Winchester College is one of several private schools set to review their curriculum in the wake of 'Black Lives Matter' (Image via Getty)

Decolonising the curriculum

Public schools are joining the culture war

Artillery Row

The social unrest that has spread across the world in response to the killing of George Floyd shares many similarities with the violent protests of the past. And of course targeting statues is nothing new: after all, they are the most obvious physical personifications of different times, their values embodied in human form. Their aggressive removal challenges a society’s cultural memory, forcing us to debate who we were, are, and wish to be. We are appalled by such destruction if it attacks what we want to retain, but we celebrate it when those we identify as villains are torn from their plinths.

Such acts quickly become familiar: they cease to shock as we become desensitised to watching the desecration of another forgotten confederate general. It is the reaction to these events that is so significant. The most immediate response comes from the crowd itself: those who pulled down Colston’s statue attacked it with all the vehement glee that they would have inflicted on the old slave trader himself. A collective will quickly agreed to parade ‘him’ on a journey of humiliation through the streets of Bristol, before tipping him into the same waters that his ships docked in centuries before; ‘the historical symmetry of this moment is poetic’ the historian David Olusoga observed approvingly. Unable to kill the dead we seek some form of catharsis through symbolic acts

But whereas in the past such actions would have been met with equal (or greater) force from ‘the Establishment’, the protestors’ claims have gone mainstream with astonishing speed, their slogans now catechisms, absorbed into the same institutions which are frequently characterised as the agents of their oppression.  This, rather than the toppling of statues, is what many find genuinely disturbing. Watching the civil service, the National Trust, the police, the Prime Minister, all supporting street protests, or being lectured on privilege by people in positions of considerable power is, for many, bewildering. Who knows what reaction this will provoke in the future. But for many being told that they are guilty of racism, of white fragility, is offensive and unfounded. Some would be justified in asking how content each of these institutions are in being aligned with an organisation that proudly advocates a ‘commitment to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures’? I imagine that some Waitrose customers are happy with this, but not many. 

For many, spending time discussing text choices after a school shutdown must seem solipsistic in the extreme

Another perceived bastion of the Establishment – public schools – are also, suddenly, eager to join the culture wars they have traditionally been so careful to be distanced from (realising, wisely, that they don’t stand to gain much from preaching about privilege). Schools ranging from Winchester College, to St Paul’s, and Tony Blair’s alma mater Fettes, are looking to ‘decolonise’ their curricula (inevitably, super-woke Brighton College went one further, hastily advertising for a Head of Diversity and Inclusion).  

The irony is, of course, that to have such options available is another mark of the privilege they seek to ‘reflect’ on. What a luxury it is to have such freedom: to be able to have the funds to invest in expanding your staffing in this area now; to have the resources, and the space on your timetable to begin debating about what to study, and for how long.  These are old arguments re-animated by current affairs. The dry-as-dust debates around curriculum design quickly turn into powder-kegs with competing demands from different groups, each passionate about the importance of their claims, each demanding more time on school timetables, each fanning fires they want schools to put out. Independent boarding schools in particular have more access to their students than day schools, allowing them more time, and greater freedom to diversify the curriculum. Other schools, and other social groups, are less fortunate. For many families, living through this almost total collapse in school provision, where a ‘learning deficit’ is becoming a personal tragedy which will take years to recover from, spending time discussing text choices must seem solipsistic in the extreme. 

We need to protect our schools: they should not be the crucibles of social change, nor should subjects change to accommodate the demands of today. The best arbiter of academic value is often time. It is at best limiting, and at worst, misleading, to see our classrooms as laboratories set up to correct the failings of their societies. Schools – and teachers – can only do so much (no doubt some of those who marched for Black Lives Matter in London attended the same schools, and the same History and English lessons, as those who were protecting statues, and giving Nazi salutes, the following weekend).  

At the moment there is a risk that schools will be dragged into wider culture wars, they will be told to take sides by those who do not always have the children’s interests at heart.  But schools should not be represented as anterooms to the never-ending purgatory of irresolvable social division and distrust. They should be places where the particularisation of human identity is rejected as too narrow, and where names cancelled on Twitter are still allowed voice, and listened to. We have to ask our students (as one ‘problematic’ writer on the at-risk register asked): ‘where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ It is up to schools to move beyond mere information, to find that knowledge, to show our children that learning takes time, is complex, ambiguous and untidy, and that real diversity exists in brave and uninhibited thinking.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover