Over the last few academic years, there have been several movements across UK and international universities to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. But what does this mean, and why is it important? ‘Decolonising’ the curriculum is usually understood as excluding or limiting certain authors associated with the promotion of colonial attitudes (which supported slavery and racism, for example), and increasing the number of minority authors taught on courses instead. This is obviously more important for some subjects than others, but has several major benefits:
1. To see the bigger picture
The time we have to study is limited (especially when you balance it with a social life, a job, or who knows what else). We can only study so many texts, so many authors, so many theories – and those chosen for the curriculum are usually the ‘big names’ of the literature or philosophical world. Last year, my French literature paper was made up entirely of white male authors, with only a single female cinema director to balance it out. This year, we studied slightly more diverse texts, but the general theme remained the same: the authors, mainly male, who have earned a reputation as those texts we should read at some point in our lives.
Are they really the only books we should read, though? They might be the most well-known, the most prominent… but this is both a blessing and a curse. By focusing on the mainstream and the accepted, we exclude the smaller voices, the narratives which were ignored or actively oppressed at the time of writing but which could teach us much more about what was happening in the darker cracks and crevices of society.
2. To challenge flaws and outdated ideas
Only focusing on the big names is also problematic when it comes to ideas of race, gender, class, and sexuality – ideas which have changed and evolved over time. The famous To Kill A Mockingbird has been scratched from the reading lists of some American universities because it contains the n-word, and embodies the common ‘white saviour’ trope in which characters of colour or minority backgrounds are simply used as plot devices to assert the white character’s moral enlightenment.
Yes, this is maybe because of ‘how things were’ back then, and it doesn’t detract from the fact that the book has been long regarded as a well-loved classic… But if we do not acknowledge the flaws of such ‘classics’, what are we actually learning? Similarly, philosophy has long been used to affirm racial or gendered stereotypes. Kant argued that some civilisations were more ‘primitive’ and inferior to others; Nietzsche was extremely sexist; many of them used ideas of nature and civilisation to justify colonialism and enslavement. We are not calling for universities to stop teaching these philosophers altogether – only to teach them within their specific historical context and to tackle their limitations.
3. To see a wider variety of identities represented in the media we consume
Aside from making reading lists more interesting and diverse, diversifying our taught material is just as important as increasing representation of minorities in media. We need books which talk about life from different perspectives, which will challenge our prejudices and preconceptions of the world instead of affirming them, and we need to see greater representation of all genders, ethnicities and sexualities. It is about giving students the chance to see themselves in the texts in their reading lists, to understand their full potential - after all, the more we read or watch certain scenarios, the more we accept them as ‘normal’, and so it is important to make this ‘normal’ as diverse and accepting as possible.
As you get started on summer reading lists and preparation for next year, consider how important diversity is to your course. How intersectional is your reading list? Do you think your university should include more diverse authors and texts?