Oxford City’s culture of Enlightenment
Oxford is one of the most beautiful places I know. On retirement in 2010 my wife and I came to England and fell in love with this quaint (old-fashioned but modernised) little city. Climbing the narrow stairs of St. Mary’s Church near the Bodleian library, we discovered, tucked away in an obscure corner, a small statue of Gandhi. My father used to tell me stories about this “half-naked seditious fakir” (as Churchill is alleged to have described him). Growing up in the little town of Mbale in Uganda at the tender age of seven, I became a “follower” of Gandhi’s path to non-violence. And now, suddenly, hidden in this little corner in a Christian church we came across Gandhi’s statue. There were many reasons behind our choice of Oxford for our retirement, but Gandhi’s statue was the clincher. Not Cecil Rhodes statue! But to Rhodes I’ll come later.
Oxford is an enlightened place, I mean, in the true spirit of the European Enlightenment era. My wife and I love its intellectual and civic atmosphere. Jericho, where we live among a community of retired people like us, is the historic suburb of ancient Oxford. Milling around the bars and restaurants along Walton Street you find a healthy mix of earnest students (from all over the world) as well as retired doctors, professors and other professionals. We have sought out and mingle with the communities of social activists – engaged in the social movements for peace and justice. One such movement is aimed at the threatened invasion of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) by the predatory American corporations under the TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – that the US is imposing on Europe.
Oxford is an exciting place to be in. And exciting places can have their downsides too.
Institutionalised limitations of Social Science Teaching and Research at Oxford
Given the above context, it came as a bit of a shock to me that the educational system at Oxford University is fundamentally conservative – almost reactionary; I mean in its political sense. I refer here to the teaching and research in the Social Sciences. Anthropology, Accounts and Statistics may be all right, but I would not recommend Oxford University to African students mainstream subjects like Economics, Politics, Sociology, History, Law, and International Relations. I realise that this is a generalisation (and there may be exceptions), but I think that African students would fare better attending for example, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, the Middlesex and Warwick Universities … or, some of the better universities in the US.
The recent (2015-16) controversy surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College provides an excellent backdrop to understanding Oxford’s “structural” and institutionalised backwardness in the area of Social Science teaching and research.
The Controversy over the Statue of Cecil Rhodes
In 1873, whilst at Oriel College Oxford, Cecil Rhodes, then 24, wrote: “The object of which I intend to devote my life is the defence and extension of the British Empire… I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible...”[i]
In 1899 he took part in the Anglo-Boers Wars in defence of the Empire. The Boers suffered humiliating defeat. It is therefore not surprising that the first people to demand the removal of Cecil Rhode’s statue in Cape Town in the 1950s were Afrikaner students. They failed.
It was not until March 2015 that African students protested against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town (UCT). On 22 March 2015, Professor Xolela Mangcu told the Cape Times newspaper that only 5 out of the 200 senior professors at UCT were black. [ii] Already on 9th March, Chumani Maxwele, a student at UCT – son of a miner and a house maid – had called for direct action to remove Rhodes’ statue. Others joined in, including Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters arguing that the struggle was not only to remove the statue, but white supremacy itself. The University authorities at first resisted. But on April 9, 2015 the statue was removed. Student activism against Rhodes and campus racism then spread across the country to other universities – including Wits, Stellenbosch, and Rhodes University itself where students went a step further and demanded a change in the name of the University.
The winds of change spread from Cape Town to Oxford in England. On 13 April, 2015 students demanded the removal of Rhodes’ statue from Oriel. This sparked a debate among students, staff and the University authorities for best part of a year.[iii] On 19 January, 2016 the University decided that the statue would remain. What was the difference between UCT in Cape Town and Oriel in Oxford? Imperial power? Money power? A combination of the two? Money did play its role at Oxford University – donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million to Oriel if the statue was removed. [iv] Oxford is not Cape Town.
Was the Rhodes statue controversy at Oxford just a storm in a teacup? Well, the storm did subside as rapidly as it started. But disturbing structural issues remain as toxic sediments at the bottom of the cup.
The Colour of Oxford’s Social Sciences
The institutionalised defects of the teaching and research in the social sciences at Oxford manifest themselves at the epistemic level – at the very heart of the sources of knowledge and what the institution considers to be “bonafide knowledge”.
Over the last five years I have taken the opportunity to attend seminars and conferences at Oxford in the social sciences – mostly on Africa. The people presenting papers were usually the academic staff or post-graduates students. More often than not I came out of these meetings distressed and disappointed… not always, of course, but often enough for me to question myself if there was something I did not understand, or whether there was something wrong “out there”. There was a pattern, a tendency, which was beginning to worry me. The “scholarly” papers – produced no doubt with great effort and sincerity – had embedded in them unrecognised epistemic problems. I mention only two of these.
