I’m no longer teaching Western political thought 

The ‘canon’ of political thought is a myth and we owe it to our students to let them choose which theorists they engage with, says Gemma Bird

October 20, 2018
Source: istock

When I started at university in the UK, political theory meant studying a very particular canon, taught by a very particular type of scholar. In recent years, calls for the need to change how we think about and teach international relations and politics have started to gain traction. It is about time.

It is difficult for most of us to see ourselves in “the canon” and to feel that our stories are being represented.

I have always enjoyed teaching. Like many early career scholars, I drew on the experiences of the people who had taught me to initially shape how I thought about modules. Yet it is only in the past few years – since I have started to critically engage with my own experiences – that I have felt uncomfortable with the material that I once taught. I have come to recognise that “the canon” is both exclusionary and silencing.

I think that I have found my voice and my home in a collection of texts that rebels against mainstream understandings of what political theory should be. This has taken time, during which I struggled with my academic demons and feelings of inadequacy. I did not find myself in the scholars I was reading until I was a number of years into my PhD.

Having rethought my approach to scholarship and teaching, I consider the following three elements important: the role that students are asked to play in sourcing the literature that they engage with; the type of work and scholars that we celebrate in the public eye and the reading lists and teaching methods that we present to students.

I no longer believe that it is my role to provide students with key scholars to engage with in a way that suggests it is an exhaustive list of what and who matters.

It is this approach that leads us to a situation where students believe there is a “canon” that they should celebrate. There isn’t. There are diverse perspectives that span the globe both temporally and geographically. Reading Plato will not tell you more about the world than reading Audre Lorde. In fact, it will tell you a lot less.

Understanding Machiavelli should not be deemed a priority over engaging with the ideas of bell hooks or Frantz Fanon. The ideas included in the “history of Western political thought” mentality are no more valuable or inspiring than the history of those voices silenced and oppressed by them.

We owe it to our students to ask them to prepare the source material for seminars against a backdrop of support and skill development that enables them to challenge the perceptions of who counts as political theorists and philosophers.

We can still use “the canon” (whatever that really means), but as a jumping-off point: a vehicle to magnify voices and lessons that have been forcibly disappeared by a sense of misplaced supremacy.

This is the role that we as teachers should be playing – to foster passion in students by encouraging them to find their own sources and to think about our lectures and reading lists in a way that celebrates traditionally marginalised voices.

We also must recognise that for a long time it has been the way that we teach and that the voices we have magnified that have furthered that oppression and marginalisation.

The scholars that inspire me are not the scholars that I learned about when I was 18 or that I was encouraged to find for myself. I wish that they were. However, they will be the scholars my students read and digest, who ask them questions and inspire them to respond in creative ways.

They will hear the voices of Audre Lorde, of bell hooks, of Edward Said, of Sara Ahmed, of Frantz Fanon and learn to understand why anger in politics matters.

Gemma Bird is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Liverpool.


Print headline: I’ll pass on Plato for there’s a world beyond the ‘canon’ of Western political thought

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Reader's comments (4)

Let's take the argument a step further. Get rid of the Western University. Let students teach themselves what they want to learn. Provide them with access to libraries and the internet. Then give them a certificate for their efforts. Charge them for access to the library and internet resources, and the certification. Lecturers in Politics and International Relations will no longer need to worry about what to teach students - they can focus on their research and impact activisms.
“We owe it to our students to ask them to prepare the source material for seminars.” What makes you think that an 18 year old is capable of deciding which are the most important texts to read? If they could do that already, why would they become students? It is our responsibility to guide students, even if we want to guide them towards unconventional texts. Refusal to accept that responsibility - and the authority that comes with it - is an abrogation of one’s real duty to students.
Couldn’t agree more. As someone now on my fifth discipline (more depending on what you count) the ‘canons’ of all of them appear as severe constraints on the possibility of thought and expression. Our role is to lead and direct intelligently and with care, not to dictate and constrain because that’s the way old white blokes (like me) have always done it. Our students deserve access to ‘their’ knowledge which is unlikely to be the same as ours. And how exciting to share that journey with them for a while.
I agree completely. The drive to include and engage students more in the choice of material is one of the most interesting things happening in terms of innovating teaching. Its not always easy and it doesn’t mean removing the classics of Western political thought, but not being bound by them or reproducing a received notion of a ‘canon’ that is very selective and - really - often quite stale intellectually.