Judging by her latest comments, Malia Bouattia, the new president of the National Union of Students (NUS), has a fairly low view of black and minority ethnic (BME) students. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Bouattia said that BME students are ‘being forced to engage with content that doesn’t relate to them’, and that studying European thinkers could even be ‘psychologically destructive’ to BME students.
Bouattia argues that a ‘Eurocentric’ curriculum is problematic because BME students ‘don’t see themselves in what they’re studying, and can’t relate to it’. According to her, any body of knowledge produced solely by white people is inaccessible to BME students. Presumably, this includes the plays of Shakespeare; the ancient literature of Suetonius, Tacitus and Plutarch; the political economy of Adam Smith and Karl Marx; and the science of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
BME students cannot relate to these classical authors, she says. But there would be no point in BME students going to university if they refused to learn anything that didn’t relate to their immediate lived experience. If it were applied, Bouattia’s approach to education would limit the potential aspirations of BME students, leaving them without access to the necessary historical, philosophical and intellectual grounding they need to develop as thinkers.
The idea that BME students have a problem engaging with a Eurocentric curriculum is belittling, and certainly at odds with my own experience of higher education. At the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication), where I studied photography and communication, I read authors such as John Berger, Roland Barthes and William Eggleston. The fact that the cultural backgrounds of these authors differed from my own didn’t matter. It was precisely because I was born to working-class parents in south London, and educated at state comprehensive schools, that I wanted to realise my potential and transcend my own circumstances.
In fact, higher education opened up a whole new world for me, as it does for many BME students today. I was not psychologically damaged by studying a Eurocentric curriculum, or engaging with the works of great white photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Man Ray, Karen Knorr and Martin Parr. On the contrary, I felt positively enlightened – and that, for me, is what higher education is all about.