In Defence of the History Department: Why King’s doesn’t need to be ‘decolonised’

Second years going on third may have mixed feelings about next year’s module choices. This is certainly true in the History Department where some students view the module choices as disappointing. Naturally, some history students and the KCL Women and Politics Society made this issue a political one. In their publication the KCL Clandestine, the society published an ‘open letter to the History Department’, stating their concerns for the 17 history dissertation choices for 2019/20.

The publication’s animosity towards the History Department is on the basis that the department is offering ‘colonial and Eurocentric history’ and that they do not fulfill their promise of ‘global reach – spanning Britain, Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa and Australia.’ However, the Department is offering many choices that deal with histories outside of the Western world at the expense of European history modules previously offered, but this is apparently insufficient. The KCL Clandestine has chosen to politicise their disappointment on an issue that is apolitical, using divisive language such as the call to ‘decolonise King’s education’ when there is really nothing to ‘decolonise’.

The article claims that the 17 module choices leave students with ‘ex-colonial, European, and British history’. Yet it is important to understand why these so-called ‘colonial’ histories are being offered as dissertation modules. In my questioning of a few dissertation module convenors as to why there aren’t more choices on, for example, the history of Africa or China, they pointed to several problems in conducting such dissertation modules.

History dissertation modules are fundamentally different from second year essays – access to primary sources is a must.

If the History Department were to conduct a dissertation module on China, students should be able to do Chinese archival research – it would be necessary for them to speak Mandarin, read in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters. Given that a minority of students in the History Department are fluent in Chinese, there is not enough demand to conduct a Chinese history course due to the language barrier.

From my interview of student ‘J’, this is also the reasoning that ‘J’ received from his personal tutor. When ‘J’ discussed his idea of writing about Kashmir for his dissertation, his personal tutor apparently advised him that it would be ‘very difficult’ to find sources on Kashmir due to language issues. Furthermore, the access to reliable sources would be difficult unless the student was to travel to Kashmir.

This is also the reason as to why China has not been ‘rejected’ as the Clandestine impulsively claims – Chinese archives are also difficult to search for and not widely available on the internet; it is required to visit the government archives of Beijing and Shanghai in order to get reliable sources. This leaves us with only Western-written sources on these module choices, which is inadequate for a top-scoring History dissertation.

The disregard for such practicality is apparent in the Clandestine’s letter to the History Department.

Another problem with dissertation modules is the number of professors able to convene these courses. During a discussion with a professor of Chinese history in the department, I was told that the number of permanent teaching staff is also a key explanation as to why dissertation modules are limited. Non-permanent staff members are unable to host their own dissertation course. At certain times, permanent staff members go on leave to do research.

Availability of dissertation courses ultimately comes down to the availability of resources and permanent professors within the department. Yet the Clandestine expects professors to sacrifice their careers and passions to cater a module to their demands. I thought the KCL Women & Politics Society had more regard for workers’ rights!

In fact, rather than offering ‘colonial history’ only, there is diversity in the dissertation modules this year. As discussed in an email to history students, the History Department outlined that there are many dissertation courses that cover history on Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Even the module The Global Cold War shifts the focus on a topic that has been extensively discussed in a Eurocentric light in academia for years. There are modules on the Caribbean, Race, India… Has it ever occurred to the Clandestine to read beyond the title of the module choices?

King’s is an institution that is world-renowned for its historical research on the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire, and European history; it is absolutely natural that there are module choices based on European history – especially for a British university situated in Europe.

I full-heartedly believe that the History Department have offered a wide range of choices and fulfilled their promises of a ‘global reach’ this year.

Yet why must the Clandestine hold King’s to this impossible standard? Why must King’s renounce its tradition of hosting European dissertation modules? Why do we not ask other universities in, for example China or Japan, to offer ‘Western histories’ and not ‘exclusively’ focus on East Asian history? Why do we not accuse Chinese or Japanese universities of being ‘Sino-centric’ or ‘Nippon-centric’? They too colonised large masses of land in Asia, and both countries implement revisionist histories in their curricula. Why Europe and not Asia? If these so-called activists are concerned with true colonial history, enroll in Tokyo University and start protesting!

As an international student studying in London, I am more disappointed that dissertation modules about contemporary British history, for example ‘Britain’s Thatcher’, are missing in order to cater to this ideology of ‘decolonising history’. I came to the West to study the West.

It is frustrating that some students are complaining about their choices on the basis of ‘colonial history’. They are offered dissertation modules that are convened by renowned researchers, they are offered excellence in academia compared to thousands of institutions around the world, yet they reject it.

It is perfectly legitimate to be frustrated on the basis that none of your interests are covered by the modules offered next academic year, and I do sympathise with the students who are disappointed. We must however keep in mind that the department strives to cater to all of our interests, but is unable to do so due to practical constraints, particularly in an economy that is squeezing higher education.

Yet a minority of so-called ‘activists’, and it is indeed a minority of students, are fervently politicising everything. It is not about ‘decolonising’ education, it should be about offering choices that can deliver on the department’s promises of both a ‘global reach’ and ‘academic excellence’. The Clandestine has neglected these principles; they reject practicality and slandered the History Department.

They are shouting ‘decolonise King’s education’ when there is nothing to ‘decolonise’; their political protest against King’s is not genuine, but motivated by the desire for protest. They are politicising the apolitical. ‘Decolonise King’s’ and the Clandestine should stop ‘colonising’ their political perspectives onto all history students – they do not speak for the silent majority, at least not for me.

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