One was the almost total absence of references to African authors and scholarship. African writers were unwanted, unrecognised. I will give a couple of examples … out of many. One was a paper on conflict and conflict resolution in Africa (the exact title escapes me now). It covered five decades of conflicts in Africa categorised and subjected to statistical rigour, backed by regression analysis, and drawing conclusions on the relationships among different variables. The conclusions, however, were very superficial (had no depth) – for example, none of the cases the author analysed had any causal connection with the global geopolitical system. The sources of conflicts were all internal to Africa. Could it be that Britain, Europe, the US and other global players had no role in the conflicts in Africa? (For my explanation, see below).But what distressed me more was that the author’s references were all from American or European sources. These were the sources of the author’s “knowledge”. When I drew attention to this, there was no reaction – neither from the author nor from the rest of the audience. That baffled me.
In another case, the paper was about the role of the ethnic factor in African politics (again the title escapes me). The paper focused on Kenya but also drew on the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. During discussion, I said that the author had missed out on several significant ideological, gender and class factors that impacted on politics. I added that the more significant issue for me was a total absence of references to African authors and scholarship. The paper seemed to suggest, by default, that we Africans do not understand the politics of our own countries.
These are two of the most recent cases. Over the years I found that the evidence before me was so compelling that I decided to analyse the causes behind the epistemic shortcomings of the social sciences at Oxford.
Here is my thesis. Limitation of space limits extensive discussion, but it boils down to two deep-rooted, institutionalised and interacting socio-political forces: one imperial/racial and the other ideological.
The Imperial/Racial Factor
Oxford University is still the bastion of imperial dominance in the area of production of “knowledge”. African countries have gained their outward trappings of political and legal “sovereignty”, but they enjoy very little real independence. Why not? Fundamentally because Africa’s natural and productive resources are still owned largely by imperial capital; and the knowledge systems (in educational institutions and industrial intellectual property) are controlled by imperial/racial structures. Take South Africa: most of the properties in Johannesburg are owned by the British company Old Mutual; most of the banks, insurance companies, shipping companies, etc. are owned and/or controlled by British, European or American capital. At Cape Town University, after over 20 years of the official end of apartheid only 5 out of the 200 senior professors are black. And so on.
Let me illustrate the point with a concrete example. In September 2015, the South African parliament passed a bill – Private Security Regulation Bill – requiring foreign companies to reduce their holdings to 49% or less. The private security industry is worth Rand 50 billion and employs two million people. The largest companies are owned by US and European corporations. The US government reacted immediately. It instructed the American Director at the IMF to vote against any use of IMF funds for the benefit of any country that has nationalised or expropriated US property without compensation. The message was clear. Faced with this, President Zuma returned the bill to the Parliament for “reconsideration”.
This is just one example out of scores of others. This is the imperial factor that is almost totally absent from the epistemic vision of Oxonian “scholarship”. The imperial factor is also racial. Why do professors and researchers at Oxford make no reference to the imperial factor and ignore African writings on Africa? Are the two connected?
The ideological Factor
It is not proper to single out individuals, but this is permissible if he or she is an iconic representation of a certain phenomenon.
If I were to set apart one person above all, it would be Professor Paul Collier. He was a director of the Development Research Group at the World Bank. Now he is professor of economics and public policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford. His best-selling The Bottom Billion argues that four ‘traps’ have locked Africa into poverty: the conflict trap; the natural resource trap; the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbours; and the trap of bad governance.
Collier was rewarded with a knighthood for services rendered to the imperial order. But he has no understanding of Africa. This is what the Norwegian Professor Erik Reinert (author of How Rich Countries Got Rich and why Poor Countries Stay Poor) says about Collier: “Compared to classical development economics Collier’s analysis is surprisingly static. … He discusses ‘traps’ which to a large extent are a result of poverty, not their root cause. Had he focused on an ‘unemployment trap’, Collier would to some degree have been able to explain both the conflict trap and the bad governance trap. … Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion appears after a long period of dominance of Washington Consensus policies in the Third World. … Indeed it is clear that today’s most successful nations – China, India and Brazil – continued to grow during the neoliberal period essentially … (because they) … did not buy the core recommendation of neoliberalism: free trade shock therapy and the rolling back of the state.” [v]
This says it all.
Racism is structurally embedded in the system of education in the social sciences at Oxford. It is part of the imperial ideology that is deeply rooted in the system and psyche of the British ruling classes.
This imperial/racial ideology has taken institutional manifestation at the University, especially in the Social Sciences. The dominant mainstream academics working on Africa have no real understanding of the African reality. They have very serious epistemic limitations that do not allow them to look beyond their noses. This extends, consciously and unconsciously to a blanket disrespect and disregard for African writers on Africa.
Fortunately, the University does not represent the whole of Oxford. There are enlightened middle and lower classes that fight the system which oppresses and exploits Africa and the working classes in England.
Back to the status of Cecil Rhodes. Cecil Rhodes is the quintessential symbol of this dual limitation – imperial/racial and ideological. My view is that his statue at Oriel should stay. It is not the statue that is the problem; the problem is much deeper – it is structural and institutional. The statue might serve to remind us of this.
@ Yash Tandon
Oxford, 20 February, 2016
[iii] During the debate Nigel Biggar, professor of moral and pastoral theology, said “… if we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any”. And he compared Gandhi and Rhodes – neither was “pure”. I agree. But then comparing Rhodes with Gandhi is like comparing a hawk with a dove.
[iv] “Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford University after alumni threaten to withdraw millions”. Telegraph, 29 January, 2016.