Calls to ‘decolonise education’ have gained in popularity. From campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ to the renaming of buildings, educational establishments across the country are undertaking wide-scale audits in a reckoning with Europe’s colonial past. While universities have long been battling over campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford or the David Hume Tower at Edinburgh, schools are now in the firing line. Over 30 have embarked on an anti-slave-trade makeover, with private girls’ schools in Bristol and rural primary schools in East Yorkshire changing their names. But will this new focus on the impact of colonialism affect the teaching of history, the curriculum and the wider educational environment?
While some have already removed the names of British empire-builders and slave traders from their titles after pressure from students, many of the changes seem pre-emptive. Figures like Clive, Aske, Drake and Colston have been removed, but even those whose relationship to the slave trade is complicated – like the former prime minister, William Gladstone, and Sir Isaac Newton – have had their names stripped from public buildings. Gladstone’s father was a slave owner (and his views were often inspired by a concern for slaver’s compensation as much as abolition), but later in his political career he spoke out against the slave trade. Newton had shares in the South Sea Company, which traded in slaves, but historians are unclear as to whether he financially benefited from them. Are we in danger or re-writing the past – with all its complexity and contradiction – to appease modern sensitivities?
Supporters of the decolonising agenda argue that this movement to diversify education is more inclusive and better representative of modern Britain’s multicultural society; while some go so far as to suggest that teaching European history and the celebration of ‘dead white men’ provides a foundation for white supremacy and racism. However, critics argue that education should be grounded in knowledge and pedagogy, that it should have autonomy from political determinations; and that the universal values found in Shakespeare, Mozart and Kant liberate students from a worldview that would be otherwise entrenched according to personal background.
Some educationalists argue that there is flexibility within the curriculum to teach history from a variety of perspectives, and that both the negative and positive aspects of British history are already covered in lessons and within the literature. Despite this, there is very little resistance to decolonisation from within the education and academic sectors as a whole. Does this mean the liberal idea of ‘education for education’s sake’ is now out-dated?
How should we decide what works of literature, art and history form the ‘canon’ in our curricula, and which historical figures should we choose to adorn our establishment buildings? Are today’s students really too sensitive to live and learn alongside Britain’s past, to appreciate that today’s moral standards are different to those of our ancestors? Is the idea of school or university curriculum relying on codified knowledge of the past simply a desire to maintain the status quo? Or does the desire to decolonise the curriculum run the risk of essentialising knowledge?