Decolonising education: is the curriculum 'too white'?Sunday 23 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle for Education
Oxford University’s #RhodesMustFall campaign calls for Oriel College to remove a statue of 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes. But for many campaigners, the goal is not just the symbolic removal of a statue, but a more fundamental transformation of the university. Sister student movements to #RhodesMustFall such as NUS backed ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and #DecoloniseEducation now promise to overturn ‘the “Whiteness”, Eurocentric domination and lack of diversity in the curricula…which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge’. There is growing support for making courses, faculties, reading lists and ‘core’ subjects more culturally diverse to take account of the diverse backgrounds of an expanded student population. It is argued that ‘White’ curricula are responsible for feelings of ‘isolation, marginalisation, alienation and exclusion’ among non-white students.
Critics note that while the decolonising ‘young Turks’ see themselves as more enlightened and progressive than their out-of-touch lecturers, they seem to be kicking an open door. Many academics have long been defensive about the politically incorrect history of their institutions and even their disciplines, and are quick to apologise and ditch classic texts. But at what cost? Black radical CLR James wrote that ‘the origins of my work and thought are to be found in Western European literature, Western European history and Western European thought’ and argued that black people could liberate themselves by embracing the universal legacy of Shakespeare and Hegel, Mozart and Melville. Might limiting students to knowledge deemed appropriate to their cultural background leave them without a grounding in major intellectual developments? Isn’t the point of learning to transcend one’s particular cultural background? Or does a curriculum dominated by the ‘pale, male and stale’ explain the attainment gap, whereby non-white students are 20% less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree, despite arriving at university with the same grades?
Should education, at school or university, be about reflecting students’ cultural identities? Or should education be about creating, even imposing, a different type of identity - not given by biological fact or social background – but that of the educated individual? Is the identity of the educated person really open to all, as supporters of liberal education have claimed in the past? Or is such an identity a mask that hides oppressive power relations as many of today’s student campaigns allege?
professor of Africana studies, Wellesley College
deputy head (academic), Nottingham High School; adviser on the use of digital technology to schools and NGOs
political & dance theorist; visiting fellow at NYU and the Hannah Arendt Archive, Bard College, USA
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Why is My Curriculum White?, Mariya Hussain, NUS, March 2015
We've learned so much from dead white men - trying to remove them from history is madness, Lindsay Johns, International Business Times, October 2016
The war on 'dead white dudes', Joanna Williams, Spiked, August 2016
Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students, André Rhoden-Paul, Guardian, June 2015
GCSE and A-level English curriculum dominated by ‘white, deceased, male writers’, say campaigners, Aftab Ali, Independent, March 2016
In defence of the ‘white’ curriculum, Joanna Williams, Spiked, October 2014