Oxford v-c: ‘hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment’

Louise Richardson says universities should have ‘robust debates’ about the role of historical figures

June 11, 2020
Oriel College Oxford
Source: iStock

The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has warned that “hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment”, as the institution’s Oriel College came under increased pressure to remove its statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Louise Richardson told Times Higher Education that “we need to understand our history” and historical figures and “debate their role and…our attitudes towards them”.

The University of Oxford’s Oriel College has faced renewed calls this week to remove its statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, after the statue of slave owner Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol on Sunday.

When asked what her response was to these calls, Professor Richardson said: “My general view about this is that hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment.”

She added that it was an issue on which “reasonable people can disagree” and said one of the interesting questions to explore was how to evaluate historical figures morally.

“Do you use the ethics of today to evaluate their past actions or do you put them in the context of their time and consider their actions vis-à-vis what the government thought, what other people thought, at that time?” she asked.

Professor Richardson also raised the issue of the University of Oxford’s own past, highlighting that for 800 years of its 900-year history women did not run, study or teach at the institution.

“We now know that’s preposterous, so do we pretend they didn’t think that and do we think they were bad people because they held those views?” she said.

“I often wonder, what’s going to happen a few hundred years from now. How are they going to evaluate us? How do we want them to evaluate us? Do we want them to evaluate us in terms of the ethics of the society in which we live or in terms of the ethics of the society 200-300 years from now?

“I have no answers to these questions. These are all just really interesting topics for debate.”

Professor Richardson was speaking to THE as the institution announced details of its first new college in 30 years.

She said that she would consider the new Reuben College a success “if I go in there a few years from now and there are lots of people sitting around tables – people from different disciplines, different nationalities, different races, socio-economic backgrounds – having robust debates about all these issues. That’s what universities are about.”


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Reader's comments (3)

Well done Louise! Nice balanced view, although you privately would take Ces down if you could.
Donors to the University of Oxford in 2018/19 includes many which do not look too salubrious. Not as nefarious as, say, Rhodes, but controversial nonetheless - and contemporary.
If we start tearing down statues because we don't like some of the ideas peddled by the person depicted, we might as well give up having statues at all. Everyone has flaws... and far too much of the time it's a case of the self-righteous imposing present-day values on historical figures, blithely ignoring that their views were acceptable in their day and age, whatever the current swell of opinion might be. What do we do and think today that our desendants will recoil from in horror? The rich tapestry of history is not something to be brushed aside just 'cos we don't like it. We can learn from it, we can resolve to do 'better' according to current opinion, indeed some would say that's at least part of the point of studying it... but to ignore it is sheer stupidity. If we see things that we feel are not right, surely it is more important to fix the problem than to fix the blame?