Don’t Decolonize the History Curriculum—Globalize it

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 Concepts

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.

 

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

29 comments

  1. “Yet, in decolonization campaigns, differences are overlooked: Dante, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and the author of Beowulf are all just dead white men.”

    Straw man.

    They are white and dead. Fact. Our taught history does not include enough minority history. It’s not a dismissal, it’s just asking for others to be taken into account. Noone is asking to ignore or dismiss shakespere. It would be impossible due to how he has affected the English language itself.

    What you’re calling for is the same thing, but just a split hair away.

    What are you actually trying to say?

    1. Thanks for responding and engaging. On ‘splitting hairs’ – my aim was very delicately not to present an uncompromising, complete opposite agenda to decolonisation campaigns. For it frustrates me how polarised this debate is. So it realise it may come across as splitting hairs, but at least it is keeping the debate in more nuanced territory.

      Campaigners do not just ask for minority history to be taught (which I agree, it should be) but promote a re-examination of the way we study our current authors. Now of course everything should be studied critically, but the approach campaigners employ is more reductive than critical. It is frequently anachronistic (labels the ancient Greeks and Romans as white, when the former are genetically not, and both are culturally closer to Ancient Egypt than the Celts). Its critique lies in the immutable more than the societal or individual – grounded less in literary/artistic merit than how it holds up against up our present moral standards. And while it is sometimes necessary, it often loses perspective: yes we should know the limitations and prejudices of those we study, but we must also recognise their achievements, which are often more remarkable than their in many respects unsurprising, racist views.

      And of course there is the issue of which minority is taught. The language of decolonisation seems limited in its applicability to pre-1500 non-European history, instead keeping the focus on the impact and legacy of European imperialism and the response to it. I appreciate this may comes across as pedantic, but ‘decolonisation’ is used by campaigners precisely because it is highly charged and political, so debating how appropriate a term it is more than relevant. It is no coincidence, after all, than decolonisation campaigns tend to promote modules on Atlantic slavery, scientific racism, racial segregation, African/Indian independence, etc, more than on say Chinese or Japanese history, or the ‘golden age’ of Al-Andalus, or the Islamic/Barbary Slave trade.

      By contrast, globalising history shares the goal of teaching more minority history without bringing the highly political, highly prescriptive, and thereby limiting agenda of decolonisation campaigns to it.

      I hope that all helps in regards to the difference – it’s not massive, but there is substance to it.

      (And this is to say nothing of the practical limitations of the decolonisation argument.)

    1. It is partly ironic. I think people get too caught up in ideology, so embracing counter-intuitive labels is in part of a mockery of that.
      But, more seriously, it reflects, on the one hand, my frustration with much of the current ‘centrist’ discourse eg the assumption that the best ideas automatically lie in the middle; on the other, how – in a time when the received wisdom (both among those in power – Trump – and much of the new social media commentariat) is increasingly that ‘technocracy’ is bad and people are shouting ever louder and turning against compromise – moderation and pragmatism themselves become radical acts.

      In this context, radical centrism sees the importance of compromise not necessarily in the idea that compromises are better policies (sometimes Left ideas are better than Right, and vice-versa), but in how they are needed, to an extent, for a political system to function, and how the complete rejection compromise is not conducive to internal examination of the merit of the policies one supports.
      At the same time, sometimes compromises can be good policy. The private and public sector compliment each other, not so much in often flawed PFIs but more generally. Free markets have helped lift people out of poverty worldwide but at the national level, governments are essential for providing a safety net, checking the excesses of capitalism and coordinating development. I know a lot of that must sound awfully vague. But that is the point: it leaves scope for a myriad of different policy proposals that can then be evaluated less on their ideological conformity than on their effectiveness. In any case, the fundamental part of radical centrism is this: it may take the best parts of each ideology, each policy set, whether they may be left, right or compromises in the middle.

      I should state that radical centrist can’t capture all my beliefs, especially when it comes to culture, free speech etc. But it is a pretty good fit.

      (Look I just found the meme amusing, Okay!)

  2. Clearly not part of the US university system where history is generally not learned by many students. But aren’t world history, world religions and other studies already in the curriculum that students here don’t learn? Back in my day…

  3. A very good article. I think the point that a “decolonized” curriculum often leaves little room for pre – 16th century history is especially important. When I studied South Asian languages and history until about 8 years ago, this became quite obvious to me. While at that time decolonization as a term was not as prevalent as it is today, the curriculum (both in Germany and the UK – I studied in both places) was already heavily infused by the framework of colonial aggression vs. resistance of the oppressed. While this approach was certainly often useful and interesting, I found the lack of focus on any period in South Asian history before the 19th century maddening. We constantly engaged with Indian sources written between (roughly) 1860 and 1960, all explicitly colonial or immediately post-colonial but with very little before that time, especially in the UK.

