A statue of Cecil Rhodes is displayed on the front of on Oriel College on February 2, 2016 in Oxford. Picture credit: Carl Court via Getty Images

Decoloniser heal thyself

Decolonisation is a new form of Western elitism that risks turning campuses into ideological bootcamps

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Whose project is “decolonisation”? Is it the work of the colonised, or is it in fact the work, once again, of the colonisers? The Trinidadian Marxist CLR James thought little of the identity politics that preaches anti-racism but demarcates the world into separate, alien races. When James — historian of imperialism, Anglophile, cricket connoisseur — was offered a post in “Black Studies”, he responded “I do not know, as a Marxist, ‘Black Studies’ as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political and social setting … It is impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies.”

James had a complex relationship with the intellectual legacies of the West, or “the Global North”. He believed one could draw upon its literature, philosophy and ideas while also revolting against its oppression. His landmark work, Black Jacobins, demonstrated the connected fates of the French and Haitian revolutions. Privileged white men led the Enlightenment and forged empires that unleashed the Middle Passage and genocide, but their ideas contained the seeds of their own critique. The Haitian insurgents deployed the empire’s ideals to subvert it.

CLR James shuddered at the philistinism that reduces Shakespeare to a “white male”

Similar contradictions erupted in cricket, his great love. Long a garrison sport where Caribbean teams were expected to entertain and lose, it could also be a theatre of revolt. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, with its pace bowlers, struck back against racist condescension by pummelling English batsmen with unapologetic force. For James, history was too full of cross-cultural borrowing in every direction, too full of reinvention, for binary reductionism. As Christopher Hitchens noted, while James “needed no instruction about slavery and ethnocentricity”, he “shuddered at the philistinism that reduces Shakespeare to a ‘white male”’. 

What, then, would James make of the current drive to “decolonise the curriculum” in British universities? We cannot know. But James’s insight, that traditions are copious, and no one’s to monopolise, rarely clutters the manifestos and advisory texts of today’s campus decolonisers. And on closer inspection, some of the authors have a colonial problem of their own. 

Whose game is it anyway?

What does it mean to “decolonise” curriculums? “Decolonising” is not the same thing as diversification. It goes beyond the proposal that academic staff widen the range and viewpoint of their reading lists, or teach about racism and empire more. These are perfectly capable of being worthy undertakings, entirely compatible with scholarship and a commitment to the truth. Neither do decolonisers just say that we should ask questions about where, how or for whom knowledge is produced. Scholars have been doing so for years. 

The decolonising movement is a more far-reaching, stark attempt to transform consciousness itself. Its proponents urge teachers to recognise that knowledge can only ever be a product of power relations, that the Enlightenment tradition is defined primarily by its complicity in empire, and that as a way of thinking and educating, it is culturally specific to a privileged Western overclass. Further, as disciplines from political science to archaeology to mathematics are historically implicated in imperial oppression, they are forever tainted and complicit in racial inequality now, and must be overhauled — or dismantled. In order to disrupt inequitable power relations, we thus need different kinds of knowledge.

Consider the assumptions that then rise to the surface. For the Keele Decolonsing the Curriculum Network, the Enlightenment and its values of liberty and reason must always have a white essence: “the content of the curriculum … continues to maintain a colonial legacy through the presentation of a white, western intellectual tradition as not only superior … but universal”. Oxford’s Centre for Teaching and Learning assumes knowledge is the exclusive property of certain groups, asserting (though not demonstrating) that “racist legacies of colonialism have shaped the way we teach and learn in our discipline as well as whose knowledge we value and prioritise”.

The SOAS student union is overtly racialist in its criticism. In our classrooms, it says, there are too many exclusively “white” perspectives, knowledges and histories, which must be corrected by the addition of “indigenous” ones. The suggestion that there are non-European “knowledge systems” is frequent, though opaque, in the rhetoric. In sharp contrast to the “European tradition”, the Open University in its Innovating Pedagogy report urges universities to include “indigenous knowledge and ways of learning”.

