Centenary celebration or political aspiration ?

“Women Making History: Shaping Oxford’s Next Century” was a panel discussion with Q&A moderated by Reeta Chakrabarti of the BBC. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre and livestreamed on the internet. [750 words]

The political and philosophical agenda was implicit in the title, the setting, the choice of moderator and the selection of panellists.

Before discussion began, there was a review of Oxford Women Graduates in each decade since the first degrees were conferred 100 years ago.  The YouTube recording is at Women Making History: Shaping Oxford’s Next Century – YouTube

Following the review of famous women, Oxford’s first woman Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, introduced the session with a brief historical sketch of women at the University. Professor Richardson wondered how many books, musical scores and other achievements had not been accomplished because women had no access to the university in its first 700 or 800 years. I can think, for example, of several 19th century novellists who did not let that obstacle impede them.  In reality, that obstacle applied to most men born in the wrong social circumstances. 

Reeta Chakrabarti then took over, and introduced the other three panellists. Baroness Ruth Hunt the famous LGBT+ activist; Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, the computer scientist who founded ‘Stemettes’ to inspire women to pursue the male dominated STEM subjects; and Varaidzo (Vee) Kativhu who has 200,000 people following her online campaign to encourage the underprivileged and under-represented to go to University.

So, taking care to ensure my nomenclature accords with the latest rulings from the world of minority lobbying, that makes three BME and one LGBT+ persons. I don’t quite see how that adds up to a representative cross section of women graduates over the last 100 years, or even today; but perhaps the organisers are anticipating [determining?] the future ?

The initial introductions and comments to Reeta Chakrabarti’s questions were interesting. All three said that they had enjoyed their time as undergraduates at Oxford, and were positive about their experiences and personal development.

It was therefore remarkable when they then suggested that the University is still failing to achieve equality and diversity.  Ruth Hunt even suggested that Oxford needs to be innovative in determining what normal looks like. From her comments, I infer that Oxford’s new “normal” should accord with her personal conception of “normal”.

The panellists were all of a similar mind about achieving radical change in accordance with minority interest agendas, and they all appeared predisposed to the desirability of social engineering as both policy and practice.

Ruth Hunt said that debates about statues and bathroom [ie toilet] facilities/access were evidence of the underlying and continuing impact of historic colonialism and oppression.

In her turn, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon expressed concern about the influence of “dead white dudes” at Oxford. She thereby appeared to eliminate history, being white, and being male from having any relevance to civilised thinking and behaviour. I find such sweeping simplicity disturbing;  the assumption of binary thinking and application of mathematical logic to human issues, I find chilling…

Ruth Hunt spoke of the continuing influence of white men on the examination system. How can it be that with all the advances in equality and diversity, men still take 59% of Firsts ? The problem must lie in the influence of white male thinking on the examination system.

Perhaps.

But from her monochromatic approach,  Ruth Hunt also questioned the technique of discussing both sides of a question, or taking opposing perspectives, in order to arrive at a reasoned assessment. This “normal” of course, encourages a student to consider a matter in the round; it requires a flexibility of mind, a willingness to adapt intellectually; to consider data from different perspectives. In science, to test a thesis by reference to the evidence. To make an informed judgement. To be willing to allow for the possibility of another idea or perspective and to test a different proposition.

Personally I regard this technique as fundamental to the educational process. But for this particular panel, it probably looks too much like the dialectic mentality of a dead white dude. 

The contemporary intellectual Orthodoxy of Social Justice was manifestly the perspective and paradigm articulated by this particular panel of Oxford women. The academic practice of examining all aspects and dispositions was manifest by its absence. But then that is not, perhaps, surprising.

Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson is proud of her anti apartheid activism as a student.  This event undoubtedly reflects her personal political and philosophical beliefs.

Dissenting voices and academic circumspection were manifest by their absence.

Oxford needs a new Vice Chancellor.

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