    I believe this narrow focus severely limited our understanding of both South Asian history and of its current situation. While there can be no doubt that colonialism was an important factor in shaping today’s South Asia, the region itself abounds with places, institutions, customs, langusges, religious traditions and cultural traits that have a much longer history. Indeed, even to an uninformed observer, it would be as good as impossible not to notice these things. At university however, they were largely glossed over and in practice treated as absolutely marginal and in practice irrelevant to anything that happened later, whereas colonial influences were always treted as the default explanation. This of course created the unfortunate impression that essentially non-Western history really only started with Western imperialism, with the “others” simply forced to react. No doubt this was in no way intended but it’s the impression a student would get.

    So yes – globalize and expand the curriculum.

  4. I like the idea of globalising history, because the animosity towards Western civilization is predicated on an ignorance of other societies. How can you maintain the concept of the white original sin of slavery when you learn the Arabs enslaved more and kept it up much longer? How can you maintain hatred for the white “colonizer” when you learn that First Nation tribes were warring with each other and stealing each other’s land constantly, often with more barbarism than Europeans? How can you vilify the crusades once you understand Islamic militancy and expansionism?

    A global understanding of history would do much to dispel the white boogieman, the singular focus of hatred of modern leftists. However, I am not sure I believe that a globalised history will be properly taught, particularly if it comes as a result of caving to SJWs. Given limited time, what is stopping educators and administrators, who know where their bread is buttered, to cherrypick the histories of non-white cultures to emphasize the achievements, while leaving out anything the students would find offensive?

    Given the West’s long written history, and it’s more direct relevance to people living in the West, it should remain the major component of the degree. People who don’t identify with the West and who want to study “their” histories always have the option of moving to the country they feel they belong to, where they can certainly find the educational content they seek.

    1. I understand your fear about the influence of ‘SJWs’. However, my own experience at university suggests to me that they are far less prevalent at universities than they are on social media, both at a student and faculty level. Most history academics are reasonable and careful people, who don’t enforce their politics on their students. (Though this could be because I mainly study non-20th Century stuff, which I suppose is less liable to overt politicisation.)

      In any case, your concerns are partly why I wrote my article – to appeal to the ‘sensible middle’ who are willing to accept some change but uneasy about the rhetoric campaigners use. We must do what we can to reverse the polarisation of the decolonisation debate, so that our approach to both non-European and European is informed more by student interest and history itself, instead of political agendas.

      Because there are fewer academics of (particularly pre-modern) non-European history in the US and Europe, ‘Western’ stuff will inevitably remain the major component of the degree. And student exchange programmes are good and should be encouraged. But part of my point is that historical interest shouldn’t be constrained to a person’s identity or ethnicity – me and many other white students are interested in non-European stuff (as well as European history), even though we think of ourselves as British. So we should try to have at least some non-European stuff in History courses, even if ‘Western’ history remains the major component.

  5. Thank you for this article. I absolutely agree. I’m a student of history from a former British colony, and I seethe at the attempts to ‘decolonize’ history. To remove the ‘white’ narrative. Why? Apart from the fact that any other version of history doesn’t deserve to stand only in opposition to colonialism, it is also dangerous to erase the history of Europe and colonialism. It’s not like you can change the past, and as the saying goes, we are bound to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. We absolutely need to learn about how societies which colonized others lived and thought. We also need to learn about other societies. There is no contradiction there, and as you point out, to focus on decolonization is unnecessarily inflammatory.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. Part of what gets me is that some ‘decolonizer’ campaigners (many of whom are white) appoint themselves as spokespersons for non-white groups, when there is actually a huge diversity of opinion on this issue among ‘BME’ students.

  6. Your head’s in the right place, I think, but you’re overlooking a few essential points. I leave aside the impracticality of teaching global history when Western history can barely be taught in a four-year degree.

    First, Western universities teach Western history to Western undergraduates because we have long believed that thoughtful and self-aware people (i.e., liberally educated people) need to know where they came from. That most Westerners can be crammed into the anti-racist racism category “white” is incidental. To put a sharp point on it, the aim of academic history is not to teach white history, but to teach historical self-awareness.

    Second, we can only create thoughtful and self-aware people with analytical history—that is, critical inquiries into the causes and effects of past events. Owing to the influence of the Greeks (well, to Thucydides and his heirs), moreover, Westerners have been (until recently) the only people who have written analytical history, including analytical histories of others. In the simpler terms, academic history is analytical history and analytic histories are mostly Western ones.

    Third, you recognize the defects in decolonizing history—that it’s reductionist, for example, and that it merely reverses goodies and baddies—but you seem to have missed how radically different it is from analytical history and its aims. These histories are absolutized histories—self-edifying and self-justifying sagas written with a Marxian plotline (see, e.g., any history written by faculty in a studies department). From the standpoint of the analytical historian, decolonizing histories are not history at all—they’re contemporary tribal mythologies that stoke enmity against a common oppressor.

    Put all three points together and we’re not looking at a two different approaches to history, but at a battle between history and anti-history, between intellectual inquiry oriented to self-understanding and the absolutized mythologies of tribes whose every setback was caused by the machinations of the White Devil.

