December 8, 2023
Don't just diversify the curriculum, decolonise it
As authors of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are included in the school curriculum, they open education up to a host of different perspectives, stories, and identities which reflect the diversity of students.
We will all likely study Shakespeare’s genius and Duffy’s intellect, Jane Austen’s searing gender criticisms and the Bronte sisters’ wild romances. But also, Monica Ali’s exploration of dual identities shaping diaspora populations, Alice Walker’s spiritual views on black liberation, and Mohsin Hamid’s cultural otherness tainting his American Dream.
Such efforts would be described by some as diversifying or decolonising the curriculum. It is imperative that we make a distinction between these two notions, rather than using them interchangeably.
Diversifying the curriculum involves broadening the knowledge imparted to students to include different demographics. Diversification does not remove existing literary masterpieces by white authors, nor does it erase Western history, or remove Europe and North America from the map in geography lessons, as some critics would have you believe.
Diversifying the curriculum enriches the existing landscape of education by teaching about more than just the experiences of privileged members of past societies. Diversification is but a stepping stone in the path to decolonisation. It is imperative that we do not stop here.
The diversified curriculum does not challenge societal power structures which narrow the dominant perspective through which we view the world.
Decolonisation goes one step further than diversification; it emphasises exposing such power structures as part of education.
Manchester Metropolitan University, which published a toolkit on decolonising the curriculum, describes this process as “identifying, acknowledging and challenging the ways in which colonialism has impacted upon perceived knowledge and learning. It is not about deleting existing knowledge or history, but about embracing knowledge systems outside of typical Western understanding, and which have hitherto been ignored.”
Explaining its importance in creating an inclusive curriculum the University’s toolkit explains that “decolonising … seeks to both recognise and address the legacies of disadvantage, injustice and racism that have arisen from historic global domination by ‘The West’, and the consequent inherent ‘whiteness’ of our STEM disciplines.”
It is time we confront the imperial past’s hold on the current education system.
The proposal of decolonising the curriculum has been met with resistance from the usual suspects: Republican American states and far-right X (formerly twitter) trolls.
Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities
In spite of this, a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that the curriculum of UK Universities urgently needs to be decolonised in order to address a “silent crisis.”
The “silent crisis” the report speaks of is the dominance of an outdated Eurocentricity which no longer reflects the world students are seeking to understand.
While diversifying would expand beyond a Eurocentric view, decolonising asks us to grapple with why there is Western hegemony over academia, how that impacts perceptions, how and why different demographics may have different views. The additional critical engagement colonialism requires is necessary, enriching, and incredibly important.
I study in Britain, a nation with an infamous imperial legacy which we continue to grapple with today. The reason why our curriculum is not diverse is arguably shaped by our colonial history.
For example, the reason why we don’t learn about British India and its partition into India and Pakistan in our history and geography lessons is not because such events are irrelevant to us. They are extremely relevant and increasingly so; India and Pakistan, along with many other nations Britain colonised, are part of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Many people from these areas are still living today and were directly impacted by British colonial forces.
My grandparents, who live and have worked in Britain, still remember the traumatic events they endured as children during partition. Many people from the British Empire fought in the British Army and have a direct impact on life in Britain today.
So why are these large and relevant parts of history omitted from the curriculum?
Arguably, it is because it may reflect an unsavoury view of colonial past. It will expose the explicit racism of some of the nation’s heroes. It will showcase the humanitarian crises caused by empires for which these states’ successors have not paid reparations.
It will reveal the looted goods we have still not returned. It will put under scrutiny neo-colonial forces that still act today, from the Commonwealth to the looted foreign treasures on display in The British Museum.
This displays how, in order to effectively diversify by educating students about British India, we must also go one step further and decolonise, which demands both acknowledgement and action in relation to colonial legacies.
Diversifying may teach about the experiences of black people in apartheid South Africa. Decolonising will go further, also teaching the complicity of colonial forces in allowing apartheid to take place. It will teach the British Government’s initial reluctance to oppose apartheid, which was rooted in post-imperialist practices and self-preserving economic interests.
It is vital that the colonial legacy of racism is understood in order to dismantle the post-imperial structures that continue to be a damaging force.
By teaching students how multifaceted history was, rather than the diluted version of it, students can truly learn from the mistakes of the past. Students would learn to recognise where humanity has failed previously, how ideologies operate, and how to identify and tackle it to ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes.
In order to teach students to become critical thinkers, we cannot ask them to blindly memorise information but instead to critique and evaluate sources. We cannot ask them to be content with a few different perspectives but instead to understand the imperial and neo-colonialist forces which shaped different perspectives.
This will create generations of critical thinkers, who effectively analyse information, who understand what bias might look like and why it occurs, who understand the impact of the global socio-political landscape and who understand their own singularity of experience.
This will develop a keenness within them to truly educate themselves on others in order to gain a broader, more encompassing perspective of the world.