Some people say education is the proverbial big ship that can only turn slowly. If it is, then it’s about to come a cropper, because the tides and waves are moving at speed. Decolonisation is on the crest of each wave and this ship needs to change course.
In little more than a few years, the phrase decolonise the curriculum has found its way into common parlance. Moreover, one of our own nation-states has made it an ambition they want to achieve. In October 2021 Wales became the first country in the UK to commit to decolonising their curriculum. This is a deliberate and conscious decision to do more than a ‘Black’ assembly, a display or a piece of work. It would appear that Welsh education leaders have realised something that the DfE, amongst others, have not. The curriculum has to change.
Perhaps the most pertinent reason is that what children and young people are being taught is factually inaccurate, belies the truth and fails to actually educate on a vast array of topics. And whilst we have become fixated on what is being taught, we must not allow the how to be ignored either; the ethos and way in which a topic is taught really matters.
To underscore this point, let me provide a brief example.
Topic: The British Industrial Revolution
a) What we teach. Do our history departments teach the facts about what really funded the British Industrial Revolution? Are students informed that between 1750 and 1780 about 70% of the British government’s total income came from taxes on goods from its colonies.[i]
b) How we teach. Is the British Industrial Revolution presented as something to be proud of; as a development that ultimately benefited Britain and the world? Or, is the complexity of the exploitation and abuse on which it flourished honestly examined? The legacy of these abuses in the colonies and under the empire continue into the present.
There will be some who find this perspective infuriating: after all, the past is the past and all countries have done things we now find morally repugnant. To that, I say: I agree. But I also say: why would you want to educate yet another generation to be ignorant about these facts? What do you fear about them knowing the truth about the past? Don’t we want them to make up their own minds? Don’t we want them to see the deep inequality and injustices of our past? Do you fear they will lose pride in this great nation and what it has done? And if so, why?
The misinformation, one-dimensional characters and derogatory perspectives of colonial Britain are still being pedalled in outdated textbooks and teaching materials. We cannot continue to ignore this because it involves changing courses and introducing new ideas and perspectives. Fortunately, we live in a digital age with access to a huge breadth of material. Lots of work has already been done to help educators who are keen to transform the curriculum and start including a wider pool of thinkers and creators: Shakuntala Devi – an Indian mathematician considered a ‘human computer’; Al’Khwarizmi – considered to have written the first book on algebra and; Katherine Johnson – the first African-American woman to work as a NASA scientist. Not because they are Black or Asian, but because they were leaders in their fields and deserve to be respected for the contributions they made to human history.
The absence of people of colour and other marginalised groups from the curriculum is active in such an insidious way. It actively reinforces negative stereotypes, erases histories and limits perspectives. It tells the child who is a person of colour that they are irrelevant (as they are absent), or that they are a victim (as in the portrayals of enslaved people) or that they are an exception (the result of one-off disconnected and vague celebratory moments). It also tells the White child that they are the king-makers, the inventors of all that is great or good and everything to be admired. Moreover, the subtext tells both groups that people of colour have achieved nothing they need to know about; nothing that is worthy of being written down, placed in a scheme of work or taught in a classroom.
It is a travesty. It is the perpetuation of a myth. It is neither a real nor an honest education.
So it is time for a transformative education.
In some cases, this will mean throwing away old books and artefacts, but more fundamentally it will require a willingness to read more, find new sources and re-learn topics and texts we thought we knew.
A new and transformed curriculum would have the power to equip and educate current and future generations to understand human history: our ability to invent and create as well as our innate ability to do both incredible good and great callous acts of harm.
If, as a product of this education system yourself, you currently feel ill-equipped to take on this work, there is no need to throw in the towel. There are a plethora of places to start the journey.
The most important requirements are curiosity, humanity and a commitment to equity. It can start here.