The Sunday Times: If we want a ‘global Britain’, we need to decolonise the curriculum
17th February 2019
By Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and chair of the Decolonising Soas working group
“Decolonising education has been presented as the narcissistic demand of an anti-intellectual snowflake generation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I was quite young when I first read Jane Eyre. I chose it because I had read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and she had read Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Being a girl who wanted to be clever, I decided to read it too. Jane Eyre was also a young clever woman — plucky, spirited, hard-working, independent, discreet, self-sacrificing and so on; she was eventually rewarded for her moral forbearance with a sudden inheritance from an uncle in Madeira and marriage to the man she had forsworn for his attempted bigamy.
It was more or less two decades later that I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. This multi-vocal novel focuses on the fate of Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway, the first Mrs Rochester — a Creole woman with her own tumultuous upbringing and struggles, who Rochester married hastily in the West Indies in search of a fortune. Antoinette, renamed Bertha by her husband, suffers unstable mental health, removal to England and the breakdown of her marriage before becoming the woman locked in the tower at Thornfield Hall. She eventually burns it down.
With Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys, a Dominican author with a Creole mother and a Welsh father who had moved to England, puts Jane Eyre into a critical dialogue with the colonial historical conditions of its own production. Most crucially it calls on the reader to confront the significance of the “others” whose own life journeys, quests for justice and sacrifices are intertwined with, but meaningfully distinct from, Jane’s own. I experienced reading this as a form of “growing up”. It was of course destabilising to have the neat morality of the first novel torn open, but ultimately it disclosed a fuller, richer, more difficult and more interesting view of the world and of humanity.
In studying literature, can we read and think about Jane Eyre now without also reading and thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea? We could, although this would be both an unnecessary restriction and disservice to our students. So would a literature curriculum that failed to introduce students to the broader diversity and richness of writing in English from around the world, as well as within Britain. This is even before we get to questions of how to unpick our habitual monolingualism and the narrowness it produces.
The project of decolonising education argues that we should seek to overcome the limits of what the West has historically imagined about itself. Decolonising the curriculum is thus a thoroughly pro-intellectual endeavour that means examining multiple accounts of an issue, looking at processes in their global and historical contexts, writing in the lives, narratives and knowledges that have been written out or discounted, and confronting the contestations that this produces.
Beyond its intellectual and moral benefits, it also offers a way of positively rethinking Britain’s place in the contemporary world, which better reflects how other countries and peoples understand it, and how they understand themselves. In this sense, it can be a reality check for a country that is prone to habits of imperial nostalgia, fantasy and amnesia, and yet wishes to position itself as “global Britain” in a future landscape.
We need only remember the diplomatic incident provoked by David Cameron’s cabinet wearing poppies in China in 2010 while attempting to establish trade deals to understand the value of teaching about the Opium Wars and the “century of humiliation” through Chinese perspectives. A recent attempt to assert British power in Asia has been met with more open derision. By contrast, a country with a thoughtful, reflexive and informed sensibility about its historic role in the world, established through a decolonising approach to education, should be able to develop more meaningful, reciprocal and realistic relations with others.
It is not a coincidence, then, that the project of decolonising education has captured imaginations across the Commonwealth, with active work being done in South Africa, Rwanda, Malaysia, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. As part of the Association for Commonwealth Universities’ Peace and Reconciliation Network, I recently presented this work to our new patron, the Duchess of Sussex, whose own global and mixed heritage has been welcomed by many as a symbol of barriers being broken down for Britain.
Decolonising education is therefore also about ensuring that universities work to eliminate all forms of racism within higher education. The recent report commissioned by the Office for Students demonstrates that students identified with different ethnic groups have different outcomes, even when controlling for entry qualifications, based on 2015-16 data. Put plainly, a black student with four As at A-level was less likely to leave university with a first or a 2:1 as a white student with an A and two Bs. We also know that academics from non-white ethnic groups are paid more than 15% less on average, controlling for experience and qualifications.
While there are many contributing factors, one way in which universities create a more hostile environment for non-white students is by telling them in lots of ways that they don’t matter, or don’t belong, and that their histories and knowledges are irrelevant to real education. We have taken too long to realise that this is a deeply problematic way to treat our young people, who expect and deserve better. So not only can decolonising the curriculum widen our intellectual horizons and hone our global sensibilities, it can also create a basis for living our values when it comes to eliminating racism.
Doing this means actively cultivating both academic and moral depth. Instead of seeking to shut down the decolonising project, for fear of having our sense of innocence destabilised or our heroes blemished, we should be embracing its intellectual benefits and challenges, as well as its profoundly humanising potential — in the words of Aimé Césaire, “a humanism made to the measure of the world”. It is one which we, our young people and the whole world so desperately need.”
This originally appeared in The Sunday Times, here.