To decolonise the curriculum, we have to decolonise ourselves

For many, the movement to decolonise the curriculum is a new thing – a component of the free speech “culture wars” being played out on campuses in the US and the UK. In truth, it’s nothing new.

Its roots are etched deep in history and spread across the world.

They surface at moments like April 1966, when politicians, musicians, and intellectuals of the global African diaspora gathered in Dakar, Senegal, for the first World Festival of Negro Arts. Set against the backdrop of the push for civil rights in the US and the beginning of the negritude movement in France, this forum rejected the colonialist mindset that prevailed in art and literature and sought to foreground the contribution of Africa to the evolution of human knowledge.

To take another example, when India and Pakistan gained their independence from British rule in 1947, reforms were undertaken to rewrite educational material and syllabuses in schools to reflect a change in how the history of the region was perceived by the new leadership.

While previously colonised nations had an immediate impetus to rethink their curriculums and understandings, it would seem that former colonisers have not shared the same sense of urgency.

Leading scholar-activist Gus John, who has championed anti-racism in higher education for decades, bemoans the fact that the university experience continues to be largely framed through a eurocentric gaze. He is frank in his assessment of institutions, saying that they have “failed to dismantle the structural and cultural manifestations of discrimination and exclusion.”

John believes their conception of “decolonising the curriculum” has been too simplistic. The conversation has been about closing the gaps in academic attainment and widening the selection of the reading list. Both of these measures, though important, are part of a much larger need for reform.

Post-colonial sociologist Gurminder Bhambra, from the University of Sussex, agrees. While student-led campaigns such as Why Is my Curriculum White, Rhodes Must Fall, and the decolonisation campaign in Cambridge, did much to spread awareness and build momentum, they have yet to push the sector to follow through with a “sustained process of self-examination and change” at the degree required to achieve change.

It starts with each of us

Gus and Gurminder explain that decolonising the curriculum is about rebalancing the eurocentric outlook of a university and this requires a deep interrogation of structures that produce inequalities.

Every member of staff need to be involved in that process, and students should be engaged with it too. Much as institutions may like to think the issue can be solved by working their way through a checklist of actions, decolonising begins with individuals deconstructing themselves and looking inward to the roots of their own identity.

The university community must consider the implications of Europe and North America being considered the only reliable sources of knowledge. How have other cultures been excluded from shaping our understandings?

Gus explains that decolonising is about “recognising and reorienting where power is drawn from.” And, as Gurminder knows all too well, this is a process that is concerned with, “exchanging rather than transferring knowledge.” As such, academics must be ready to learn from students too, rather than assume they know best.

Up to now, most of the impetus for change has come from the bottom up, from student activists demanding universities change what they teach and how they teach it. But in some universities, leadership teams have begun to commit themselves to the process of redressing inequalities. John would like to see vice-chancellors recognise their responsibility to lead on these issues, rather than simply respond to student campaigns.

Shifting the way institutions engage with students on these issues has been a key priority for NUS Vice-President (Higher Education), Amatey Doku. Students want to see leaders of institutions “acknowledge they have a problem” because it is only by being honest real progress can be achieved.

Expanding the vision

As Amatey explains, “institutions should partner with students to define an expansive vision of success.” Closing attainment gaps and increasing staff diversity are a starting point, and a crucial one, but they are not the only goals. Universities must not narrow the scope of the conversation to focus only on “black and ethnic minority” staff and students.

A fuller vision is one that examines how all students and staff engage with knowledge, culture and history. How can we turn up the volume on the voices of those who have been excluded from the curriculum? For Amatey, this pursuit is ultimately about ensuring each and every student feels like “they fully belong” at their institution.

As institutions of higher learning, the sector bears a particular responsibility to show leadership in the wider community in disturbing consensual thinking and reshaping understandings. While acknowledging that the decolonisation discourse will preoccupy institutions for some time, Gus also notes that it would be a “real pity,” if this work did not impact the formulation of public policy more generally and function as a “tool of liberation,” for communities. This underpins precisely why providers of higher education need to be model examples who are held to the highest standards of practice.

With thanks to Gus John, Coventry University, Gurminder Bhambra, University of Sussex, Amatey Doku, National Union of Students, and Judy Friedberg, Coventry University

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