Is decolonising reading lists an ‘erosion’ of standards?
Online comment editor Eirwen Abberley Watton investigates the controversy over ‘decolonising reading lists’ at university.
More than 40 professors at the University of Exeter have expressed opposition to guidance released by the University on decolonising course reading lists. The advice, which can be found on the LibGuides Campaigns & Promotions page, suggests that lecturers should use works that were published outside of traditional publishing channels on their courses. The concern is that diversifying reading lists and text types will “erode” education standards.
The University’s guidance begs an obvious question – what does it mean to decolonise a curriculum? To answer it, you have to begin by understanding the ongoing work that is decolonisation. Not decolonisation by its original definition—the withdrawal of the colonising power from the colony—but the continuing deconstruction of a system that privileges the experiences of white people. The courses that we study at university, and the institution itself, cannot be separated from this. It is an undeniable truth that the texts we read, often the most well-known and written-about, are on our syllabi because they were written by authors with privilege and access to the necessary platforms. As the University has professed, university reading lists have historically been dominated by “white, male and Eurocentric authors”. The works that we have today exist because of decisions made by white, middle-class record-keepers.
The works that we have today exist because of decisions made by white, middle-class record-keepers.
The impact of this imperial legacy is an education system that presents the British experience as a white, national one. It might seem nonsensical to criticise ‘national’ here, but I am referring to the fact that the Britain we live in today has been built on money made through slavery and industry in the colonies of the British Empire. As a white student, I am privileged to have grown up seeing myself in the books we read in school. For many other students, however, education is still a place of alienation and exclusion. Many campaigns, such as Impact of Omission who created a petition which achieved over 250,000 signatures, have been fighting to make BAME history a mandatory part of the curriculum in high schools. The English government has refused to do so. Shockingly, many students will not learn about Britain’s colonial past until they reach university. Until more efforts are made to decolonise the curriculum, little can change.
The hierarchical systems underpinning our society are complex and difficult to dismantle. But the kind of work that the University recommends is important. It has suggested incorporating a wider range of text types, including tweets, podcasts, YouTube videos and weblog posts. While we are not accustomed to viewing tweets as highbrow literature, I think it is worth considering their value. Tweets do not go through the same process of editing and peer-moderation as academic journals and books, but students should be taught to approach all material with a critical mind. This includes understanding how the archive has been dominated by those with economic and social privilege. Although these texts raise concern because they can be unresearched and unmoderated, they can also be an opening through which previously unheard voices can speak about their experiences.
The archive has always silenced non-white voices and privileged white experience.
Diversifying reading lists is not just defined by new forms of media – another important step towards decolonising curriculums is the inclusion of writing by non-white authors. You’ll notice ‘inclusion’ as a positive addition, as opposed to a censoring of existing voices. The University has stated that decolonising reading lists is not about eradicating writers, but “question[ing] where we assign epistemic authority and ensure diverse voices are heard”. The University’s webpage contains hyperlinks to diverse journals and books, as well as a digital archive of African-American writers. These resources have been provided as a step towards finding and elevating marginalised voices.
Faced with so many systemic inequalities and the oppressive legacies of Empire, I don’t think that these efforts to decolonise the curriculum can be an “erosion of standards”. That is an easy claim to make for those who enjoy the same privilege as many of the writers on the curriculum. The archive has always silenced non-white voices and privileged white experience. It is the responsibility of educational institutions like our university to change this.