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Et tu Cantabrigia? The Cambridge Faculty of Classics Capitulates to ‘Decolonisation’ Campaigners

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There has been significant media coverage of the Cambridge Faculty of Classics in the past week. The Faculty has come under attack for publishing an Action Plan to tackle alleged ‘institutional racism’ in its curriculum.

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There has been significant media coverage of the Cambridge Faculty of Classics in the past week. The Faculty has come under attack for publishing an Action Plan to tackle alleged ‘institutional racism’ in its curriculum. Much of the coverage has focused on the plan’s more eye-catching elements – particularly Action Point 7, which claims that the (white) plaster casts in the cast gallery ‘give a misleading impression about the whiteness and absence of diversity [sic] from the Greek and Roman world.’

This bizarre and easily ridiculed claim threatens to divert attention from the true point at issue – the hijacking of a gold standard course, whose content underpins most Humanities subjects taught in Western universities, by proponents of a divisive and historically ignorant political ideology.

Intellectual freedom threatened

The Action Plan contains much that should alarm those concerned about academic freedom, freedom of speech and the right to learn free from ideological indoctrination. The Plan is redolent with the language and untested suppositions of Critical Race Theory or ‘CRT’. Among its provisions are: commitments to limit or suppress freedom of speech by the creation of a system for reporting ‘microaggressions’ (AP 9); to employ ethnicity as a criterion for selecting speakers at seminars ‘as well as academic merit’ (AP 6); likewise to employ positive discrimination in recruitment as far legally possible (AP 4); to be ‘sensitive to the language we use and the power it has to perpetuate harm’ (AP 13; ‘harm’ is a frequently-used trope by those who want to shut down freedom of speech); to make the contentious and unscientific practice of ‘unconscious bias training’ a mandatory part of the assessment process for academic staff.

Mandatory indoctrination

Teaching is also to be explicitly ideological. The Faculty’s academics must ‘ensure that diversity is among those elements considered when new courses are tabled and when existing courses are reviewed’ (AP 12); that ‘bibliographies represent a diverse and inclusive range of perspectives on a given subject’; and, that ‘students graduate with an appreciation of the ways Classics has been used and abused and an ability to recognise and critique such uses and abuses today, tackling the role of Classics in the support of racist and imperialist structures and discourse [AP 11; italics added].’ Students may be examined in these subjects. By implication, failure to answer exam questions in a CRT-approved way could lead to students jeopardising their degree class. The commitment to ideological teaching echoes an earlier statement by Faculty from late last year, which claimed – with no supporting evidence – that ‘the texts, artefacts and cultures of Greece and Rome… continue to be appropriated and manipulated for racist and imperialist purposes’, and that ‘confronting racism is one of society’s most urgent challenges’.

Is Classics systematically ‘racist’?

There is little hard evidence that Classics is a systematically racist subject as it is currently taught at Cambridge.* As Faculty don David Butterfield pointed out in an article for the Spectator in July last year, admissions statistics at undergraduate level are remarkably even. The point was even admitted in the Action Plan (AP 1). Though there are disparities at the graduate and staff recruitment levels, the main problem is with numbers of applicants rather than acceptance rates, which are broadly even across the board (AP 4). And it seems entirely reasonable that some disparity should exist in applicant numbers. Minority undergraduates are disproportionately represented in STEM subjects compared to the humanities (see page 8 of the linked report).** And when they are interested in the humanities and the Ancient World in particular, Chinese-British students (say) may be more interested than the average applicant in studying Ancient China rather than the Classical Mediterranean – though there are many indispensable students and scholars of the Greco-Roman world from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.

More generally and as Briefings for Britain has written before, the view that the UK is a systematically racist society is untenable. As a recent report made clear, there are pockets of racism and disadvantage in the UK, but little evidence that the country is systematically racist. Disadvantages and disparities between ethnic groups are relatively low, many of those that exist are the results of cultural factors internal to groups themselves, and class disadvantages experienced irrespective of ethnicity are more important determinants of inequality. By European standards the UK is one of the least racist counties in Europe, and on many measures the least racist – see Figs. 1, 6, 11–14, 19–20 in the linked 2018 EU report, Being Black in the EU.

This matters because it makes belief in systematic racism a political position rather than an undisputable fact, as the Faculty of Classics posits. And in such circumstances, teaching Critical Race Theory as dogma and assessing staff on their compliance with it infringes the consciences of staff and their right to free academic expression. It threatens students’ ability to freely express their political opinions and to learn in a politically non-partisan environment. It is also in danger of violating the legal rights of teaching staff, as the Free Speech Union pointed out in a letter to the Faculty’s Academic Secretary, Robin Osborne (pp. 4–5).

The origins of the Action Plan

Yet the Action Plan appears almost moderate when its origins are considered. The Plan is a response to an open letter signed by staff, alumni, graduate and undergraduate students in August 2020 in reply to Cambridge don David Butterfield’s Spectator article. The letter was drafted (as far as one can tell) from within the Faculty, but of its 204 signatories, over half were alumni. This places the signatories in a minority within the subject – albeit an organised and effective one. The response to Butterfield’s reasoned and courteous critique was apoplectic. Indeed, the open letter included a veiled call for his dismissal. To quote the letter, ‘as one former student of the Faculty has written, “having read the Spectator piece […] I would not feel comfortable having its author as an interviewer, a supervisor, a director of studies, a thesis examiner, or a colleague.”’ To exclude an academic from these roles would exclude him from anything beyond pure research – and even there, academia is field where personal connections and informal reputation are paramount in order to publish.