    1. Self awareness cannot be built simply by focusing on yourself, but also an external environment. You want to say other histories are not analytical. That’s not true, but yes there is a large tradition of history written through stories or parables, or as eulogies. That doesn’t mean they lack historical basis or value. Learning to extract information from them is also a trait that would prove valuable to anyone who’d like to be analytically self aware. Knowing there are other stories, and other ways of telling them, many which predate and in some ways influenced your own, goes towards a better understanding of your own history. That’s presuming there is an ‘own’ history in all this and is what we should focus on.

      Focus on Western history is not because that alone provides the best tool for learning and creating people who can better analyse history. It is true that it is a legacy of history, even of colonial history since that is also what is taught in schools and universities in the former colonies. Decolonization of history is wrong because it focuses on standing in opposition to this. But not all of it is self justifying or self edifying any more than even some of taught Western history, which you call analytical.

      Basically, your generalisations of different historical traditions and viewpoints are incorrect, and shows why ‘globalizing’ history is important.

      1. Self awareness cannot be built simply by focusing on yourself, but also an external environment.

        No kidding. The History of the Peloponnesian War isn’t about you or anyone else living today—and that’s the point of analytical history. It contains a lot of lessons about human nature, but none about how wonderful Group X is and how bad Group Y is.

        You want to say other histories are not analytical.

        I didn’t want to say, I did say it. And I said it because Afrocentrism, for example, is not analytic history. Nor are the pious “peace be upon him” apologetics for Islam. The first is self-aggrandizing fiction and the second is apologetics and proselytism.

        That doesn’t mean they lack historical basis or value. Learning to extract information from them is also a trait that would prove valuable to anyone who’d like to be analytically self aware. Knowing there are other stories, and other ways of telling them, many which predate and in some ways influenced your own, goes towards a better understanding of your own history.

        Again, no kidding. This is part of analytical history. You seem to be arguing to argue.

        That’s presuming there is an ‘own’ history in all this and is what we should focus on.

        No. If you’re going to a state-subsidized Western university, then the Western state has an interest in you learning Western history. We have citizens who’ll be responsible for making decisions, and they need to know Western history. I’ll grant that there are a lot of people in the West who are good for little else but serfdom, and who might as well indulge in whatever suits a serf, but the universities aren’t supposed to be for them, even if universities seem to pander to them.

        As for the rest of what you said, I see no clear in meaning it.

        2
        1
        1. I’m starting to realise that I’m a bit too young to get involved in discussions on this website. I think I’m out of my depth.

    2. Thanks for reading and engaging – I accept much of that as fair, particularly the need to keep history analytical.

      Learning about the prejudices that inform sources and about how at certain times whites have oppressed other races is central to historical-self-awareness, making us aware of the blind-spots of ‘Western’ analysis, though as you say decolonization campaigns take this to a far too reductionist level. Clearly, history can’t be reduced to ‘whites oppress non-whites’.

      Analytical history is important but I don’t think it is solely the preserve of ‘Western’ history. The works of Ibn Khaldun, for example, can surely be considered at least equal to much of Western historiography in its analytical content. Indeed, the Greeks influenced Islamic and Byzantine historians, as well as West Christian ones, though I guess one could argue that the Byzantines were ‘Western’. There is also a tradition of thoughtful Chinese historiography – see Sima Guang. Though I appreciate that this applies to less sub-Saharan African and Native American oral histories.

  7. One thing I find irritating about the way some people promote decolonization of history, or what ever, is as you point out, that it’s incredibly reductionist. It’s basically Said’s notion of orientalism turned on it’s head, into what could br called occidentalism. The occidentalist thinker, like her orientalist predecessor sees the “Other”, in this case the “west”, as degenerate from the start and only capable of oppressing others.

    Another thing that you point out, is the desire to study “my history”. Whose? What? Why would your skin colour or ethnicity make a history of similiar looking peoples YOUR history. Isn’t the underlying idea a deeply nationalist idea, something that has been criticized in the west for the last 50 something years? There’s a deep double standard there.

    I would deeply support a more global curriculum, because that would also point out how basically all civilizations prior to the enlightenment were pretty nasty, and that the west is nothing special in it’s violence, but it is something very special in it’s humanity.

    1. What histories do they teach in African universities, Indian universities, Chinese universities, Russian universities?

  8. This is one of the best things I’ve so far read on this site. It is dedicated not only to reason as a way demonstrating its rightness, but to being reasonable as a way of engaging with other perspectives. Of course, not everyone will be persuaded. Moderation, like easy-listening music, is often popular but never cool. The potential is there, however, to change the minds of many, because the only ‘side’ this writer has taken is his love of subject, and such enthusiasm can be infectious.

        1. **FYI**
          I think a troll has exploited the ease of commenting here to make it look like previous commentators have repudiated what they had earlier said; there are a few nasty comments that appear out of character, all posted within a few minutes of each other (1:45-1:55 14 March). Please ignore them. It is a great shame, given the good, calm discussion we were having.
          If you disagree with me or anyone else, please be respectful. Engage with our arguments instead of resorting to puerile behaviour.

Leave a Reply

Inline
Inline