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Forget About Decolonizing the Curriculum. We Need to Restore the West’s Telos Before it’s Too Late

The campaign by left-wing student protestors and some faculty to force Western universities to “decolonize the curriculum” has been surprisingly successful. A movement that started at the University of Cape Town in 2015, with the demand that the city’s university remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes—“Rhodes Must Fall”—quickly made its way to the U.K., with student activists calling for his statue at Oriel College, Oxford to be taken down. At its heart, the movement seeks to challenge what it characterizes as the dominance of the Western canon in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the under-representation of women and minorities in academia. It also, like many movements inspired by critical theory, maintains that a person’s beliefs and worldview are largely determined by their skin color, sexual orientation and gender.

In a society “still shaped by a long colonial history in which straight white upper-class men are at the top of the social order,” argues Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University lecturer, “most disciplines give disproportionate prominence to the experiences, concerns and achievements of this one group.” In one of the keys texts of the movement, “students, activists and scholars” are warned about “the pitfalls of doing decolonial work in the home of the coloniser, in the heart of the establishment.” Rallying activists and academics, the movement seeks to subvert “curricula” and enforce “diversity” while “destroying old boundaries.” In short, it is a “radical call for a new era of education. Offering resources for students and academics to challenge and resist coloniality inside and outside the classroom.”

In a bizarre turn of events, this movement now enjoys the endorsement of the British Royal Family. In February 2019, on a visit to a London University, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, lent her weight to the movement, having had her eyes opened by a presentation about the relatively small number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff within the U.K. higher education sector. According to the Times, the Duchess visited City University in London in her capacity as the patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and responded to the presentation by announcing that Britain’s universities need to “open up that conversation so we are talking about it as opposed to continuing with that daily rote . . . sometimes that approach can be really antiquated and needs an update.” When presented with evidence about the lack of black and female professors in British universities she reportedly exclaimed, “Oh my God!” One of the organizers, Meera Sabaratnam, said it was “wonderful to see the Duchess standing up for female equality” as many “of the issues around racial equality are similar and it is great to see her embrace this. Change is long overdue.”

The Duchess’s call for British universities to “decolonize the curriculum” may well become the policy of the British Labour Party, and potentially the U.K.’s next government. Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, recently made a similar observation to the Duchess: “Like much of our establishment, our universities are too male, pale and stale and do not represent the communities that they serve or modern Britain,” she told the University and College Union conference earlier this month. If Labour comes to power, she said she would use the powers of the newly-established Office for Students to address this shortcoming. For Rayner, U.K. universities must “do much more, and under Labour they will be held to account.”

So, what to make of this movement and its seemingly unstoppable momentum? 

First, it is bizarre to claim that Britain’s universities are the last bastions of Empire. This conjures up images of dusty old white men (male, pale and stale) engaged in a conspiracy to ensure “non-Western” viewpoints are de-legitimized, with reading lists populated exclusively by straight white male authors, and people of color and women locked out of the academy. In fact, the humanities and social sciences departments across the Anglosphere are nearly all highly progressive and steeped in critical theory. From Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Western Orientalism and Marxist critiques of capitalist imperialism, through to the postmodern deconstructions of “Western hegemony” by thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, the humanities and social sciences are completely saturated with critical theories designed to decenter knowledge and deconstruct the Western canon.

If the movement is “doing decolonial work in the home of the colonizer, in the heart of the establishment” where are the courses that reproduce these iniquitous power relationships? A far bigger challenge would be to find a single British university offering any course, anywhere, that does not regurgitate the dominant narrative of Western malignancy and provide theoretical frameworks that are explicitly dedicated to critiquing the “othering” of non-Western cultures and societies. If, as Priyamvada Gopal asserts, most disciplines give disproportionate prominence to the experiences, concerns and achievements of upper-class white men, and reflect their “colonialist” viewpoint, how do we explain not only the overwhelming profusion of critical narratives on Western history and statecraft, but the flourishing of these courses in what is claimed to be a culture of deeply embedded racism? 

Second, the data used to underpin the claims presented to Meghan Markle, and those now informing the Labour Party’s higher education policy, are highly selective and do not support the assertions being made. The data presented to the Duchess were drawn from a report by Advance HE, a government-funded think tank. However, when we examine the data in the report, they show that:

between 2003/04 and 2016/17, the proportion of all [academic] staff who were U.K. white steadily decreased (from 83.1% to 73.0%), while all other groups increased… the proportion of all staff who were U.K. BME increased from 4.8% to 7.6%, and the proportion of non-U.K. BME staff from 3.8 to 5.5%.

If U.K. universities are bastions of white privilege, how can we explain this trend? At Professorial level (the data that shocked the Duchess the most), the report says that among “U.K. academics, the difference in proportions between white professors (11.2%) and BME professors (9.7 percent) was small at 1.5 percentage points.” What the data does show is, in fact, the incredible diversity and richness of faculty throughout U.K. academic institutions, one of the reasons they remain so attractive to some of the world’s best and brightest. This is something to be celebrated and is evidence of the meritocratic hiring practices of our higher education institutions, one of the reasons the U.K. boasts four of the world’s top 10 universities. (Britain’s colleges are also ranked number one in 13 out of 48 subjects in the global university rankings.) Given all this, how do we account for the popular misconception that sees racism and racial dominance by upper class white men as a core characteristic of British academia?

