What is (not) taught at British universities?

In early 2021, we conducted a systematic survey of the teaching offered at the top 15 and bottom 15 Philosophy departments in the UK, following the ??? ranking. We gathered the syllabi of all the 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 at the UK universities. 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 obvious things to note:

  • Fewer than 4% of all modules focus on any of the four broad topics of class, colonialism, race or gender.
    • Of those, no modules focus on the issues of class or colonialism as their main focus.
  • Just over 3% of all modules focus on any philosophical tradition other than the Wester Analytic tradition.
    • Of those, no modules focus on Native American or Islamic philosophy.
  • While over 15% of modules focus on the history of Western philosophy, only 7% of those focus on the Medieval period, and 2.5% on the 19th Century – two periods commonly thought to have less of a historical impact on the development of the Western Analytical tradition.

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 still contain a substantial amount of more diverse content, discussing epistemologies from different traditions or tackling issues such as epistemic injustice.

To check whether this is the case, we analysed the syllabi we gathered in more detail, categorising them with respect to the amount of ‘diverse’ content they contain. For the purpose of this research, we considered the following content as diverse:

  • feminist philosophy
  • any tradition other than the Western Analytic or Continental
  • issues of class
  • issues related to colonialism
  • issues of race
  • issues of gender

We used three labels to categorise the modules:

  • Minimal or none – the module contains no ‘diverse’ content, or the diverse content only appears in the last week of teaching
  • Some – the module contains at least one lecture devoted to a diverse topic, that is not in the last week of teaching
  • Substantial – at least 30% of the module is devoted to diverse topics.

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. Even though there were some modules which expanded on their main topic to include more diverse content, as few as 13% or modules taught had more than one lecture devoted to such content, and fewer than 5% devoted more than a third of the module to it.

The thinkers

Finally, we analysed the subset of modules which focused on a specific philosopher or philosophers, to check who that philosopher was. We wanted to find out how many such modules focus on philosophers who were white and male.

We were shocked to find that exactly 100% of all such modules were devoted to one or more white male figures.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, when we then analysed this subset of modules to check what topics they focused on and how diverse is their content, we found that the results are even worse than for the whole selection.

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.