‘Why is my curriculum white?’ This provocative question is the title of a film being made by University College London’s (UCL) Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Network. The film, produced in conjunction with academic staff, is part of a campaign ‘pushing for the most inclusive, well-rounded and progressive learning environment possible’. UCL students are acting on recommendations from the National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities Scotland that state ‘institutions must strive to minimise Euro-centric bias in curriculum design, content and delivery, and establish mechanisms to ensure this happens’.
The UCL campaign follows hot on the heels of protests staged by students at Colgate University in New York, demanding the liberal-arts college ‘fulfil its promise of being an inclusive institution for students of all backgrounds’. One of the protesters’ demands was for the core curriculum to be ‘revised to bring in explicit study and understanding of systemic power dynamics and inequities; and how these shape even our most personal relationships with others and ourselves’.
Universities around the world are keen to promote their inclusive credentials. The University of Leicester claims to be ‘the most inclusive of Britain’s top-20, leading universities, with the greatest proportion of students from underrepresented groups’. In Canada, Queen’s University describes itself as ‘an inclusive community’ in which ‘each person feels safe to be themselves and to explore differences, where diverse views and ideas are met with openness and curiosity, and where we can approach our commonalities and differences with mutual respect’. The University of New Hampshire is ‘committed to supporting and sustaining an educational community that is inclusive, diverse and equitable’.
Though suitably vague, the concept of inclusivity has become a firmly entrenched part of the higher-education landscape. It stretches across campus and into the curriculum. While students often lead the way in demands for their courses to be more culturally diverse and less ‘pale, male and stale’, academics and institutions are quick to repent, ditch classic texts and populate the syllabus with material that takes account of diverse backgrounds and views. The students demanding changes to the curriculum are widely lauded as more enlightened and progressive than their out-of-touch lecturers.
This follows a precedent dating back to the 1960s when students, particularly in America, campaigned for the university curriculum to be more representative of the intellectual contributions made by people other than just white men. Then, as now, academics readily capitulated to such demands. As Allan Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind, black students at Cornell University in the 1960s became aware that they ‘were not just students but negotiating partners in the process of determining what an education is’. That academics so readily acquiesce to student demands in this area suggests they are embarrassed by, and unable to defend, the knowledge traditionally taught in universities.