Decolonising the curriculum isn’t as scary as it sounds


Our curriculum should reflect our history, both the good and the bad

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By Raphael Henry

The Times recently ran a poll on its website, posing the question “should universities remove slavers’ names from their campuses?” I honestly don’t know why, but I had genuine hope for humanity as I clicked ‘reveal result’. What do you think the results were? Would you be terribly shocked to discover that 87 percent of the 5,000 votes said “no, keep the slavers’ names”? In hindsight, me neither. Let’s not make any hasty judgements though: there’s a genuine conversation to be had over whether removing slavers’ names risks airbrushing our colonial history, sweeping Britain’s dark deeds under the rug. Maybe these Times readers are in fact stalwart defenders against this dangerous possibility?

Curious, I scrolled down to the comments. My mistake became clear when I immediately encountered a comment praising “the civilising influence the British Empire had” on Africa. Just below, another commenter was complaining that ethnic minorities are now “colonising the UK” right back. I closed the tab. “That’s enough for today,” I thought, loading up The Guardian homepage to cleanse my soul with some righteous anger; there was something about the UK Climate Minister, Graham Stuart, accepting donations from fossil fuel companies. Perfect.

But I just couldn’t stop thinking about the poll. Why does it so bother The Times, as well as Times readers, that universities are engaging in the dialogue surrounding these social issues? Over the past eight years, the winds of change have been slowly but surely nudging universities towards ‘decolonising’ their curriculums and campuses. This process has a lot to do with diversity: for countless decades, universities had primarily concerned themselves with a pretty limited range of material.

Our cultural history is, by-and-large, a history of marginalisation: minority voices, which should have been commonplace, are instead the exceptions to the rule; and an incredible amount of weight has been placed on the shoulders of those exceptions. In my entire school education, I was taught about exactly one black writer (Olaudah Equiano). The British Empire transported three million slaves across the Atlantic, but only has room for one in its school curriculum.

So, the first part of decolonising the curriculum is diversity: bringing in voices that haven’t been heard historically. The second part is adding some context to what is already there. For instance, take Immanuel Kant. Probably one of the most famous philosophers out there, his musings on morality have exasperated (and occasionally tortured) generations of philosophy students, myself included. The man produced seminal works of philosophy whilst never once leaving the walls of the tiny German city he lived in. He is, and will remain, a hugely influential figure in moral philosophy. But he also constructed a hierarchy of the races – placing white people at the top, of course. His influential position as a renowned scholar, according to the research group Black Central Europe, means that “he bears considerable responsibility for amplifying abhorrent stereotypes developed first by slaveowners in the Caribbean.”

No one is saying that Kant should be thrown out of the philosophical canon, and no longer studied because his views (at least in his earlier life) were explicitly racist. But his racist views are pretty important context for his philosophical work – the two are inseparable. Nigel Biggar, an Oxford professor and “free speech champion” is one of a number of academics on the front lines of the ‘culture wars’, lobbing explosive comments over the metaphorical no man’s land. He has argued that decolonisation is anti-"reason, scientific method and the liberal values of tolerance and free speech”, and that authors such as Jane Austen and Chaucer are disappearing from curriculums.

Well, Professor Biggar can rest easy today, because I’ve done a bit of research for him. The professor will, I’m sure, be delighted to hear that University of York English Literature undergrads do in fact study Chaucer and Jane Austen – but also Toni Morrison, Tayeb Salih, and Ralph Ellison. You can study medieval lais alongside works that tackle homophobia; Shakespeare alongside European New Cinema; Renaissance writers, Romantic writers, and Modernist writers, but also feminist writers, race writers, and, yes, writers who wish to dissect the legacy of British colonialism.

Professor Biggar claims that the harms of the British Empire are casting an “imaginary guilt” over us, yet he was born just five years after India became a republic, following nearly two centuries of British exploitation. The fact that he thinks we have no ownership over this legacy is astounding to me. Us university students are, of course, living in a postcolonial period. It would be easy to say that we are completely removed from the harms that Britain committed in the past. I understand how unfair it can feel, I really do: how can we be guilty of crimes that happened before we were even born? But decolonising the curriculum isn’t designed to place guilt and blame on students, and it is definitely not designed to ‘get rid of all the classics’. Decolonisation isn’t about completely destroying the established canon of writers, it’s about trying to create a modicum of balance.

Our curriculum should reflect the wonderful and diverse world that we live in, both the good and the bad. None of our history should be swept under the rug, or airbrushed out of existence. Equally, no one from a minority background should come to university and feel that the only ‘legitimate creators of knowledge’ are white men.

And finally, no one – and I mean no one – should read the comments under a Times article. It was a truly depressing experience.