Oriel College's Rhodes statue just a red herring

The statue of Cecil Rhodes in the façade of Oriel College in Oxford. (Eddie Keogh, Reuters)

The statue of Cecil Rhodes in the façade of Oriel College in Oxford. (Eddie Keogh, Reuters)

Oriel College, Oxford, has decided to keep its statue of Cecil Rhodes, despite the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, a protest that has been one of a kind in the United Kingdom.

Such campaigns are increasingly common in the United States. Yale is facing demands for one of its colleges to be renamed, because John Calhoun, a pre-Civil War Southern politician, was a supporter of states’ rights and slavery. Princeton is facing demands for the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, because the former president (of the university as well as the US) shared then commonplace views that now would be considered racist.

The lack of such campaigns in the UK is probably less a result of reticence or deference on the part of the students than the fact that historically few British universities have benefited from philanthropy on the scale of the Rhodes bequest.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been linked to other campaigns against alleged hate speech that have targeted right-wing politicians and those expressing doubts about the campaign for transgender rights. This has already produced the engaging spectacle of old-stager radical Germaine Greer falling foul of this new radical chic.

Poor universities! On one flank they have to stop their student unions and societies being nasty to rightwingers. On the other, chilled by the Prevent strategy, they feel obliged to send out discreet forms to invited speakers that aim to pre-censor their talks or, at any rate, offer early warning of “trouble”.

Of course, Rhodes was not a particularly nice man, certainly by today’s standards, though plenty of his contemporaries also criticised his bombastic imperialism. He was a racist. But his older contemporary, Herbert Spencer, a key influencer of Beatrice Webb and other thinkers, had made some version of social Darwinism almost routine.

If we are to begin a cull of not very nice people, there will be a lot of empty statue plinths and a lot of returned, or spurned, bequests. Maybe, as in some central and eastern European countries, we might need to establish poorly signposted out-of-town parks for our equivalent of Lenin and Soviet war memorials.

Student campaigners, of course, will object to such arguments as moral relativism at best and, worse, complacent acceptance of racial discrimination. In its place they seek to substitute a historical absolutism. But to assert the supremacy of 21st-century sensibilities of a nervous politically correct West may not be the best starting place for exploring difference and otherness.

The major objection to “identity politics” is that it can be a displacement activity. There are many more urgent targets than Rhodes’s Oriel statue. The proportion of academic staff from black and ethnic minorities remains dismal. Although the proportion of black and minority ethnic students in UK higher education looks healthy, the great majority are concentrated in big urban post-1992 universities.

Then there is the strengthening entrenchment of social privilege. All the statistical spin about increasing participation by students from lower socioeconomic groups cannot conceal the yawning inequality of British society.

Campaigning to remove Rhodes’s statue is the easy option. Cam­paigning to abolish fees or set fair access targets with teeth is today’s heavy lifting. – © Guardian News and Media 2016

Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at University College London’s Institute of Education.



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