Debates about decolonizing the curriculum—once confined to academic conferences and student common rooms—are becoming increasingly hard to avoid. Campaigners are out to change what is studied at university. Some have reacted with hostility, seeing the movement to decolonize as caricaturing and spurning the virtues of Western civilization, in favor of a flawed theory that all knowledge is equal. However, it is not unreasonable for students to be interested in expanding the curriculum. I am a student of history, and in history we don’t primarily study individuals—because of how great they were—but societies—for what they teach us, for their relationship to other times and places and to the present, or simply because we find them fascinating. So objections that campaigners are blind to the differing merits of different cultures apply less than they would in English or philosophy. Still, I feel uneasy about the highly political logic used to advocate for decolonizing.
I am in favor of globalizing history: expanding the geographical and cultural range of what students study. But I am not in favor of decolonizing the curriculum—at least, as an argument for including supposedly non-white perspectives. The goals of both approaches are fairly similar, but their premises and implications are different.
The rationale behind globalizing history is this: since people find many different things interesting, it is best that students study a variety of contexts across time and space. Indeed, that non-European history can be interesting is enough to justify including it in the curriculum. Because of resource constraints, this may mean that some of the current canon has to be dropped, but a lot can be retained. What matters is the range of things offered. Globalizing history gives students the option to study what they want at least some of the time, while also encouraging them to expand their interests and see the interactions, similarities and differences between societies. In other words, the more history on offer, the better.
Decolonizing the curriculum is about critiquing the prejudices and biases that inform both the number of Western works in the curriculum and the works themselves. Consequently, its supporters argue that we should study the works and histories of historically neglected and oppressed people of color in order to challenge imperialist assumptions.
The Practical Case
Campaigns to decolonize the curriculum polarize. The number of blog posts and articles denouncing the approach is evidence of that. If you tell most academics—and many students—that you want to decolonize the curriculum, there is a strong chance that you will be met with a heavy sigh. This is far more likely to provoke a hostile reaction than simply saying we’d like to study non-Western stuff because we find it interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps it is old-fashioned to think that you are more likely to succeed if you build a consensus, despite the fact that there will always be some detractors. But it is fairer, since any curriculum changes will affect all students, not just those who agree with you.
Similarly, telling an academic that their area of study is too white or too imperialist is unlikely to lead to a sympathetic hearing. Better to tell them that you want change not because their interests are bad, but so that students have the option to study something else, something also worthy of study. I don’t want to put some poor professor out of work, so I argue not for wholesale dismantling of the Western canon but rather for constructing a global curriculum, of which the European stuff is still a significant part. This approach is probably more conducive to compromise and to reaching an understanding than is speaking about decolonization.
Finally, a big part of the decolonizing the curriculum argument is that students are primarily interested in their own history. “If a student arrived to do a degree that was all about the Anglo-Saxons and Winston Churchill, they might think: what is in this for me?”, argues a professor of modern history at Oxford.
Not only does this seem incredibly patronizing, but also counterproductive: what happens when you apply that logic to the majority of students and prospective students in the UK, who are white Europeans? By contrast, globalizing the curriculum emphasizes that, instead of only studying their own history, students should study a range of different contexts, to gain a better understanding of the past. And if students are primarily interested in their own background, it is the role of the curriculum to challenge this and broaden their interests. Besides, even if we were to accept that people should be interested in their own history, race is not the only attribute a person has or the only identity available to her. Black British students are British, too—isn’t British history relevant to them?
The arguments for globalizing history are simpler, easier to understand, less provocative and more productive than those for decolonizing the curriculum. Of course, decolonization campaigns are designed to be controversial. But if their aims are not pragmatic but simply aim to force re-evaluation of assumptions—whether that leads to actual change or not—then campaigners have to concede that they are less interested in giving students the option to study new areas than they are in making a point.
The Principled Case
The dominance of Europeans in the curriculum is not only due to imperialist assumptions. Aristotle may have been selected for inclusion by someone with a Eurocentric bias, but that hardly diminishes his influential contributions to philosophy. After all, there are plenty of Greeks (Adrastus, Xenocrates, Panthoides) one could opt for instead, but they were not as remarkable as he was. Arguments for decolonizing the curriculum have a tendency to take a reductionist attitude towards European works and writers—dismissing curricula as so white or “normatively, habitually and intellectually ‘White,’” as if it were the whiteness of European authors and societies that defined them, more than their individual particularities. Although history is more concerned with societies than individuals, one should still be able to appreciate the achievements of individuals within the society one studies. Yet, in decolonization campaigns, differences are overlooked: Dante, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and the author of Beowulf are all just dead white men. These authors may be male and pale, but they are hardly stale. Indeed—for all the structuralist logic campaigners employ—by lumping together such different individuals as white men, they prioritize their immutable characteristics over the actual societies and contexts in which they lived.
