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Why Do We Need to Decolonise English Curriculums, and is Bristol Doing Enough?

The past decade has seen a radical increase in efforts to decolonise a higher education system that, for so long, had become closely associated with a Eurocentric academia that valued Western texts and ideologies as intellectually superior. With Black History Month taking place in October, it’s the perfect time to consider the University of Bristol’s work to decolonise the English curriculum.

At its core, decolonising the curriculum is about creating a culturally democratic educational practice which does not encourage injustice. It is about understanding why we need to diversify our sources of knowledge, and recognising the role the curriculum has played in excluding indigenous voices and epistemologies from our learning. Decolonising the curriculum requires an acknowledgment that presenting our histories through a purely Eurocentric lens has relegated entire cultures to inferiority, and it requires a recognition of the real impacts this has on real people.

As of June 2020, The Guardian reported that only a fifth of UK universities had committed to decolonising their curriculums.

This is an issue particularly relevant to the University of Bristol and its very active historical role in colonisation – one 2018 study estimated that 85% of the wealth used to found the University of Bristol depended on slave labour.

The role academia has played in the colonisation of knowledge is a key one. When universities historically promoted Western teachings and eliminated all others they systematically degraded the people and cultures who created and held these teachings as lesser – our curriculum is evidence of what we do and don’t value. English – the subject of words, languages, stories and ultimately cultures – is exemplary of an academic subject which has previously harboured coloniality, and one which must now work especially hard to eradicate it.

Maldonado-Torres perhaps summarised this best when he said coloniality is “maintained alive in books”. The greatest difficulty for English literature is that language itself has forced coloniality – everyday English students read and study texts that had to be translated from the native languages into the language of the coloniser, and so the resources integral to the subject often directly play into the erosion of indigenous language and culture. The literary canon has become a body of male and white-dominated work deemed intellectually superior – in order to decolonise the subject we have to move away from the arrogance that the most pioneering pieces of work are always Western in origin. 

However this ideology is one that runs deep within the formation of literature – publishers and academic journals are famously resistant to publish texts written outside of English, a foreign language that can never linguistically replicate the indigenous cultures of the native language.

The massive cultural impact of the eradication of these texts and languages within the canon is best explained by Ngugi Wa Thiang’o when he says the creation of this intellectual hierarchy “annihilates a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their heritage of struggle… and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement” (Decolonising The Mind).

So what has the English department at Bristol done to tackle the necessary diversification of reading lists?

A quick look at the departments unit catalogue demonstrates a great effort towards this, with optional units for current students including Literatures of Enslavement, Black British Literature and Contemporary Multi-Ethnic Writing of America (which includes works from Jewish American, African American, Asian American, and Chicano/a writers). Postcolonial Environments considers works from across the ‘Global South’ and discusses how postcolonial writing has dealt with questions of land redistribution and national culture. The third-year unit Decolonising Literature and Literary Studies claims to ‘de-centre received notions of English Literature and encourages students to consider the alternative narratives which have shaped literary history’. All first-year students also take a mandatory unit – Critical Issues – designed to train students in the basis of literary criticism, a week of which is dedicated to postcolonial criticism and its associated texts.

But decolonisation is about more than just reading lists and curriculums: it’s about access to higher education, about overcoming social barriers and creating spaces of inclusion. It involves actively hiring academics from the Global South and other underrepresented and marginalised groups – particularly Black British women who are rarely represented in academic roles.

The importance of decolonising research in higher education is also paramount, but often overlooked. Decolonial research is research that intends to fill the gaps in our knowledge that the intellectual snobbery of the canon has previously overlooked. But it also involves the consideration of who, what communities, our research benefits. Is researching indigenous communities in the Global South using funding and institutional support inaccessible to these same communities beneficial to the decolonisation of research? It is rare that the benefits actually reach these indigenous people, and academic-colonialism – where Western academics publish research on the Global South before native authors without access to the necessary resources – is becoming a rife new form of colonialism in university settings.

University curriculums have come far in the past decade, even in the past 5 years – but there is still work to be done. Often overlooked as an academic subject less-than-important to global socioeconomic relations, English plays a crucial part in the establishment of our accepted cultures, and we too have a responsibility to open up a place in our teaching and learning for previously ignored voices.

This article is part of a themed week spotlighting Black History Month in the UK

Lauren is a second-year BA English and Philosophy student at the University of Bristol. She is passionate about political journalism and has contributed articles to numerous Bristol-based publications.
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