Decolonising the curriculum

The discussion around decolonising our education system has been recharged by the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Dr Tony Williams, Co-Director of Faculty Equality, Diversity and Inclusion gets to the heart of what this means and why it’s important for the University.


Dr Tony WilliamsThe movement to decolonise the curriculum is a call from the next generation to not repeat the inequities that are a part of the past.”

Dr Tony Williams, Co-Director of Faculty Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

At the University of Sheffield, academics from various disciplines have been interested in and working on what a decolonised curriculum might look like within their area of expertise. Those academics were working in this area long before the recent Black Lives Matter campaign (#BLM), but it is this movement which has led to greater recognition of this work. The recent social and cultural impact of #BLM has undoubtedly supported the embedding of decolonising academic work.

“The University launched its Race Equality and Action plan in March 2019, and the institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion is now also a part of the University’s Vision. So, as we move from those innovator academics to a broader University commitment, there has been a need to create a University definition. We created a group to agree a University of Sheffield definition; it was important to have academic input from across all the faculties as well as strong student representation. It has to be kept in mind that the call for decolonising the curriculum began through a student movement, and the student voice has always been central. I think the definition that has come out of the staff and student working group gives a sense of what decolonising the curriculum really means for us at the University.”

 

THE DEFINITION

Decolonising the curriculum is an ongoing process which critically assesses and contextualises the arguments and assumptions of Western thought within all disciplines. It is not simply the integration of minority ethnic academics, scientists and scholars into syllabi, but it does prompt us to actively consider the incorporation into curricula of historically marginalised or suppressed knowledge.

Central to this work is the recognition that knowledge systems are marked by existing power relations which are themselves rooted within a history of colonialism. A Eurocentric epistemology presents white, global North intellectual traditions as superior and universal and positions the West as origin and originator of knowledge and development. This continues to reinforce white dominance and privilege, whilst at the same time reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices about non-white people and culture, the basis of which underpins the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary racism.

Decolonisation does not deliver a set of prescriptions but is instead a set of suggestions and ideas for colleagues and students to think through, both individually and collectively. Each faculty within the University of Sheffield will take forward this work in the way that maximises its impact on their subject areas. The practice of decolonisation will have profound implications with regards to the presentation and content of the curricula, methods of teaching and research, outreach practices and institutional structures.

As a University, we recognise that the knowledge directly and indirectly produced within our institution goes beyond the academic sphere. At the centre of this work is our aim for staff and students to engage within an inclusive learning environment, which is representative of all cultural backgrounds, but also equips them with the knowledge and skills to dismantle structural inequalities and institutional racism.

We are not removing key historical figures from our curriculum, but are seeking to add those who have also made significant contributions to their respective fields that are not currently represented.

Why is this definition important?

“The work that this statement orientates us towards is important for a number of reasons. I see it as each generation’s responsibility to maintain and pass on the best of what we inherit, while continuing to learn and refine our understandings, in part through challenging our implicit assumptions. We sustain our commitment to pass on knowledge and insight, while being open to correcting misunderstandings and being prepared to challenge stereotypes and prejudices which are rooted in historical injustices. In effect we broaden as well as deepen our collective knowledge.

“The everyday experiences of members of minority groups alongside national data relating to educational achievements, career progression and other indicators of social inclusion tell us that we do not yet live in a fair and meritocratic society, far from it. The movement to decolonise the curriculum is a call from the next generation to not repeat the inequities that are a part of the past. The challenge is to recognise the inequities that form a part of, or should I say are inherent in, our many achievements. In doing so our hope is to offer a curriculum that is both richer and more meaningful. A curriculum in which every student can learn about the past and understand what we have come to know, as well as something of the conditions in which knowledge has come to be known as they prepare for the future.”

Dr Antony Williams

• Programme Director, Doctorate in Educational and Child Psychology
• Co-Director of Faculty Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (Social Sciences)
• Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

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