The Decolonization of Education in Lola Olufemi's Opinion Piece

“Diversity of thought is vital if universities wish to retain intellectual integrity. It is no longer acceptable to present male, European authors as the gold standard of knowledge, and marginalized groups are shaking the academy from all angles. This type of media takedown of student activism is a major barrier to progress and honest discussion.” -Jason Osamede Okundaye

During the Summer of 2016, Lola Olufemi, the women’s officer of the Cambridge Student Union sent an open letter to the head of the English faculty at Cambridge University that was signed by about 100 other students. In this letter, Olufemi recognized that the literature that was assigned was primarily by authors of European descent and asked for the inclusion of more diverse authors in the literature. While this does not seem as though it would be a major conflict initially, the media coverage of this incident severely warped the message of her letter, provoking many people. Initially, some headlines claimed that she was trying to force the university to completely eliminate all white literature from being studied in the university, ignoring the fact that many people who supported her were white.

Image via Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Naturally, people who read these false articles became annoyed at the idea that a student would suggest that they should disregard the literature done by people solely based on their race; however, once the truth came out the outrage dissipated. People were more angry about the suggestion that white authors should be replaced by black authors than the actual issue of the lack of representation of people of color in these literature classes, which reveals exactly why it was necessary for Olufemi to write this letter. The disregard of black literature has been severely normalized in America and can be found in almost every aspect of the American education system. Literature classes that focus on white literature are simply labeled literature without a second thought about it, whereas literature classes that focus on African or Asian literature are always labeled as such. White literature is seen as a  default, and everything else is seen as a sub-division. Maybe that’s why since the letter was written and now that all the hype has waned, there has yet to be significant steps to “decolonize” the English department of Cambridge University and allow there to be more diversity.

As stated by Jason Okundaye, the media’s demonization of Olufemi for her request to include more diversity in the education system makes it clear that these barriers will be very difficult to overcome. Since racism has become so institutionalized, people fail to recognize its presence at times. That being said, the media was so quick to misinterpret Olufemi’s message because it was a challenge to what has always been the status quo. Although the works of other races are recognized in classes at times, the recognition is not even close to being proportionate to the scale in which white literature is recognized.  This disparity is due to society deeming the work of European males as being the epitome of literary excellence, but the excellent work of others just being seen as rare and not worthy of being focused on. Lola Olufemi was on the right track by writing her letter to provoke a movement for revolutionizing the education system, and it is necessary that more people stand up and support her so that progress can be made to decolonize education.

This article is in response to “The ‘decolonise’ Cambridge row is yet another attack on students of colour” by Jason Osamede Okundaye from The Guardian and “Who Is Lola Olufemi? This Cambridge Student Co-Wrote An Open Letter To Diversify The School’s Curriculum & Was Met With Backlash Online” by Ayana Lage on Bustle.