British university education, and the idea of it, long predated the country’s acquisition of an overseas empire

To break this down, the “knowledge system” or intellectual tradition often associated with the Enlightenment, which advances the rigorous, reasoned, evidence-based pursuit of knowledge, belongs only to the West, or the Global North, or the Euro-Atlantic. In this view, the idea that arguments should be rational, non-contradictory, and tested by evidence, rather than based on authority or skin colour or feelings, becomes not something that is open to everyone, but something that is culturally peculiar to white westerners.

What are the alternative “knowledge systems”? The manifestos rarely say. But the literature attached to the decolonising movement provides a clue: that the “knowledge systems” of the Global South are inherently different in some essential way — experiential, irrational, or spiritual. The very idea of an independently existing truth, or just Socratic exchange in the classroom, is European, and not for the indigenous. Nods of agreement from the Klan.

Essentialism arises again and again. Consider the revealing statements in David Batty’s Guardian account. A professor at Goldsmiths asks, “Are you including Chinese philosophy or just a white western knowledge you’re imparting in an imperialist way.” Knowledge is inherently ethnic, allegedly, and in place of substantive specifics, accusers are pleased to spray around the terms “imperial” and “colonial”. There is didactic authoritarianism to spare. 

For an officer at the National Union of Students, “Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history and providing students and staff with the tools to critically identify [how] the university reproduces colonial hierarchies.” Leaving aside the irony that the ideal of historical accuracy is part of the dreaded Enlightenment project, note the purpose: universities are there to empower students to realise that universities reproduce colonial hierarchies. Rather than stimulating them to think for themselves. Pedagogy, we learn, is “rooted in imperial and colonial ideas about knowledge and learning”. British university education, and the idea of it, long predated the country’s acquisition of an overseas empire, and there aren’t many maps painted red in the seminar rooms. But perhaps the request for evidence is itself a symptom of bankrupt imperial nostalgia.

Ironically, assertions about separate ways of knowing resemble the very world view that helped drive colonialism in the first place, that “we” have reason, self-mastery and science, “they” have spirit, superstition and emotions. As Meera Nanda has written, this effectively excludes non-westerners from science and reason, since it treats modern science as a “local tradition of the West, as the indigenous knowledge of the non-Western subaltern is a local knowledge of his culture”. Those who take this view may think of themselves as serving the cause of progress by seeking to subvert power structures. But if there is a form of regressive “colonial modernity” that needs interrogating, it is this.

Meera Nanda says ideas of “separate ways of knowing” exclude non-

Know your place

The net effect of these sweeping utterances is to racialise knowledge and reify race, not as a construct that needs interrogation and argument, but as a fixed condition that predetermines and imprisons people. Starting from a reasonable observation that Enlightenment traditions are historically complicit in empire, decolonisers make an inordinate leap, assuming that such traditions therefore are inherently so. 

Because ideas about the world were/are advanced by “white” powerful men, those ideas are condemned to be white and oppressive, permanently. How come? Why can’t ways of thinking be remade into wider traditions, open to all? To show the origin of a thing is not to show its permanent character. Guardian readers will sympathise with this point, given that newspaper’s historical support for the Confederacy and eugenics.

The pursuit of universally valid, objective truth, we are told, is a Eurocentric affectation from the colonial era

Decolonising arguments usually come bodyguarded by consumerist claims about what students want. Allegedly, BAME students are disenchanted by Eurocentric syllabuses, and want something “relevant” (defined along crudely-drawn, insular lines). They must see “themselves” reflected in the syllabus, even in colleges that otherwise flaunt their credentials as global, cosmopolitan centres that lift up horizons and transcend borders.

Decolonisers uncritically quote students who dismiss the study of “dead white men”. We might think twice about encouraging such attitudes towards Aristotle, Marx, Shakespeare or Hobbes. But to suggest so is to insist that universities should be places of intellectual discomfort, not for a cosy “experience.” 

