Decolonising is about adding, not cancelling, knowledge

Posted on September 13, 2021 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – story
11 September 2021.   Ali Meghji

The past few months in Britain have seen a growing ridiculing of calls to decolonise the curriculum. However, these criticisms have failed to understand what decolonising the curriculum is about.

From the prime minister claiming that Britain needed to move on from the “cringing embarrassment” it has towards its previous empire, and needing to stop “this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness”, through to the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s summit with British heritage bodies in a bid to “defend our history” against activists who “do Britain down”, and the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan’s claims that decolonising the curriculum involves “censoring” and “taking bits out” of our history, there is a general consensus that decolonising the curriculum involves a misrepresentation of British history which paints a false picture of the past.

This understanding of decolonising curricula is thoroughly misguided; decolonising is an additive process which heightens the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge of the world.

The foundation stone of decolonising the curriculum is a desire to emphasise how colonialism and enslavement were central processes in creating the modern world. To show this, we have to shed light on many aspects of history that are regularly erased from our educational curricula. Thus, if we track the development of the modern world – from industrialisation through to the growth of capitalism and globalisation – it is impossible to divorce these processes from their colonial relations.

Take, for instance, British industrialisation in the 17th to 19th centuries. One of the great ‘success stories’ of Britain’s industrialisation was its booming cotton and textile trade. However, Britain’s cotton was largely imported from the labour of the enslaved in the United States, while the knowledge of how to turn that cotton into textiles on a mass level was imported from India.

Indeed, much of Britain’s cotton exports went to territories of their empire – such as India – in order to squash native markets. There was a fundamental link, therefore, between enslavement, empire and British industrialisation.

A partial history

Rather than involving a censoring of the past, as Michelle Donelan put it, decolonising the curriculum actually embraces those histories that have been erased in dominant interpretations of the past.

It is quite surprising, for instance, that none of my university students had encountered the history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – the first successful slave revolt in colonial history – in schools or at university, and yet they were all familiar with the history of the French Revolution (1789-1799) which was happening at the same time.

Decolonising the curriculum would tell a story of the past which linked these two social movements to one another. Doing so would enable us to see how the French Revolution was itself only revolutionary for a select elite living within the ‘mother country’ of the empire, and that this racialised elitism itself served as the basis for revolutions against the French revolutionary state in the colonies.

As the Haitian revolutionaries showed themselves, French revolutionary declarations such as that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and that “these rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression” were fundamentally at odds with France’s practices of enslavement and empire.

While both the Haitian and French revolutions are key moments in modern history, only one of these events is taught and investigated in our school and higher education curricula. Decolonising the curriculum ensures that these absences in knowledge are addressed, and then explores what new knowledge can be examined focusing on these erased histories.

An interconnected world

Through focusing on erased histories, decolonising the curriculum shows the deep interconnectedness of the world. Indeed, stressing these interconnections allows us to look at topics which dominate our curricula through new eyes.

For instance, the histories of Nazism and European fascism are (rightfully) a core component of the British history curriculum. However, we are not taught the links between European fascism and European colonialism, making it seem as though European fascism developed independently to the European empires. This bifurcated understanding of history is thoroughly inaccurate.

The first genocide of the 20th century of the Herero and Nama people in present-day Namibia (1904-08), for instance, was led by the German empire, and key figures involved in this genocide – such as Franz Ritter von Epp – were later instrumental in using the same techniques in orchestrating the Holocaust.

Indeed, in forming the Holocaust the Nazis borrowed from colonial tactics – from the British empire’s use of starvation in Bengal and Ireland (seen to be the most ‘cost effective’ way to kill large numbers of people), through to the use of concentration camps in the Boer war, and the Spanish techniques of shooting sprees used in colonising the Americas.

Indeed, even anticolonial movements took inspiration from the Nazis; Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a leader of Hindu anti-colonial nationalism in the 20th century who was an affiliate of the RSS (the National Patriotic Organisation), saw Hitler’s treatment of the Jews as a model for India’s own ‘Muslim problem’.

What you get in such ‘decolonial’ accounts, therefore, is not an erasure of any history but instead a more globally interconnected understanding of what happened (and happens) in the world.

What you get from decolonising the curriculum is actually an opposite picture to how many tend to frame the process. Decolonising the curriculum is a necessary endeavour that our educational institutions need to undertake. It does not involve a ‘cancelling’ of history and authors, or the burning of any books. It is instead an additive process, necessary for educational development.

School and university pupils are often presented with partial accounts of knowledge in their respective disciplines and decolonising curricula is a necessary step forward on such students’ intellectual journeys.

Dr Ali Meghji is a lecturer in social inequalities at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, where he directs the MPhil in marginality and exclusion and is the course organiser for SOC12 Empire, colonialism, imperialism and the chair of ‘Decolonising sociology’. He is author of Decolonizing Sociology, published by Polity, and of the forthcoming book Critical Race Theory: A (re)introduction.

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