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Cancelling Isaac Newton as part of a ‘decolonisation’ drive is part of a woke-driven purge in education that must be resisted

Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

Cancelling Isaac Newton as part of a ‘decolonisation’ drive is part of a woke-driven purge in education that must be resisted
A British university erasing the achievements of one of the world’s greatest scientists because he may have profited from ‘colonial-era activity’ is madness, and cancels the human spirit behind scientific discovery.

The leaked copy of the “draft inclusive curriculum development” document setting out plans to “decolonise” the engineering curriculum at Sheffield University, which warns that Sir Isaac Newton may have benefited from “colonial-era activity”, would be hilarious if its consequences were not so serious.

This development is part of the university’s attempt to “decolonise” its curriculum and tackle “long-standing conscious and unconscious biases” among students to ensure their engineering graduates are no longer imbued with “Eurocentric” and “white saviour” approaches to science and maths. It wants instead to promote “inclusive design”.

On one level, it is clear that this is an attempt to woke-wean the next generation of students. As the eminent sociologist Emeritus Professor Frank Furedi points out, this has nothing to do with science or the education of science: “Its sole aim is to distance engineering students from their nation’s past and to make them feel that there is something morally wrong with the intellectual and scientific legacy of their discipline. Its objective is to socialise students to despise their background and induce a sense of guilt.”

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What Sheffield University is now thinking about for its graduates is already well established in leading high schools in the USA. At the affluent Fieldston School in New York City, for example, a senior student told reporter Bari Weiss how the physics curriculum has changed: “We don’t call them Newton’s laws anymore … We call them the three fundamental laws of physics. They say we need to ‘decenter whiteness,’ and we need to acknowledge that there’s more than just Newton in physics.”

Removing Newton’s name cancels Newton the man and his achievement, de-historicising him and his accomplishments. Every student studying physics should learn that his equation for universal gravitation, written in 1666 when he was 23, helped overthrow over a thousand years of Aristotelian thinking. In the seminal Principia, that theory, and his theories on light, time, colour, and calculus, began the Scientific Revolution, from which today’s Covid-19 vaccines are an indirect result.

It is history students who should study history, including the slave trade. That Newton made a foolish investment in South Sea shares in 1720 (on which he subsequently lost a fortune), means his participation in the slave trade is peripheral at best. He was no different from many who attempted to make a quick buck. But he was certainly different when it came to progress and pushing humanity beyond existing knowledge boundaries – boundaries that we have even begun to break by flying an autonomous aircraft on the planet Mars for the first time.

Insisting on the names attached to scientific breakthroughs is not semantics or academic purity. If we call Newton into question, what about all the other ‘white’ scientists whose names are used as units of measurement that make up the forces that drive much of the physical world? 

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We would need to cancel ampere, kelvin, pascal, Celsius, watt, volta, farad, henry, weber, joule, hertz, sievert and gray – all ‘white’ men of science in previous centuries. No doubt one could find dodgy business deals or statements in their histories too. 

This personification of nature is no accident, either. It simply underlines the fact that science is a human accomplishment, discovered by humans, with all the imperfections and subjectivity that entails. Science does not exist outside of the people who have discovered, understood and mastered it for human ends. 

Newton famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” If Sheffield University and the woke warriors of today get their way, he will be reduced in stature. By diminishing him, they are diminishing human ambition and what tomorrow’s students might aspire to. There will be no more giant shoulders to stand on or aspire to become – just the mediocre minds of today’s woke-weaners who celebrate existing biological differences as the pinnacle of human achievement. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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