What is (not) taught at British universities?

In early 2021, we conducted a systematic survey of the teaching offered at the top 10 Philosophy departments in the UK (as identified in the THE ranking). We gathered the syllabi for all the 377 modules taught at those universities and arranged them into thematic categories. Further, we looked at modules which focused specifically on a particular philosopher, looking at that philosopher’s background. Finally, we analysed the syllabi in-depth to check how many of the modules taught actually contained a significant amount of material focused on issues related to class, colonialism, race and gender.*

The topics

Below, you can see two graphs showing the spread of topics taught. The first focuses on more general thematic categories, in the second we divide them further into a more detailed list of sub-categories. Here are some of the most striking things to note:

  • Just over 3% of all modules focus on any of the four broad topics of class, colonialism, race or gender.
    • The total number of was 11, thus on average top UK departments offer just one module on such topics.
    • Of those, no modules have the issues of class or colonialism as their main focus.
  • Just under 4% of all modules focus on any philosophical tradition other than the Wester Analytic tradition.
    • Of those, more than three quarters focus on other traditions of European origin.
    • Not a single module focuses on Native American, African, or Islamic philosophy.
  • While nearly 17% of modules focus on the history of Western philosophy, less than 7% of those focus on the Medieval period, and 3% on the 19th Century – two periods commonly thought to have less of a historical impact on the development of the Western Analytical tradition.
Chart by Visualizer
Chart by Visualizer

The content

We acknowledge that the main topic of a module might not be always indicative of its content. For example, a module titled ‘Epistemology’ which primarily focuses on the core topics of the Western analytical tradition, might also contain a substantial amount of more diverse content, discussing epistemologies from different traditions or tackling issues such as epistemic injustice.

To check the extent to which this is the case, we focused on the broad category of class, colonialism, gender and race. Including content tackling those issues, we believe, is indicative of the willingness to challenge existing systems of power and to reach beyond the traditional topics dominated by upper-middle class white male authors.

Recall that 11 modules were primarily focused on class, colonialism, gender or race. To check how prominently such content features in other modules, we removed those 11 from our sample and analysed the rest.

We used three labels describing the amount of such content:

  • Minimal or none – the module contains no such content, or only token content appears in the last week of teaching
  • Some – at least one non-token lecture is substantially focused on such content
  • Significant- at least 30% of the module is devoted to such content.

As you can see on the following graph, our research indicates that the overwhelming majority of the modules taught in the UK fall into the first category. Only one in ten modules had more than one lecture devoted to such content, and a mere 3% devoted more than a third of the time to it.

Chart by Visualizer

The thinkers

46 of the 377 modules we analysed focused on the work of one or more specific philosophers. We wanted to check who those philosophers were and what were those modules about.

We were shocked to find that exactly 100% of all such modules were devoted to one or more white male figures. Not a single module devoted to a specific philosopher, was devoted to a woman or a person who was not white.**

We then analysed this subset of modules to check what topics they focused on. Somewhat unsurprisingly, none of them reached to non-Western philosophical traditions, but also not a single one was entirely focused on issues of class, colonialism, race and gender.

Finally, we had a look at how many such modules contained at least some content focused on class, colonialism, race and gender. Only 4 out of the 46 did (8.7%), and this was largely thanks to one figure: Karl Marx.

Chart by Visualizer
Chart by Visualizer
Chart by Visualizer

If you are interested, here is a full list of the philosophers who had modules devoted to them, with counts reflecting whether a figure was the focus on a whole or half of a module:

Aquinas1
Aristotle3
Augustine1
Dennett.5
Descartes3
Hegel1.5
Heidegger2
Hobbes.5
Hume2
Kant2.5
Kripke1
Leibniz1.5
Locke2
Lucretius1
Marx1.5
Mill4
Nietzsche3.5
Plato8.5
Rousseau1
Ryle.5
Sartre2
Schopenhauer.5
Wittgenstein1

* All of the syllabi were for the academic year of 2020/21, and have been provided by the universities themselves. The THE ranking used was for the same year, i.e. 2021.

** The only possible exception could be Augustine, who was born in Thagaste (in the Roman province of Numidia), which is today’s Souk Ahras in Algeria.


Credits

This research was conducted by Anne-Marie McCallion (University of Manchester), with the help of Simon Fokt (HTW Berlin) and other members of the DRL Team. It was funded by the AHRC as part of the PGR Placements and Knowledge Exchange programme.