The demand for universities to ‘decolonise’ has become one of the central tenets of the identity-driven student protest movement. It has driven a cleansing of ‘colonial iconography’ in the form of statues, pictures and the names of buildings. It has also turned the spotlight on what is taught in higher education, with the call to ‘decolonise the curriculum’.
The group Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, campaigning for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from campus, aims ‘to challenge the structures of knowledge production that continue to mould a colonial mindset that dominates our present’. The Why is My Curriculum White? movement argues: ‘Universities in the UK have operated under a colonial legacy, perpetuating “whiteness” both structurally and in the confines of knowledge reproduced.’
In the US, students at Yale University are calling for the English department to abandon a course requirement to study authors such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. They argue: ‘It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.’ Meanwhile, at Seattle University, Jodi Kelly, the dean of Matteo Ricci College, has been ‘put on leave’ after a group of students staged a sit-in, protesting that the ‘liberal-arts curriculum focused too much on classical Western history and philosophy’. One student claimed, ‘the only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes’.
The rhetoric of these campaigns suggests universities are the last bastions of imperialism and that institutions in Britain are adamantly clinging on to an empire long since surrendered. The claim that there are too many ‘dead white dudes’ suggests academics are complicit in promoting a prejudiced view of the world and that the content of degree-level courses has remained unchanged for decades. Above all this sits the image of student campaigners as either valiant warriors tackling a conservative academy or, in much media coverage, as over-privileged ignoramuses.
The reality is very different. It is academics, not students, who have rejected traditional bodies of subject knowledge and have questioned the dominance of dead white men in the curriculum. It is academics who first argued the university is an ‘academic-military-prison-industrial complex’ in need of ‘dismantling’. Today, all British universities are expected to promote ‘global citizenship’ and to ‘internationalise the curriculum’ by ‘providing students with global perspectives of their discipline’.