Campaigners often focus on the privilege that informs white works, but even here the picture is not so clear cut. Mercator, for example, whose projection is often cited as prime evidence of Eurocentrism, was a victim of religious persecution: historian Jerry Brotton argues that his world map provided a way for him to rise above the strife of the sixteenth-century Netherlands. This is not to say that all European writers were oppressed and or that prejudice never informed their works. We should always study works critically. But nuance is sometimes lost amid polemics against the whiteness of curricula. Besides, social history (history from below) and gender history make up an awful lot of what students study at universities anyway.
The logic of decolonizing the curriculum also risks falling prey to the old assumption that there is a clear division between East and West, since at its most extreme it homogenizes Western or white thought as informed by prejudices that need to be challenged by the anti-imperialist ideas espoused by non-whites and non-Westerners. Meanwhile, globalizing the curriculum is informed by history and stresses the interactions and exchanges between societies and the limitations of modern binaries. It appears that the ancient Greeks were genetically closer to the inhabitants of Anatolia than to Northern Europeans, so labeling them as white is anachronistic. Besides, Classical philosophers were not just of interest to racist Victorians, but also to medieval Islamic scholars, who built on their ideas and played an essential role in transmitting classical texts to later European thinkers. Sometimes, both European and non-European history should be studied together. One cannot fully comprehend the course of the Haitian Revolution without some understanding of the French Revolution, while one needs to know about the Haitian Revolution to apprehend the reasons for the Louisiana Purchase.
Some connections between places can be surprising. The Anglo-Saxons have found themselves the target of decolonizers, and yet even here the distinction between East and West is not as sharp as one might think. Offa, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia (757–96), minted an imitation of the dinar of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. Offa’s contemporary, the Frankish king (later emperor) Charlemagne was gifted an elephant by Harun al-Raschid of Persia. These are somewhat trivial examples, but they reflect the wider reality that East and West, so far as they are meaningful concepts, were not closed off from each other. The past is not easily divided into your history and my history. It is either our history, or simply just history.
And, even if some direct connections between places were relatively insignificant, there may still be similarities between European and non-European societies that make the study of the former of interest to a student of the latter. As Tom Holland points out, the Anglo-Saxon invasions and later Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity could offer insightful parallels to someone interested in how native peoples react to colonization and religious conversion.
Now, obviously, there were many differences between, for example, Carolingian Europe, Islamic Al-Andalus and the Benin Empire. Still, differences between societies do not necessarily render one society uninteresting to a scholar of another: see Chris Wickham’s magisterial comparison of post-Roman economies in Egypt, Palestine and England; and anthropological comparisons of religious conversion in different times and places. Such comparative histories at once help isolate variables and caution us against narratives of national exceptionalism.
An approach to the curriculum, then, that moves past divisions of Western and non-Western is better that one replaces Western superiority and non-Western inferiority with Western prejudice and non-Western resistance—not least because many non-white individuals and groups have been complicit in slavery and imperialism, oppressing both other non-Europeans and Europeans, from the Barbary slave trade to the Japanese Empire’s conquest of South Asian societies and experimentation on the Chinese. I am not trying to absolve white people of their responsibility for exploiting others by pointing that out. Rather, I want to highlight that broad generalizations about Western racism and non-Western suffering and resistance fail to do justice to the complexity of history. By contrast, globalizing the curriculum allows us to study non-white history without sanitizing it to fit a particular political agenda.
Most of the examples I have used have been taken from pre-modern history and not by chance: the language of decolonizing the curriculum is very limited in its applicability to societies pre–1500. Decolonization, after all, mostly refers to the processes by which African, Asian, Central and South American states became independent of European empires in the twentieth century. Decolonizing still applies to pre-1500 history: knowing about the library of Cordoba or the bronze of Benin can help refute stereotypes about an unchanging, backwards East upon whom progress was bestowed by European imperialism. But interest in the histories of pre-colonial Africa, Islamic Spain or the Mayans must surely go far beyond an attempt to show how they disprove imperialist assumptions.
The prioritization of anti-European, anti-imperialist histories implicit in the notion of decolonizing is not conducive to including in the curriculum, for example, Chinese or Japanese history, in which European colonialism plays a small role, compared with its influence on South American or African history. China and Japan were affected by European imperialism—see the Opium Wars and Hong Kong —but Chinese and Japanese history encompasses so much more than these events, especially pre–1800. Globalizing the curriculum, free of the emphasis on anti-imperialism, more easily accommodates pre–1500, non-European history.
Building a consensus behind curriculum reform is both pragmatic and fair. And the connections and similarities between Europe and elsewhere undermine arguments about the need to allow people to study their own history.
Globalizing and decolonizing are not incompatible approaches. The advantage of the former is that it is able to integrate the best parts of the latter—critical analysis that examines underlying biases and challenges prejudices—without its practical limitations, and without reducing the inclusion of non-European history to a particular political agenda. It thereby encourages the study of times and places to which the language of decolonization is less applicable. The logic for globalizing history is simpler and less shallow than that of decolonizing, since it emphasizes how interesting non-European history can be—independently of the ethnicity of the students concerned. Instead of framing this issue in terms of the polarizing, reductive, patronizing and flawed notion of decolonization of the curriculum, campaigners should simply seek to expand the range of interesting times, places and figures students can study.