There was outrage in the press last month after students from Cambridge University called for the reading lists in some of their courses to be ‘decolonised’ – but what does the phrase actually mean, and what really happened? Arianna Rossi explains …

Cambridge university recently experienced an uproar of mixed reactions due to a demand from students to decolonise the English curriculum. Discussion on the topic was sparked by a group of English students who were concerned by the fact that their curriculum’s reading list not only consisted solely of white, male authors, but did so at the expense of other authors. It was only when Lola Olufemi, a Women’s Officer at the Cambridge Student’s Union, expressed these concerns in an open letter, that the issue was more widely addressed. Her letter quickly circulated around the University. After being signed by hundreds of students and supporters it was eventually forwarded to the University’s teaching forum.

Though the letter has catalysed numerous protests and opened up a sizeable conversation on the topic, many of us are left wondering what this “decolonising the curriculum” movement is actually about and what needs to be done to resolve it.

Before anything else, it is important to understand what “decolonisation” and “education” mean. Decolonisation, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, is “the process in which a country that was previously a colony controlled by another country becomes politically independent”.

Education, on the other hand is defined as “the process of teaching or learning, especially in a school or college”. When the terms are combined, the idea behind decolonisation of education would theoretically be about how a nation should become independent in its acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits.

However, in this case, the combined terms would be better defined as representing how the process of teaching and learning at educational institutions should become independent of “normalised” ideals of education by breaking away from imposed traditional methods and material in order to evolve with the times. This definition seems more fitting to the current movement.

As recent English graduate, Rianna Croxford, stated: “students are not calling for the scrapping of the present syllabus, [but rather] stating that its horizons can be widened,” pointing out that, “it cannot be impossible to include at least one black writer, and one question relating to the postcolonial dimension. It should not be possible for any student today to read Shakespeare plays such as Othello or The Tempest, and not consider the postcolonial context.”

In fact, many supporters point out that it is ridiculous that any English student can go through three years of their degree and never be confronted with race, colonial history or postcolonial thought; especially when a course is called ‘English Literature and its contexts’. Most students call attention to how colonialism and its aftermath is a context that is intertwined across the centuries, arguing that the traditionalists who adamantly deny or overlook its importance adversely affect the student learning experience by both limiting exposure to cultural minorities and undermining their value and importance.

Supporters of the movement have endorsed the campaign though many mediums, including organised protests or rallies and voicing their opinions on Social Media. A notable supporter, Bethan Marshall, who is a senior lecturer in English education at King’s College in London and the former chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, has endorsed the campaign by stating that “good writing is good writing — it is ridiculous to stick to the reified canon when there are so many more interesting writers out there beyond its narrow confines. Good for the students for raising it”.

As is the case with most controversial movements, there are many who are vehemently against it. Those who oppose the movement can be split into two groups: the very traditionalists the movement seeks to modernise, and those who fear change because it is ‘dangerous’. Many individuals who have expressed objections argue that because they believe that “for decolonised education to be introduced, the existing system must be overthrown and the people it’s supposed to serve must define it for themselves.” In their view, hallowed institutions such as Cambridge University, which are notoriously rooted in tradition and history, should not only remain as such, but must not allow such changes to be implemented or jeopardise its historic stature.

Though both sides have valid and understandable opinions, it is difficult to determine which side will prevail and what will come of this movement. In reaction to the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ campaign, a group of academics at the University of Cambridge has expressed they are considering how to implement the demands from undergraduates to “decolonise” the English literature syllabus by taking in more black and minority ethnic writers, and bringing post-colonial thought to its existing curriculum. Though no official changes or modifications have been made yet, only time will tell what will come of this significant debate.

Arianna Rossi


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