Feminising the curriculum? No, thank you


The Philosophy Faculty have recently announced a series of measures aimed at boosting female engagement with the subject by ‘feminising the curriculum’. To achieve this the Faculty recommends that 40% of the authors on the reading list should be women and that a writer’s first name is used, rather than using initials, to make it clear which authors are female. It is unfortunate that such a worthwhile goal of broadening the subject’s appeal has been trivialised by such a tokenistic, politically correct effort.

What is sadder though is that this is hardly surprising. There has been a consistent campaign in recent years for reading lists to focus more on who is writing the article than what is actually been written. Whilst there is certainly a strong, and seemingly irrefutable, argument that reading lists should feature a diverse range of viewpoints, the idea that this is achieved through arbitrary targets based on personal characteristics is overly simplistic and frankly absurd.

The target of 40% seems to rest on no particular logic, it is just a number plucked out of the air so the Faculty can virtue signal that it is doing its bit for gender equality. The issue is that if the Faculty does want to so radically change the reading lists, one must ask what this comes at the expense of. It seems highly unlikely that the reading lists will be made much longer, instead the likely outcome will be that male philosophers, who until now were regarded worthy of study, will be removed. The unfortunate fact is that the reason less women are on the reading lists is not because of any institutional sexism or bias on behalf of the Faculty, but simply because the majority of important works throughout history were written by men. To remove them from the syllabus does not amount to a great leap forward by the Faculty, instead it leads to gaps in what many people would expect a philosophy degree to contain. From Aristotle to Kant, Marx to Augustine and Pascal to Rousseau, it is unclear which of these eminent philosophers deserve to be dropped. Inevitably much of the traditional canon of the degree will have to be lost if such a high proportion of female academics are to be included. In fact, if we really want to empower and educate the next generation of female philosophers (which I think we can all agree we do), then this must be achieved through exposing students to the best philosophical minds of the past, no matter what gender they were.

Now, it is important to emphasise that there are noteworthy female philosophers to rightly deserve the recognition for their work and talent. Professor Harcourt has said that he hopes the new programme will make some of these women better known. No doubt that women like Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock should have their work studied, but crucially they should be read because of their academic value, not simply that the writers are female. In fact, one can easily see the argument that the Faculty’s policy is demeaning and belittling to female academics. Quite simply, many women will have to be included for the sake of diversity numbers with little regard to the academic content. The obvious disadvantage of this is that those women whose work does deserve study could easily be confused as belonging to the new tokenistic agenda, not as belonging to be regarded as equal to their male counterparts.

The Faculty, in its defence, has said that tutors can use their ‘academic judgement’ on what to include and the 40% is merely a target, not a quota. The issue is, this still leaves the tutors in a difficult position. On one hand the tutors could simply stick to the old curriculum and leave the work of many of the old masters on the reading lists, but then they would fall far foul of the target leaving them open to criticism and deeming this whole exercise a waste of time. The alternative is that the tutors have to work out which famous philosopher can be erased without causing too much damage to an undergraduate’s education. Neither seem attractive options to me.

It is a shame that the Faculty has sought to use targets to promote female philosophers. More constructive approaches that they have also adopted included making ‘Feminist Philosophy’ an undergraduate optional paper and employing more feminist professors. This module has been heavily oversubscribed and seems the ideal way for undergraduates to engage and learn about female philosophers without jeopardising the overall breadth of the degree.

It is a tragic indictment of our time that even world leading universities are more concerned with paying lip service to social justice than they are about academic rigor and integrity. The Philosophy Faculty’s policy, if well meaning, represents a regression in academic standards, not a step forwards.