Generally, the Open Letter calls for a more extreme suite of proposals than those implemented in the Faculty’s Action Plan.  The letter demands ‘acknowledgement of the existence of systematic racism within Classics and its complicity in racist and white supremacist ideas… in the present day.’ Where exactly we can find this supremacist apartheid regime is unknown – perhaps in these activists’ proposals for race-based hiring? It requires ‘intersectional’ and ‘active recruitment’ of minority candidates, compulsory training in ‘institutional racism, white privilege and power, and racial microaggressions’, though it ominously notes that this is ‘no more than a first step’ before ‘further sustained anti-racist actions.’ (The phrasing here almost implies that staff should be trained in how to do these…) It also demands that bibliographies and reading lists be selected with the race and gender of scholars as criteria for inclusion, and that courses include trigger warnings. Beyond the letter, a minority of students have apparently suggested that requiring undergraduates to learn Greek and Latin is a structurally racist policy, and espoused other tenets of CRT reflected in a watered-down form in the Action Plan.

A secret ‘Open Letter’

Ironically enough, this Open Letter is not publicly available, though your correspondent has seen a copy. It is almost as if its drafters and signatories knew that what they were sending was beyond the pale of acceptability. Secrecy is a more general trend in these attempts to suppress freedom of speech. As the embarrassing fates of the University’s Report + Support scheme and freedom of speech policy show, advocates of diversity frequently attempt to impose their views from above, steering dirigiste policies through committees whose members are either indifferent to their contents or cowed by the fear of being labelled a racist. Unsatisfied with open meetings with the graduate and undergraduate communities held in November 2021 to discuss the Open Letter and its contents, campaigners demanded and obtained an ‘open’ meeting with senior representatives of the Faculty held in January 2021, which was chaired by an external mediator, but which – crucially – could only be attended by minority students. Minority rule now seems to be part of the governance structure at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics.

A Pyrrhic victory?

The Faculty has not sacked Dr Butterfield – possibly because it fears the inevitable employment tribunal. Nor has it conceded on the issue of language teaching, and nor has it (yet) embraced calls to transform the course wholesale into a ‘decolonised Ancient World studies’ exercise, in which Greece and Rome would play bit parts (for the blueprint for such a field see the linked pieces, and Butterfield’s summary). It has, however, conceded on almost everything else. Besides the Plan’s concrete recommendations, which are bad enough, the fact that the Faculty has given way on the core arguments about the inherent racism of Classics signals the willingness of senior figures to roll over when confronted by pressure from organised, vocal, and social media savvy activists. These activists will not hesitate to use the same methods when the opportunity next arises, and their demands will only grow.

In a final further irony, these activists are creating the very climate of fear and suspicion which they claim prevents minority students from making their voices heard. The problem is particularly acute for graduate students and early-career scholars, who may find jobs, conference invitations and publishing opportunities hard to come by if they dare voice opinions out of step with ‘woke’ doctrine. Even Butterfield himself, who enjoys security of tenure, has been uncharacteristically (if wisely) silent after this furore began. The situation is perhaps worse than that faced by Brexit-voting academics, who made up only 10% of the academy (see Robert Tombs, This Sovereign Isle, 2021, p. 90). While such academics generally received (at worst) incredulity and abuse, ‘decolonisers’ will now have formal disciplinary tools to use against those with whom they disagree.

Ironically enough, these decolonisers show less respect for free speech than did the Ancient Greeks themselves– for whom parrhesia, or bravely and frankly speaking truth to power, was to be celebrated.

Decline and Fall?

Overall, the central points of the Action Plan remain a concerning threat to freedom of speech. The Faculty has yet to respond to media interest, perhaps hoping that it can dodge questions about its murky internal politics once the initial mirth over the ‘whiteness’ of plaster has subsided. But public scrutiny might caution those on the Faculty’s board pushing the CRT agenda, and embolden its less political members. Calls for decolonisation are unlikely to go away after this initial win by the CRT lobby – even though only four of the ten members of the Faculty’s Equality and Diversity Committee were signatories to the letter which demanded Butterfield’s resignation.***

Public, external pressure is necessary to prevent further capitulation. It is perverse and profoundly sad that a Faculty which offers perhaps the finest undergraduate degree in the country and whose research is envied the world over has come to such straits. But it is an object lesson in the power, reach and ambition of the Critical Race Theory lobby – and the urgent need for civil society to confront and challenge it.  Prospective students may conclude that a course which tells them exactly what to think instead of challenging them to explore ideas and broaden their knowledge is not worth paying for – and if they vote with their feet, the Cambridge Faculty of Classics itself might become ancient history.


* The argument that Classics as a subject supports and perpetuates racism is addressed in Butterfield’s article and tangential to this piece, although it may be necessary to address it in future.

** The figures are even starker when international students are taken into account.

*** Another two signed a shorter letter which contained the same demands for an end to microaggressions, reform to language teaching etc but which did not mention the Spectator article.  This letter only garnered six signatures.

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Two Cambridge students