SOAS at 100

Trevor Grundy on the evolution of an institution set up originally to train administrators for the British Empire

London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is one of the world great centres for research and teaching Asian and African affairs and it’s 100 years old this month. 

The School of Oriental Studies was officially opened on February 23, 1917 by the King-Emperor George V. At that time, the outcome of the First World War was uncertain. Empire and monarchy were under threat from the English king’s military-minded relatives in Germany and revolution was soon to break out in Russia. Throughout the vast British Empire, cries for independence were heard and then for a long time silenced by force.

 But on that auspicious day 100 years ago this month few of the officials who gathered in the middle of London to plant a tiny acorn that went on to become an giant oak of learning was sensitive to the decline and fall of the mightiest empire the world had seen since the Romans.

Over 500 of Britain’s top diplomatic and parliamentary figures, including Lord Curzon, the Japanese Ambassador, the British Minister to China, the Persian Minister, the Russian Charge d’Affaires, the High Commissioner for South Africa, the High Commissioner for Australia and the Director of the Ecole Speciale des Languese Orientales Vivantes in Paris from attending in the middle of war-time London a quintessentially English ceremony punctuated by rousing music that stirred the hearts of those not participating but lining the streets, watching.

Writes Ian Brown in his excellent new book “The School of Oriental and African Studies – Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning” (Cambridge University Press, 2016) - “The Orchestra of Trinity College of Music, conducted by Sir Frederick Bridge performed Two English Dances by the now largely forgotten Frederick Hymen Cowen, Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 by Edward Elgar and in a nod towards the Orient, or at least the Orient heard through French ears, a movement from the Suite Algerienne by Camille Saint-Saens.

The configuration of the school’s teaching provision – and for the next two decades – was determined by its founding function of training colonial officials, military officers and business people for work in Asia and Africa.

Founded by the British state – and paid for by the British taxpayer – the school which went on to be known as SOAS was a formidable London-based institution designed to strengthen Britain’s political, commercial and military presence in Asia and Africa.

How young Britons were recruited and then trained to run empire is a subject in itself. Initially, the training of the Empire’s administrators took place outside the universities. Says Brown:” In the first half of the nineteenth century, young men, intended for service with the East Indian Company, first attended Haileybury College in Hertforshire, established by the Company in 1806, where they received a general education – in mathematics, philosophy, classical literature, history and law – but they were also taught the rudiments of Oriental languages – in particular Arabic and Persian. Then, on arriving in India, they attended the College of Fort William at Calcutta established in 1800, where they were expected to achieve a firm competence in two oriental languages.”

The result was an Empire run by often very young men fresh from Britain’s great schools who well versed in the classics but not so familiar with the languages, customs and religious beliefs of the people they ruled.

The School of Oriental Studies, which went on to become the School of Oriental and African Studies – was central to this new and for the time enlightened training exercise.

During the first half of the twentieth century studies at the school were dominated by languages, with only a modest provision in the humanities, notably in history which (until recently) was history of vast parts of the world seen through European eyes and interpreted through the filter of European Christianity.

In the second half of the last century and especially since the end of the Second World War and the birth of so many new nations in Asia and Africa there has been a significant extension of the school’s activities especially in the field of science, economics and politics (of which the study of religion is now such an integral part).

Says Brown: In the middle of the twentieth century, it might be said, the SOAS lost an empire (but unlike Great Britain) found a role.” Today, SOAS is a college of the University of London and a major centre for research and teaching related to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

 It is the only higher education institution in Europe specializing in the study of Asia, Africa, and the near and Far East. It has over 5,000 students from 133 countries on campus and just over 50 percent are from outside the United Kingdom. About 3,600 people around the world are taking one of SOAS’s distance learning programmes and its director and instructors rightly boast that they are helping students grapple with some of the major issues confronting two third of humankind, from climate change to the rise of religious fundamentalists, rightly or wrongly branded as “terrorists.”

 SOAS boasts an unparalleled range of non-European languages, all of which may be studied without prior knowledge. The school was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary prize in 2009 for the excellence, breadth and depth of its language teaching.

More than forty percent of SOASs undergraduate degree programmes offer the opportunity to spend a year studying in another country. The SOAS library – recently refurbished – has more than 1.5 million items and extensive electronic resources for the study of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Writes Brown: “The school may well have been founded to train men to run the Empire but imperial training and its modern equivalent have almost always been less important than the expansion of learning.”

The social sciences now dominate the SOAS in terms of staff and student numbers, while the number of languages taught as art of degree programmes is much diminished. The decision to change ways was part of a realization that in order to re-charge its intellectual drive and secure greater state funding and increased student numbers it had to change directly and deal with the problems and the ambitions of contemporaries in Asian, Africa and the Middle East. The social sciences have flourished while the languages – with the exception of Chinese, Japanese and Arabic – have struggled and maybe have been lost altogether.

Today, the vast majority of students entering SOAS are the grandchildren (even great grand-children) of the British Empire.

Brown tells us that after the war (1945) there was a tacit understanding among historians in Britain and other parts of the Commonwealth that the story of Empire had been seen through the eyes of the colonizers – the British, the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Portuguese.

The focus was no longer on the action of the colonial ruler but on the impact of those actions on the local people. This, once again, demanded a command of local languages, knowledge of religious beliefs and events as seen and felt by the victim not the conqueror.

