‘Decolonising’ Higher Education – An Interview with Professor Paul Gilroy

 

Lola Olufemi, a Cambridge English student, recently published an open letter criticising her English department’s “‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”, calling for an examination into the authors selected on the curriculum.

The letter sparked a nationwide debate on the issue of ‘decolonisation’ and on the representation of people of colour in the media. In particular, The Daily Telegraph was criticised for the headline: ‘Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors’. The newspaper subsequently issued a correction for the incorrect statement.

The inflammatory headline was not only factually incorrect, but also painted a distorted image of the decolonisation movement. The headline falsely labelled the movement’s members as hot-headed book-burning undergraduates armed with pitchforks determined to rid the curriculum of white authors. In reality, Ms Olufemi has suggested the inclusion of more BME authors and postcolonial views into the curriculum.

On the topic of decolonisation, academics across the UK were generally supportive of the movement to ‘decolonise’ various curricula across the strata of further education.

Professor Paul Gilroy, an American and English Literature professor here at the College, and author of critically-acclaimed works including There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic, has been vocal in supporting efforts to decolonise the curricula of humanities in universities. Roar spoke to Professor Gilroy on the matter, and the structure of the humanities curricula at large.

 

What are your thoughts on how the Cambridge student’s open letter to her English department was handled in the media?

If you want to understand what is at stake in the politics of British higher education, then what has been going on in Cambridge is the wrong place to start. It might be better to ask what KCL students can do to act in solidarity with their peers whose places of study are at the bottom of the government’s league tables or to support students in the further education sector.

In general, Britain’s media subscribes to a ‘civilisationist’ view. It sees world cultures arranged in a simple, unchanging hierarchy. Moral and political indictments of Europe’s vanished imperial dominion are very rare. Instead, our media favour the view that those systems were only beneficial to those they enslaved and expropriated. In that context, critical questioning of what gets taught in universities is dismissed as a manifestation of ‘political correctness’, which remains the key term of abuse deployed against responses they dislike.

What does it mean to ‘decolonise’ a curriculum?

I don’t care for the jargon of decolonisation. It compresses complexity and makes the political and institutional tasks seem trivial. When we unpack it we discover a demand to discover and teach an alternative history of the world that places Europe’s rise and fall in its wider, planetary contexts. That shift requires a different variety of cosmopolitanism than the Kantian kind. In the humanities, it necessitates an entirely new reckoning with the category of the human which would be capable of explaining why so many different kinds of people have been excluded from it in the past.

What is the issue with the current ‘canon’ in our curricula and why should we decolonise them?

In my understanding, decolonising the curriculum does not mean forsaking the archives of knowledge built up here over centuries. It asks us to approach those treasured and error-strewn forms of knowledge in a new way. We are required to read them even more carefully, always mindful of the historical factors that formed them and eager to supplement them with other perspectives and commentaries. In particular, we want to present the colonisation of this planet as an important period that shaped the conditions in which we now find ourselves. It is often forgotten, but that period should not be overlooked or just taken for granted.

Why should students care if their curriculum has been decolonised or not?

There is no ‘off the shelf’ recipe for decolonising institutions like this and changing them for the better requires more than merely adjusting the curriculum. However, students are entitled to demand the best education their universities can provide to them. They already anticipate what awaits them in a post-colonial and sometimes neo-colonial world under pressure from war and riven by the effects of climate change. Knowledge that is rooted complacently in Europe’s old colonial assumptions will not be much use in that demanding environment. It might even make things worse.

 

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Like most similar issues, decolonising further education at first may seem to be an abstract topic. However, when investigating further, it is evident decolonisation of curricula is a multifaceted issue which bleeds into many hot-button subjects. However, one thing is certain: decolonisation should not be a fierce battle between the political left and right, and it should certainly not be a Cultural Revolution-style purging of the curricula.

Decolonisation should be about a transition from a classically colonialist view of the intellectual world. This must happen in order for students to recognise, as author Chinua Achebe aptly put it, that “what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”

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