In defence of the ‘white’ curriculum

Student campaigns for 'inclusive' courses are undermining academic freedom.

‘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.

Despite this long history, it’s worth unpicking what lies behind the demands for an inclusive curriculum. The 2011 NUS report Race for Equality states that 42 per cent of black students do not believe their curriculum reflects issues of diversity, equality and discrimination. The report highlights ‘a frustration that courses were designed and taught by non-black teachers, and often did not take into account diverse backgrounds and views’.

The assumption that an academic course, on anything from astrophysics to Ancient Greek philosophy, should take account of diversity, equality and discrimination speaks to the notion that higher education today is less about engaging with a particular body of knowledge than it is about the promotion of certain values. This assumes that all curricular knowledge is equally valid, that it doesn’t really matter whether you read literature by Dickens or Achebe; study the sociology of WEB Du Bois or Émile Durkheim; or the philosophy of Alain Locke or John Locke. When all knowledge is of equal worth, its merit is entirely dependent on the cultural identity of the theorist. According to this reasoning, all knowledge propounded by white males is reduced simply to a reflection of dominant power structures and is therefore tainted. It becomes morally better to study work that gives a voice to underrepresented groups.

The Race for Equality report argues that a multicultural curriculum is needed in order to promote the academic achievement of black students. It cites evidence suggesting that ‘teachings based on unfamiliar cultural norms, histories and points of reference may have the potential to affect the educational attainment of certain minority-ethnic groups’. This erroneously assumes that students can only really engage with subject matter which reflects their own cultural background. By this argument, black, female or minority-ethnic students would be excluded from a university curriculum that doesn’t include people who look like them. Further, it suggests that academics should encourage students to imbibe knowledge entirely uncritically, and, regardless of whether students are taught Marx or Keynes, Nietzsche or Aristotle, that they are incapable of thinking for themselves.

The implication that universities should confirm identity rather than challenge students to think beyond their own limited horizons is problematic for a number of reasons. A young white male has no more in common with Keynes, Shakespeare or Plato than a mature black female. The whole point of learning is to transcend the limitations of one’s existing circumstances and cultural background through the expansion of knowledge. It seems we’ve come a long way from the days in which people aspired towards the view that ‘nothing that is human is alien to me’. Instead, well-meaning campaigners for inclusivity are determined to limit students to knowledge deemed appropriate to their cultural background.

There are very good reasons why a philosophy, economics or history curriculum might be full of the works of dead white males. To leave out such knowledge in favour of inclusive alternatives leaves students without a good grounding in the major intellectual developments that have occurred within their discipline. Academics make decisions about what to include in the curriculum based on their own knowledge of the subject, which has been hard-won over years of study. For this knowledge then to be jettisoned on the basis of a student campaign sends out the message that acquiring that knowledge was never really worth it in the first place.

It’s almost the centenary of the American Association of University Professors’ Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom, a central tenet of which was ‘freedom of teaching within the university or college’. The signatories demanded to teach and research as they saw best, free from the whims of both university patrons and students. For many scholars today, the desire to keep students satisfied, combined with a lack of confidence in the body of knowledge they have to teach, means academic freedom loses out to inclusivity. Affording a privileged place in the curriculum for ideas based on the cultural identity of their originator, or respecting all ideas as equally valid, is antithetical to the principles of academic freedom, which demand ideas are rigorously critiqued on their intellectual merit, and that, on this basis alone, some win out over others. More than ever, we need a university curriculum that is academically elitist, but which all can be free to aspire towards.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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