Razia Parveen argues that pulling down statues should only be the beginning of a radical decolonisation of the educational curriculum
I didn’t know that. Why didn’t they teach us that in school? These are words many of us have probably heard in the wake of the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and similar Black Lives Matter protests around the UK. As an Asian educator, I find the current school curriculum leaves little room for manoeuvre when it comes to teaching outside the parameters of the Gove-inspired curriculum. This government would prefer us to be actively kept in the dark about Britain’s imperial past. Many in this country’s black and Asian communities feel that its history has been whitewashed for generations and that thanks to initiatives such as Black History Month and the recent BLM movement previously marginalized voices are now demanding a more truthful account of this country’s impact around the globe. Far more needs to be done to educate children on how the British Empire experimented with Ireland and then stretched its talons across the globe from Africa to the Asian sub-continent. Decolonizing the curriculum means confronting the ugly truths of colonialism and the involvement of the British Empire in a string of crimes against humanity.
In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s monologue Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, she explores the very reality of being black in Britain today. One aspect of her secondary education that stands out is the fact that she knows black history or herstory was completely ignored, and it was not until university and her second year when she took an optional module on the transatlantic slave trade that she learnt about this country even having a slave trade:
The Albert Dock opened four decades after Britain’s final slave ship, the Kitty’s Amelia, set sail from the city, but it was the closest I could get to staring out at the sea and imagining Britain’s complicity in the slave trade. Standing on the edge of the dock, I felt despair. Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick. Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy.
Here she makes it clear to her readers that the elision of black history has resulted in an educational void at the heart of England’s real history. This glaring failure of UK education urgently needs to be tackled by a thorough decolonisation of the curriculum. Before we can remedy the problem, we need to accept the fact that this void exists and cannot be allowed to continue.
Shashi Thapoor’s Inglorious Empirechronicles the complexity of the involvement of the East India Company and the atrocities carried out in the name of Queen Victoria and the British state. The repercussions of these atrocities are being felt even today. It is remarkable that Throor argues in Inglorious Empire that:
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.
We are presented here with an aspect of history that has so far been forgotten by the educational curricula which currently govern our schools and colleges of learning. The consequence of learning an essentially pro-imperial historical narrative creates what some literary theorists call epistemic violence (or cultural violence) against minority groups. A decolonisation of the historical record would allow future generations of students to experience the full picture of this country’s role in propagating slavery and systemic racism.
As many parents of schoolchildren will be aware, Poetry from Other Cultures is one of the headings for study in the GCSE curriculum. Verses such as Blessing, Half-Caste, Island Man, Limbo, Night of the Scorpion, Vultures, Nothing’s Changed and Sujatta Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue are discussed as part of a commendable attempt to decolonize the KS4 learning programme. This is to be applauded and BAME communities welcome the effort to address the current imbalance of cultural diversity. However, these rays of light are often undermined by the Gradgrind-style of teaching and learning fostered by the DFE’s cult of testing and examination.
If a true decolonisation of the curriculum is to happen then several measures need to be put in place. We need a space where an ‘unlearning’ of the hegemonic historical narrative can take place. We need more Equality and Diversity training rather than the current regime of one day every six months that can become a token gesture that skirts a more serious problem. The teachers themselves need to have the opportunity to return to the classroom in conjunction with higher education institutes, and rethink the narrative the Tories want them to deliver. Many educators feel a lack of knowledge in aspects of black and Asian history. This gap can only be filled with a new emphasis on programmes of professional development that reduce the administrative duties forced on them. As the current school system is already overburdened with monotonous monitoring and is close to collapse, a decrease in teaching duties is necessary, otherwise the status quo will continue. Only be the intervention of a radical rethink of priorities can overhaul the current system and allow for a decolonisation of the curriculum.
A decolonisation of curricula in higher education should mean many more modules on courses on black history. This would not only make for a more diverse course, but also allow BAME lecturers to take up posts in the sector. I am currently aware of numerous white lecturers teaching the slave era to lecture theatres full of black and Asian students. This is highly problematic and only serves to reinforce hierarchical prejudices. By employing BAME lecturers to teach on BAME subjects, not only would it diversify the teaching quota but also widen participation for students from this background.
As a BAME educator, I find the current GCSE English Language and Literature syllabus highly eurocentric, and almost traumatising in places. The texts that must be studied are a 19th Century novel, a piece of drama and poetry that have all been written from within the culture of the colonizers. There is little room for any teaching ‘outside the box’. For instance, there is barely any time to divert from the prescribed reading list and dive into a James Baldwin story or a Maya Angelou novella. The school timetable is rigidly controlled by the demands of external assessment and leaves little scope to study these authors and others like them. Pulling down statues in city squares can only be a start of the decolonising agenda - we must now pull down prejudice and stereotypes in the classroom.
Razia Parveen has a Phd in Postcolonialism, Culture and Identity. She is a supply teacher and an independent researcher in all matters regarding BAME identity, cultures and living in diaspora, and is the author of Recipes and Songs.