More needs to be done to ensure Decolonising the Cambridge Curriculum is effective

Decolonising the curriculum is complex but we need to make sure that marginalised students aren’t being hurt by it along the way

CN: Racism, mental health


‘Decolonising the curriculum.’ It is a phrase that you’ve probably heard hundreds of times, particularly if you’re a Cambridge humanities student. With the events of last summer and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, once again, there has been increasing pressure for Cambridge University to reckon with its colonial past as well as decolonise the curriculum.

In 2017 a movement began to push for academics to decolonise the Cambridge English literature syllabus and expand to other subjects and faculties and other universities. However, it seems that four years later, the phrase ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has gotten lost in translation.

The chair of the Cambridge Decolonise Sociology group Dr Ali Meghji shared this sentiment in a recent article describing how ‘there is a general consensus that decolonizing the curriculum involves a misrepresentation of British history which paints a false picture of the past.’ Currently, it seems that the movement has arguably been reduced to a diversity checklist where faculties seem forced to add a sprinkle of ‘diversity’ at the end of reading lists as an added extra, enabling students to opt-out of learning about non-white narratives.

From reports from students of colour, who say that they still have to do the extra work to insert themselves and their perspective into an ever white-centric curriculum, it seems that not much has changed. Therefore, I have to ask, what does ‘decolonise the curriculum’ truly mean? And is it enough to provide a complete ‘equal’ restructuring of the curriculum?

What does ‘decolonise the curriculum’ truly mean?

At its core, decolonising the curriculum is a way of combatting the violence and racism that often occurs in education. Simply put, it’s a way of changing how we think about what we know by recognising how a white Western perspective has shaped it.

Former President of the Cambridge African Caribbean Society Toni Fola-Alade says that “it’s about making the curriculum as inclusive and reflective of all the students, and reappraising what we collectively value and what’s important.” He suggests that its method is “not necessarily demoting the individuals who are already in the canon or on the curriculum. It’s thinking about how values and communities change over time and ensuring the curriculum reflects that.”

The mythic narrative of decolonising the curriculum as being solely about removing white western scholars and replacing them with non-white scholars, or just sprinkling a few non-white scholars at the end of reading lists is not beneficial. Yet this approach seems to be the one many faculties have adopted, which often leads to tokenism and non-white narratives not being taken as seriously as their counterparts. Cambridge needs to go further than just adding a token scholar of colour because, whilst some may believe that adding scholars of colour to the end of the reading list could change generations of inequality and colonisation, it is ultimately a naive way of thinking.

The representation issue

There is often so much emphasis on getting any form of representation into the curriculum that the importance of the type of representation needed is forgotten. I would argue that, in many subjects, the representation that people of colour in scholarship receive is one dimensional.

It does not include positive scholarship in any way, shape or form, and instead, the curriculum can become another way in which marginalised students are traumatised. As a black student who studies HSPS (Human, Social, Political Science), the heavy focus on the oppression that black people have faced and continue to face has not positively affected my mental health.

And whilst it would be nice to believe that my experience is an isolated case, recent research done by The Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning’s (CCTL) Access and Participation Plan: Participatory Action Research Project (the APP PAR Project) has proven otherwise. It has shown that the lack of representation within the curriculum significantly affects the Black student attainment gap.

One English student described how Oroonoko by Aphra Ben, which includes extremely racially distressing and explicitly violent content, was studied in detail with a casual approach. Another student that I spoke to revealed that in their course, they felt as though “Blackness could not be associated with anything else but suffering, it’s really emotionally draining and takes a toll on your mental health when as a Black student, that’s all your taught about your own identity.”

In reality, fully decolonising the curriculum will not be easy. It is a process that takes time, commitment and dedication. It’s about integrating non-white scholars into the main curriculum. It’s about a balanced representation that has narratives of liberation and not just suffering and pain. It’s about ensuring that the world-class education that Cambridge promises is truly world-class for everyone.

Cover Credit: Kayinsola Amoo-Peters

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