Ewan Somerville, Telegraph, April 24, 2021
Sir Isaac Newton has been labelled as a potential beneficiary of “colonial-era activity” in draft plans to “decolonise” the engineering curriculum at Sheffield University.
Students learning about the mathematician and scientist’s three laws of motion, the core of modern physics, could see changes in their teaching to explain the “global origins and historical context” of his theories, documents suggest.
The plans form part of the engineering faculty’s efforts to “challenge long-standing conscious and unconscious biases” among students to tackle “Eurocentric” and “white saviour” approaches to science and maths, and promote “inclusive design”.
A leaked copy of the “draft inclusive curriculum development” plan at the Russell Group institution says that “much important engineering content and curriculum resources is based on maths developed in the 18/19th century.”
It claims pioneering scientists including Paul Dirac, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz “could be considered as benefiting from colonial era activity”.
Newton, who lived until 1727, laid the foundations of modern science with his theory of gravity, in the seminal Principia, and theories on light, time, colour and calculus.
His equation for universal gravitation, written in 1666 when he was 23, helped overthrow more than a thousand years of Aristotelian thinking.
He was once voted Cambridge University student of all time by current students. He went on to become President of the Royal Society and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The documents do not explain how Newton is thought to have benefited from colonialism. However, it is known that he held shares in the South Sea Company that traded in slaves.
Newton initially made money but later lost £20,000, a fortune at the time, after the company ran into financial difficulties.
Other shareholders at the time included 462 members of the House of Commons and 100 members of the House of Lords.
While his views on slavery are little known, he was deeply religious and confessed multiple sins, including “setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee”.
Newton is the latest historical figure to be swept into a drive by staff and students to “decolonise” campuses, which intensified in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
Last month the Telegraph revealed an Oxford professor branded musical notation “colonialist” as part of faculty proposals to challenge the “complicity in white supremacy” of its music curriculum, which spans Mozart and Beethoven.
A consultant who runs diversity workshops at multiple top universities told The Telegraph the decolonisation drive is shifting from humanities courses to sciences, warning the sector is “captured” by “critical race theory in all but name”.
“I’m employed by universities to do this training but for me equality, diversity and inclusion training is equality of opportunity, diversity of thought and inclusivity of action – that’s all,” they said.
“This is something different altogether. It is blatantly teaching people to be activists.”
Prof Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Kent University, said: “What they call ‘acknowledging the past’ is actually a kind of present-ism, where you read history backwards. It’s a way of socialising students into feeling that something is wrong with their own background, the life of their ancestors and inducing guilt.”
James Gleick, the science writer and biographer of Newton said: “Whether Newton’s foolish investment in South Sea shares in 1720 means that he participated in the slave trade is arguable.
“I doubt he thought about it. I would say that all England benefited from colonialism. The correct response to that is to teach it.”
It comes after the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, warned that campuses risk mirroring the Soviet Union if they “whitewash” history.