Historically, the decolonize movement is often highly selective in which facts it chooses to highlight. At its heart are the sins of Western imperialism and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. It is right to explore these subjects. They form a key part of the development of the modern world. However, the protestors seek to stigmatize members of an entire racial group for the misdeeds of a tiny minority of British aristocrats from centuries ago who share their skin color. Isn’t that a form of racism?

On a deeper level, the decolonize narrative draws on a broader tradition in Western culture that enjoys wide purchase. Pascal Bruckner in The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (2006) identifies this as a deeply ingrained sense of guilt. This guilt feeds a paternalistic narcissism that is one of the defining characteristics of a certain breed of Western intellectual who are, in Bruckner’s words, “endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity.” He continues: how “can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification.” Like a modern-day secular religion, the decolonize movement emerges from a deeper strain within modern identity politics and Western culture: one of endless self-flagellation for sins that ultimately can never be atoned for and makes the West the font of all evil.

The real historical record is far more mixed. To understand the British Empire and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, we must also acknowledge the role that the British state played in abolishing slavery. As Peter Grindal documents in Opposing the Slavers: The Royal Navy’s Campaign Against the Atlantic Slave Trade (2016), it took 60 years for the British government to finally suppress the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Brazilian slave trade. We must also recognize that in nearly all states and civilizations (whether the African kingdoms, the Islamic Barbary states, and so on) slavery and colonization have been the norm, not the exception.

Insofar as Britain and the United States are exceptional, it is because they gave birth to the movements to end slavery, often at great cost, with hundreds of thousands of young men—male and pale—sacrificing their lives to end slavery in the American Civil War. They’re exceptional, too, in wanting to atone for it—there’s no decolonize movement in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the centers of the Barbary slave trade between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Post-colonial guilt is so deeply hardwired among the West’s progressive elite that if we ask “What is an Empire?” it will invariably conjure the image of Western empires, usually British but sometimes Greek or Roman. However, ask most academics what their opinion of Ottoman imperialism is, or the what they think about the effects of the Islamic conquest of huge swathes of Europe, or the impact of Barbary slavery on European civilization (at its height, millions of Europeans were under bondage), and you will almost certainly draw a blank! This knowledge has an even fainter footprint among the general population. In short, rather than U.K. universities acting as apologists for British and American colonialism, they stretch every sinew to persuade students that slavery is a uniquely Western sin.

Perhaps more telling when it comes to the one-sidedness of progressive narratives about slavery is the complete indifference of the decolonize movement to modern day slavery. The Global Slavery Index says that an “estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labor and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage. Women and girls are vastly over-represented, making up 71 percent of victims. Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by the Asia and the Pacific region.” If Western intellectuals really are determined to atone for the transatlantic slave trade, wouldn’t their efforts be better spent on campaigns to end this disgusting trade in human souls that disproportionately affects women and young girls of color in the here and now?

This leads to my final point. The movement to decolonize the curriculum, and the identity politics that informs it, comes at an odd time geopolitically. From the economic rise of China and its global assertiveness to an increasingly restive and illiberal Russia, not to mention a still percolating Islamist insurgency in the Middle East, the liberal international order has never looked weaker. Although Western-created, this order, knitted together by a range of global institutions, has provided the context for worldwide economic development and the stunning rise of a new global middle class, mainly located in the developing world. For instance, in Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality (2011), Branko Milanovic charts the astonishing rise of a new middle class in East Asia. Between 1988 and 2008 per capita income tripled in urban China and doubled in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, with rural incomes rising by 80 percent.

Alongside this economic power comes military power, with China now expanding globally, not least in Africa, while asserting its military dominance regionally. Much like the decolonize movement, these states and their leaders all share a deep sense of grievance against the West, based on their understanding of modern history. These grievances run from China’s desire to resume its natural place as a great power and correct the wrongs of British imperialism, Russia’s interest in reversing the humiliation of the post-Cold War settlement imposed on it by the West, and the Islamists wishing to strike back against the West and forge a new global caliphate.

If we accept that one of the prerequisites for the rise of these anti-Western states and movements is a degree of confidence and civilizational purpose, or what we might call a “telos,” what does the West now offer to counter these highly illiberal, often authoritarian and in some cases actively genocidal states and social forces? What is the social glue that holds us together with a common purpose to defend our shared institutional order, and upon which our rights and freedoms (all highly fragile and historically contingent) now rest?

I would suggest that the desire among the progressive professoriat to neuter the West, to reduce its power, to deconstruct its narratives, to challenge its philosophy and overthrow its institutional order, is an impulse rooted in an earlier and more geopolitically stable time when less was at stake. The West’s long post-war boom, which helped fund the welfare state and universities throughout Europe, provided the post-1968 generation of left-wing intellectuals (the architects of today’s Social Justice movements) with a false sense of security. They could call for revolution in the hope that if their dreams of social upheaval ever materialized, the West could then become a benign force of global change, helping the rest of the world become a kind of socialist Shangri-la. Now, if they succeed, the effect won’t be to transform other regional powers into Scandinavian-style social democracies, but for those regional powers to transform Britain and America—and most of Europe, too—into dysfunctional, authoritarian kleptocracies, punctuated by the occasional bout of ideological bloodletting.

Be careful what you wish for, Meghan Markle. If the statues begin to fall, they may well fall on you.


Doug Stokes is a professor in international security and strategy in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter.

Feature photo: New York, United States. 08th Oct, 2018. Activists from New York’s Indigenous and Black communities, along with decolonial advocates led the 3rd annual “Anti-Columbus Day Tour” at the American Museum of Natural History. Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News