Encouraging students only to identify with familiar people or things will have consequences. Insisting that literature is only relevant to audiences who share the author’s background lends itself to a corollary: that white students have little to learn from Frantz Fanon, Edward Said or Frederick Douglass. Such insularity, such sheer incuriosity, encouraging students only to be open to literature and minds that look like them, promotes the very thing it opposes, a bleak vision of nothing but warring, walled-off identity groups, and the formation of a heightened “white” identity. We know where that leads. 

Evidently, there is also a confusion about knowledge. The pursuit of universally valid, objective truth, we are told, is a Eurocentric affectation from the colonial era. But that doesn’t stop decolonisers making universal truth claims. In reality, without the intellectual tools derived from the Enlightenment tradition — such “ways of knowing” — postcolonial scholars would not be able to demonstrate causal linkages between racist ideas and empire. They would not be able to produce reports that assemble evidence, reach conclusions and make policy recommendations. They might feel them, but they couldn’t do them.

The modern age up in arms

Perhaps the most intellectually lamentable aspect of this entire ideological project is how shallow it so often is. For its doctrinaire proponents also seem to assume that they are the first to discover the politics of researching the past.

Thus one decolonising advocate finds that “history education” “creates ‘common knowledge’ and ‘objective historical facts’ without epistemological considerations of power behind the production of history knowledge.” This is simply not true. Most academic historians and history courses emphasise context, source criticism and the politics of how people represent the past. They have been doing so for some time. Indeed, the idea that we should interrogate different understandings of the past, and the power politics behind them, instead of just telling stories regardless of whether they are true, or speak to our ethnic group, is partly a product of a “knowledge system” of verification and falsification the authors claim is Eurocentric and culturally specific. It would be impossible to research and explain the behaviour and legacies of empire without it.

So, we are entitled to ask, from what epistemological standard are decolonisers pronouncing, apart from the very one they condemn? The movement’s attitude towards its most solemn outward sign, “diversity”, is, to put it mildly, selective. It wears the clothes of pluralism, claiming to open up space for inclusive dialogue. But when push comes to shove, it is a political project that makes hard assertions about how things were, how they are and what we are all expected to do. By fiat, it judges the West’s intellectual integuments as rotten to the core. The cause is virtuous, and therefore non-negotiable. As the Oxford statement says, “it is the responsibility of all teaching staff to work towards decolonising the curriculum”. Diversity is paramount, provided everyone thinks the right thoughts.

What about students who have doubts? What about those who don’t think, say, colonial legacies explain everything? Or think Enlightenment ideas contributed to anti-slavery? Will the opinions of, say, black conservative students and their lived experience be included in this gorgeous mosaic of diversity? Will students arguing back be encouraged to “explore themselves and their values and to define success on their own terms”? 

A deeper struggle 

This movement, in all its poverty, has already raised real dangers. At the University of Leicester in January 2021, it provided cover for managers to propose the dismantling of the institution’s medieval history and literature offerings, to make it more “inclusive” and less “white”. A crude form of capitalist higher education, fixated on the bottom line, peddled the line that Beowulf or Chaucer was culturally alien to non-white students, and therefore not for them, and dressed up its destructive austerity measures in the language of diversity. Decolonisers may not intend this consequence. But by writing off swathes of the past, and human thought and dialectic, as little more than the corrupt fruit of colonialism, and by encouraging a world view of different races who should stay in their lane, they unwittingly prepared the ground.

There is a deeper struggle going on here, about what universities are for. In the world view of curriculum evangelists, the classroom is not primarily a place of argument where all truth claims are up for grabs, except within tight, heavily policed ideological boundaries. Rather, the classroom is a site in which to advance the cause. This would turn universities into ideological boot camps which emancipate no-one. We might consider alternative ways of learning, where classrooms make space for solidarity and connection as well as divides and particularity, where history with its “ironic points of light” is more than a morality play, and where scholars live a more complex intellectual life.

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