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Decolonizing the Curriculum: The BLM Approach to History


Somewhere in the fireworks and star-spangled attire of every Fourth of July lies an all-too-familiar historical script. Americans never tire of tales in which their freedom-loving forefathers took a stand against British tyranny and asserted their right to independence.

But the window dressing has invited more scrutiny than usual in 2020. In a curious adaptation of the traditional story, protesters threw Christopher Columbus into a Baltimore harbor this year. So much for the Boston Tea Party.

Between 15 million and 26 million Americans are estimated to have participated in Black Lives Matter protests since late May. This makes BLM the largest movement in the nation’s history and marks a sea change in racial attitudes. Most Americans, regardless of skin color, now agree that racial and ethnic discrimination in their country is a “big problem.” 

Racism, however, is not confined to America’s borders or history. As a result, BLM has not just drawn support from around the world. Recent protests have prompted other countries, like the United Kingdom, to confront their own checkered legacies on race.

This takes us to the heart of the British capital, where University College London (UCL) is working to change the way it teaches history and thinks about its own past.

‘Decolonizing the Curriculum’

In 2018, the Royal Historical Society published a landmark report documenting “significant and disproportionate levels of discrimination, bias and harassment” towards Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) history students and researchers. Led by UCL’s own Margot Finn, the RHS concluded that BME historians feel unwelcome and underrepresented in their field. This stems in part from “a pervasive unwillingness to grapple” with the uncomfortable aspects of white, Eurocentric curricula.

The reluctance to reevaluate traditional teaching methods contrasts with what British universities say they are willing to do in the name of racial justice. When surveyed this year, 84 universities declared a general commitment to “making their curricula more diverse, international or inclusive.” Only 24 were actually committed to “decolonising” their curricula. 

According to Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, “decolonization” can mean several things. It rests, however, upon a willingness to challenge “our shared assumptions about how the world is.”

Universities can do this, for example, by providing greater representation of non-Western thinkers: “Is it acceptable if writings and teachings about international regions or global affairs are done almost exclusively by writers from or based within the West?”

But while representation is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle. “Decolonising” a curriculum requires scrutiny of what universities prioritize learning about, the models that they use to learn it, and the classroom culture that is created as a result. 

All of these things contribute to an attainment gap in degree results between BME and white students that persists even at universities that pride themselves on diversity.

Put Into Practice

“Decolonization” is a difficult and comprehensive process, but it is what the RHS report concluded is necessary to redress systemic inequities in the field of history. Universities must not only “include and draw attention to the work of BME historians,” though that too is important.

Universities must make race and ethnicity essential topics of discussion while dissecting “white histories and Eurocentric approaches.” 

Joe Cozens, a British historian at UCL, explained to The College Post what that might look like.

Diversifying the writers and central themes of British history, Cozens said, is how we facilitate more meaningful discussions on race and ethnicity than traditional curricula would permit.

“I encourage my students to engage with the likes of C.L.R. James, Ron Ramdin, and Paul Gilroy,” he said, “and recently I have added Shirin Hirsch’s In the Shadow of Enoch Powell and Priya Gopal’s Insurgent Empire to my reading lists.” All are celebrated BME colonial and postcolonial historians.

“I have also integrated the themes of race, ethnicity, and migration into the broader story of social and political change in the ‘long’ nineteenth century,” referring to the period between 1789 and 1914.

Asked about how the role of his classroom in today’s social climate, Cozens turned to a familiar topic.

“I encourage students to think deeply and critically about the purpose of policing in the past and to consider what police reform in the future might look like. These issues seem all the more vital in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Covering All Bases

Department Head Eleanor Robson elaborated on how historians at UCL are tackling Britain’s whitewashed past from several angles.

“We’re the only History Department in the country that offers a programme of truly global history from antiquity to modernity, and are world leaders in the history of slavery and abolition, empire and post-colonialism,” Robson told The College Post.

“Our flagship Centre for the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership has been dominating the national news in recent weeks,” she added as an example.

The Centre is known for tracing the beneficiaries of Britain’s Slave Compensation Act of 1837, which compensated slave owners for the abolition of slavery. Insurance market Lloyd’s of London and Greene King, the largest pub chain in the country, recently apologized and pledged charity donations to minority communities after some of their founding members were revealed to have been compensated by the law.

While the department has ramped up its reassessment of policies and teaching methods since the RHS report was released in 2018, it started doing so long before. In fact, Robson said, UCL historians have been working to decolonize their curricula since before the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013.

Studying BME History

Still, another challenge for reform-oriented educators is to diversify what it means to study BME history in the first place. According to the RHS report, there is a “seemingly relentless focus on enslavement, abolition and exploitation.”

This is especially important to keep in mind as calls to reform British history education extend beyond universities. In the wake of recent protests, The Black Curriculum, an education reform group, has seen a surge in support for their nationwide campaign to make teaching black history mandatory in secondary schools.

It is also something to keep in mind as UCL’s history department expands opportunities to study Native American, Caribbean, East Asian, and African history this year. This also includes a new postgraduate program in Black British History at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Departmental culture has also become an area of scrutiny. According to the RHS report, demeaning comments and stereotypes inhibit the success of BME scholars and further contribute to the attainment gap.

As a result, all students and Teaching Assistants will undergo inclusivity training this year as part of an initiative from the department’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, which Robson chairs.

The department will also provide a new support network for BME staff and students amid complaints of inappropriate comments and behavior. The network, however, has declined to give details about how it will operate and how students can get involved. 

After two years of implementing the recommendations of the RHS report, the department will soon audit its progress. But while not “complacent,” Robson said it has certainly moved in the right direction. 

And considering that decolonizing a curriculum “is not something that happens overnight,” as Lecturer Sabaratnam wrote, such steps alone are laudable. The history department’s recent reforms reflect a sensitivity to increasingly vocal demands for systemic change.

Supporting the now-global cause of racial justice manifests itself in many ways. In this case, the UCL history department is doing so by scrutinizing its traditional teachings and addressing inattention to its own underrepresented BME scholars.

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