Recently, academia has been a tumultuous environment, as witnessed by the UCU strike action, as well as multiple campaigns against the way in which universities are run. Amongst this, a major issue that has consistently been raised has been the need to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. This notion gained widespread attention particularly following Lola Olufemi’s campaign to decolonise the English curriculum at Cambridge University.
But what does it mean to decolonise the curriculum?
The term in itself is multidimensional. It encompasses the issues of having a monolithic and Eurocentric curriculum, and the need to diversify the material taught. Our curriculum, both in secondary education and at university, inadvertently has established a hierarchy of philosophies that places Western civilisation as a universal benchmark for progressive thought. Consequently, and this issue is rife in the arts and humanities, the hegemonic discourse of Eurocentric or Anglocentric academic material dominates the curriculum, leaving little room to explore cultures and histories that span outside of the English-speaking world.
Therefore, many have called for the curriculum to widen its scope for more diversity of thought and culture. This step would also prevent a dismissal of the intellectually rich academia that exists in many other parts of the world. In subjects such as English, the reading list could encompass a greater inclusion of authors outside of Europe, and subjects such as philosophy and theology could include a more intensive study of non-Western belief systems.
This would be the first step in tackling many of the inequalities within academia
A consistent white-washing of the curriculum has also had an adverse impact on many BME students. Encountering a curriculum that does not attempt to teach any aspect of your identity can insinuate that such an identity is, at best, secondary. Consequently, many students may become disillusioned with their course, because it does not sufficiently appeal to their broader interests.
Aside from its psycho-social implications, there is also a prominent attainment gap within academia. Advance HE reported that only 63.2 per cent of BME students were awarded a first-class or an upper-second class degree, compared to 78.8 per cent of white students. However, this issue goes further, as black students had the highest attainment gap, with only 50 per cent of students being awarded these classifications, resulting in a 28.3 per cent attainment gap. This could suggest that BME students are unable to engage with the curriculum to the same extent as their white counterparts.
Moreover, Advance HE also investigated the distribution of BME academics in higher education, and found that (as of 2016/17), the UK had only 25 female black professors. Decolonising the curriculum therefore exemplifies a prospect for diversifying the higher education field, as it may allow more BME academics to enter the field if they are offered the scope to research interests that lie outside of the Eurocentric canon.
An opportunity to widen perspectives
Additionally, this also has a holistic impact on society. In decolonising the curriculum, students and teachers alike would be able to access the wealth of perspectives that broaden their horizons. The capacity to enrich your thinking, by accessing works that have their own unique history and culture, offers an exponential possibility for personal and intellectual growth. Perhaps this would also form the stepping stone to understanding each other’s experiences in society. Nevertheless, it is equally important to do so as a means of coming to terms with Britain’s colonial past. It is vital that our students understand the horrors of Empire, and the magnitude of its impact in a post-colonial age. Reforming the curriculum thus enables an opportunity for empowerment and education.
As a student of the arts and humanities, both at school and university, I remember trying to mould the curriculum to fit my own interests. Of course, I believe it is equally crucial that we understand the richness of the history that this country has to offer — and retaining a study of Shakespeare or the Tudors is certainly important. It is not mutually exclusive to expand academic reading lists to postcolonial works or the history of the Empire. In fact, it is heart-warming to think that your own heritage is a part of the academic mosaic taught within the curriculum. This would indeed be a vital and progressive step towards building a receptive and diverse society.