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

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

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

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 have found my voice and my home in a col­lec­tion of texts that rebels against main­stream un­der-

standings of what po­lit­i­cal the­ory should be. This has taken time; 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 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”, 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.

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