Donelan wades into the culture wars… again

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Saturday evening brought the news that this week’s Telegraph politics podcast had universities minister Michelle Donelan on as a guest, sharing her views on curriculum decolonisation:

The so-called decolonisation of the curriculum is in effect censoring our history.


And as a history student, myself, I am a vehement protector and champion of safeguarding our history, because I do think it otherwise becomes fiction if you start editing it, taking bits out that we view as stains. And also a fundamental part of our history is about learning from it, not repeating the mistakes – being able to analyse and challenge why those events happened, how those decisions were made so that we don’t repeat those actions in the future. And I also wonder if we’re going down this road of taking bits out, are we then going to end up putting bits in that we wish had happened – it is a very dangerous and odd road to go down. And certainly, it has no place in our universities, I would argue, and it has no place in academic study.

Does someone want to tell her about Operation Legacy?

When the minister in charge of universities starts to argue that decolonisation means the editing out rather than editing in of problematic episodes in history, it really does feel like we’re through the looking glass. The question is whether it’s an accidental wholesale misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to delegitimize race equality work in higher education. She continues:

So I’m all in favour of adding stuff into enriching our understanding of history, to adding in sources from less well known and often overlooked individuals in history? Certainly, absolutely – let’s enrich our understanding and give our young people a fuller picture, and a further and deeper understanding of our history. But most of the narrative that is coming out, when you actually look at what people on this agenda say, is about removing elements of history about whitewashing it, and pretending that it never happened, which I just think is naive, and almost irresponsible.”

It’s hard not to be genuinely alarmed by the use of the word “whitewash” there – but to be fair to the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope, he does at least give Donelan multiple opportunities to back up her claims, each of which she dodges. Not only does she have nothing when he asks if she has evidence of Conservatives being afraid to “speak out and say that they support Boris Johnson”, when he asks “what examples do you have for [a] whitewash of history”, she says:

So a lot of the talk of the decolonisation is actually removing those elements. It’s not about packing in extra into history. And when you look at people that are saying that our study is wrong in the UK, you don’t often hear them talking about just enriching the sources that are used for students to study from, it’s about removing certain texts and books and replacing them with alternatives. I feel sorry for the students here, I mean, students want to actually properly learn, and if we’re adding stuff in brilliant, but taking it out is not going to achieve them learning.”

One particular parallel has you drawing breath with speechless incredulity:

And it just doesn’t work. When governments try to remove elements of history. Look at the Soviet Union, look at China, there are there are multiple examples where it’s been tried, it doesn’t work.

Last week her historian predecessor Chris Skidmore had a go at pointing over there instead by insisting that the “real freedom of speech issue” was the sector’s use of non-disclosure agreements. This time Skidmore points elsewhere again by arguing that the “greatest challenge” to history reading lists is the growing issue of publisher costs of ebook rights to universities. He might be right, but universities ministers have form here – it’s easy to forget that former universities minister Sam Gyimah used the launch of the Office of the Students to make similarly baffling points to get an otherwise crashingly dull speech into the Telegraph:

What we should be cautious of – and this is caution – is phasing out parts of the curriculum that just happen to be unpopular or unfashionable… I genuinely believe that part of the university experience is actually facing up to the unpopular, facing up to the unfashionable, engaging with it, challenging it, that is how you widen your horizons.”

That question about popularity is an interesting one – because one way to read the intervention is yet another example of the government wanting a demand driven market in higher education, but not like that.

Peter Kirwan (an Associate Professor of early modern drama at Nottingham) puts it better than me:

Not that anyone involved in the culture wars actually cares about this, but one of the joys about curriculum design is that content isn’t mono-directional, and that reshaping courses and reading lists in response to student feedback is a pleasure. “This was a good module but I would have liked to learn more about this” is a great comment to get in module feedback, because it shows students taking ownership of their own knowledge, and it helps me expand my sense of what students can handle. Similarly, students letting me know that a text didn’t work for them, for whatever reason, helps me critically assess each year whether or not the curriculum I’ve designed is doing what it needs to do. Sometimes I change the text, sometimes how I teach it. This isn’t censorship!

I only get ten weeks of content on any given module, so every year I have to make hard choices about what doesn‘t make the cut. This also isn’t censorship! This is planning, and streamlining, and focusing. Because it’s collaborative education, not indoctrination. I don’t make curriculum choices based on any overt or covert agenda, I make them based on “what works well with my students” to help meet learning outcomes. A student-centered pedagogy responds to and anticipates its students’ needs and evolves accordingly. That’s a good thing!

Buried among all of the outrage language is a deep-rooted concern that students might have a say in what they think is important, and that this might be different to what the government thinks is important. Attempts to stifle students’ freedom of expression should concern us all. But the whole discourse is fundamentally flawed because these curricula are partnerships between staff and students, with constant flows of feedback and development and adjustment, which make university teaching dynamic and exciting and continually new.

Accompanying Christopher Hope’s breathless front page coverage of Michelle Donelen’s interview with Christopher Hope was the news of a new Policy Exchange report on a single event at a Cambridge college (“The racial consequences of Mr Churchill”) which argues that the event should only have ahead if the (checks notes) speeches had been vetted in advance and opposing speakers had been found. The event’s chair – Priyamvada Gopal – tries to explain what’s going on as follows:

When we ‘decolonise’, we put the ‘offensive’ bits BACK IN… we don’t pretend, for instance, that empire was all about lovely railways and parliamentary systems. THAT’s fictionalised. We talk about the ‘offensive’ bits that Tory snowflakes don’t like: massacres, famine, racism, wars, authoritarian rule, executions, land grabs, genocide.”

We also learned that the Charity Commission had confirmed that it has opened a “regulatory compliance case” into the National Trust following concerns being raised with it about its slavery and colonialism report, because, you know, the last thing any of us need is for the NT to be “historically accurate and academically robust” when it communicates about the places and collections in its care.

Elsewhere in the interview all the same lines on the pandemic, mental health, tuition fees and complaints were wheeled out – although even there there’s a through looking glass feel to the whole thing. One minute Donelan is suggesting universities that promised blended learning should still charge full fees if online quality is there (again telling people to complain and go to the OIA if they feel it isn’t, when you can’t) – and the next she’s telling Hope that “there is no substitute for the face to face learning”.

Either there is or there isn’t, surely?

The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things”. ”The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

3 responses to “Donelan wades into the culture wars… again

  1. I see what you did there Amy, very clever> The problem is that Ms Donelan’s comments, considering she is a historian, display a profound lack of historical understanding or balance. What is it she fears about ethnic minority authors being added to reading lists?

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