zenobia Ismail is a Gates Cambridge Scholar, doing a PhD in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. She was formerly a manager of Afrobarometer, which conducts surveys across Sub-Saharan Africa.