Says Brown:” It gave the school’s historians but also its political scientists, anthropologists and economists, confidence that they possessed unmediated access to the beliefs and perceptions of the people and cultures that they were studying, enabling them to speak directly, both literally and figuratively to and for Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

And over the last 100 years, the school’s central contributions have been in the language and research training of academics, large numbers of whom have occupied posts in departments in universities in Britain and across the world and in the volume, range and quality of its published scholarship.

On this, the centenary of the schools foundation, one can but imagine the face of the King – Emperor George V or his confidante and friend Lord Curzon when told that the acorn they planted so long ago had been described by The Times Higher Education Supplement in July 2015 as “arguably the UK’s most left-wing university in terms of its staff and its students.”

On the other hand, they might have merely smiled and congratulated a long list of clever directors on their politically acceptable survival tactics in a world that never stops changing.

Interview with Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS

Trevor Grundy: Nelson Mandela said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart." That's moving, even poetic: but does it mean very much in a globalised world where the lingua franca is English? I can't see Donald Trump doing one of his "deals" in Kiswahili/Zulu/Urdu can you? Why does SOAS bother teaching people languages when almost all of the business elite speaks English?

Baroness Valerie Amos: Connectivity across the world doesn’t just happen through elites. This is not just about deal making and diplomacy. At SOAS we pride ourselves on our diversity, on our ability to build bridges across cultures and communities. Studying and using a language enables a deeper understanding of a culture. We miss nuance, complexity and depth if our engagement is in English. I have seen the negative consequence of a lack of understanding of cultures and communities. Many of us remember the length of time it took to get to grips with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2015. Part of that was a lack of understanding and engagement with the communities most affected. The world faces some complex challenges, many of them deep rooted. To resolve them, understanding of history, place and context really matters. We would be making a big mistake as a nation to think that because English is our first language that we can be complacent. For example, 425 million people speak Hindi as a first language, over 800 million speak Mandarin and 280 million speak Arabic. Here in the UK diaspora communities speak approximately 300 languages.

TG: SOAS provides an impartial space for debate and discussion on questions that matter. Israel and Palestine matter. How do you encourage debate on this subject when there's so much student anger? What's your opinion on student demands in many parts of the world - including the UK - for academic 'safe places'?

Baroness Amos: Robust discussion and debate is at the heart of what we do at SOAS. We encourage our students to think, to have a view and question. Our responsibility is to ensure that this exchange of ideas happens in a respectful way. We cannot shy away or fear discussing challenging, complex and controversial subjects. That is what universities are for. Protecting and promoting free speech is important at SOAS. If you speak to our students and academics who are on our programmes which link to subjects related to the Middle East, to Israel and Palestine, they will tell you that looking at different reflections is crucial. There have been criticisms of some of the conversations which take place here at SOAS.

We defend the right of our students and academics to have their conversations as long as no laws are being broken. We have been criticised by some sections of the media when our student societies have hosted events that criticise Israel. When I met the Ambassador of Israel to the UK to express strong concerns about the detention and deportation of a SOAS research student at Ben Gurion airport, I was criticised for having that meeting.

We have over 100 academics working on Middle East issues at SOAS. We have the UK’s first Professor of Israel Studies. We have been home to the Jewish Music Institute for more than 10 years and host the European Association of Israel Studies, an independent, international and scholarly association devoted to the academic study of Israel.Our students have had the opportunity to attend An-Najah National University in Nablus to learn Arabic.

We offer an MA in Palestine Studies and have the Centre for Palestine Studies which hosts a wide range of events during the year.With respect to safe spaces, I worry that we have got ourselves into some very narrow thinking. Universities are about creating space for dialogue and debate, exploring different perspectives and it can be uncomfortable. I do not want to see a world where we retreat into even smaller circles of engagement and only relate to people we see as being likeminded.

TG: The British often try to give the impression that they are the only people with rock solid values. Given that recently discovered colonial documents reveal how the departing British treated so many people in Africa and other parts of the world, isn't it time for a little more modesty by Britain's opinion shapers?

Baroness Amos: We know that colonialism was brutal, violent and de-humanising. So making sure that our history is told from all perspectives is crucial. At SOAS we look at the world from the perspectives of our regions. We challenge conventional orthodoxy – that is at the heart of who we are as SOAS today. We pride ourselves on the fact that we ask the questions no one else does.

TG: The original purpose of SOAS was to serve imperial interests (British, that is) in the age of empire. What's its purpose now? What would you like to see it achieve over the next 100 years?

Baroness Amos: At SOAS we make the connections that others cannot. We have the understanding of cultures and contexts. We think about the world differently. We see ourselves as playing an important role by challenging perspectives though our research and teaching, helping to build bridges in a complex world, applying a global lens to the cultural issues of our time and developing graduates who can influence and make an impact throughout their careers. We want our students to challenge and interpret the world, connect communities and cultures, change and impact the world.

TG: Following BREXIT, there's a growing group of Conservative 'traditionalists' who believe that Britain should strengthen its links with the Commonwealth. But countries such as India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada long ago made their own trade arrangements after Britain effectively abandoned them to get into Europe. Would you like to see British decision makers - especially its MPs and journalists - enrol as students at SOAS for short courses on what's going on beyond a bubble set in a silver sea?

Baroness Amos: Of course, we’d love to see everyone spend time at SOAS. We have a lot to offer.

Trevor Grundy is an English journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996