Thoughts on Decolonising the Curriculum

I’d been reading around ideas apropos decolonising the curriculum for a little while, but Black Lives Matter made me sit up and pay attention and compelled me to engage with the movement with a greater level of rigour .I first became interested in this topic via the interminable furore over free speech on campuses.  Over the past six months or so I’ve been reading about the history of the arts and humanities western canon and how the cultural materials that represent the best of our culture is interweaved with the politics of empire and the Enlightenment.

‘Much of the Enlightenment was an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of one section of humankind – that of Europe and its colonial outposts – over all the rest’ (Gray 2019, p.57)

This quote highlights how the history of the Enlightenment as it is generally discussed in media and higher education often omits colonialism. As Gray states, the emphasis on rationalism being the key metric of progress divided the world into two categories, barbarism and civilisation. Whilst the discourses of multiculturalism, interculturalism and globalisation have attempted to remedy the historical hangover of the Enlightenment, we can see how the imperialist perspective continues to persist in the ways we think of art and culture somehow operating independently of political realities, in a kind of universalist realm of authentic human experience.

In Culture and Imperialism (1994) Edward Said argues that the novel was one of the most effect means of organising the world through the prism of empire in the 19th century. The imperialist perspective of India and African countries became a universalising one, where the ‘native’ was cast as a person without history or culture because they did not produce the same kinds of cultural materials familiar to European nations.This enabled the Western powers to defend colonisation on the basis that Europe was civilising the world. These defences are still being used today.

Whilst it may be expressed in less explicit language, the legacy of colonialism can be seen at all levels of education in the way we conceive of culture and history as fairly homogenous, unitary phenomena. This is not born out of the historical record:

‘Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic…Defensive, reactive, even paranoid nationalism is, alas, frequently woven into the very fabric of education, where children as well as older students are taught to venerate and celebrate the uniqueness of their tradition (usually and invidiously at the expense of others)’ (Said 1994, p.xxxii).

Despite what feels like insuperable obstacles to the radical reform of higher education, I concur with Said when he says that the university can act as a ‘Utopian space… where such vital issues are investigated, discussed, reflected on’ (ibid).

The authors of Mapping Interpretations of Decolonization in the Contexts of Higher Education (Andreotti et al. 2015) propose a methodology they call ‘social cartography’, which is a ‘pedagogical tool to generate new vocabularies that can potentially lead to imaginaries beyond the naturalised grammar of modernity’ (ibid p.21). Social cartography is designed to make visible those tensions latent with an academic discourse in order to begin imagining possibilities of difference. This is a necessary stage in the process of decolonisation, the authors argue, because in the current paradigm of education alternative ways of knowing are occluded and dissimulated by the discourses of universalism.

They propose an approach to decolonisation called ‘hospicing’. This recognises new pedagogical systems are necessary but that ‘alternatives articulated from within modernity’s frames will tend to reproduce it’ (ibid, p.28), so it is important academics are allowed to make mistakes when experimenting with alternative ways of teaching. Decolonising the curriculum requires us to revise, disrupt and eventually dismantle extant social categories.

Turning to my own teaching, I’ve been thinking about how the avant-garde canon is not immune from perpetuating a colonial perspective to liberal and progressive audiences. For my performative writing class I instruct the students to watch an episode of the South Bank Show about the Wooster Group. The focus of the class is on the company’s use of media and technology to perform fragmented narratives, but the documentary also discusses their use of blackface in performance. The documentary was made in 1987 so it’s pretty retrograde in terms of representation (no Black people or people of colour are interviewed).

Rather than removing it from the reading list I have decided to frame it as an resource that allows students to investigate how ostensibly liberal artwork can still perpetuate racist stereotypes in the name of deconstruction and appropriation. My goal is to start designing some teaching and learning strategies that allow students to investigate how curricula come about in HE and how the curriculum can include ‘contrapuntal and…nomadic’ (Said, 1994, p.xxxii) perspectives of a subject.


de Oliveira Andreotti, V., Stein, S., Ahenakew, C. and Hunt, D., (2015) ‘Mapping Interpretations of Decolonization in the Context of Higher Education’. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society4(1).

Gray, J. (2019) Seven Types of Atheism. London: Penguin

Said, E.W. (1994) Culture & Imperialism. London: Vintage