Colonialism, the campus and the canon: Introducing the ‘Postcolonial Education’ symposium

By Matthew Whittle, Teaching Fellow in English (Contemporary & Postcolonial), University of Leeds

In recent years, the call to ‘decolonise education’ across the globe has gained momentum and led to much contentious debate that has divided opinion. There are those who maintain that colonialism has permeated Universities in a manner that marginalises non-white perspectives and erases how curricula and the very architecture of the academy is bound up with the history and ideology of European colonial expansion. At the other end of the scale, critics of ‘decolonising education’ express a level of scepticism that in practice it amounts to a potential whitewashing of history, rather than allowing for a critical engagement with the entanglements between colonialism, the campus and the canon. The forth biannual Northern Postcolonial Network symposium on the theme of ‘Postcolonial Education’ (taking place in Leeds on Friday 17th June) will offer a welcoming atmosphere for scholars, students and the general public to think through these debates. Delegates and contributors are invited to consider the continuities and breaks in education with a global colonial past, and the implications of this for addressing issues such as race and migration in teaching, student experiences and the development of curricula today.

The present international focus on this issue can be traced back to a reeking bucket of human faeces that sat on the kerbside of a street in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, South Africa. As reported in The Guardian, on the morning of 9 March 2015, Chumani Maxwele – a student of political science at the University of Cape Town (UCT) – took a minibus out to Khayelitsha to pick up one of the buckets that whole families are forced to defecate in and leave on the street to be collected. Bringing it back to UCT, Maxwele hurled it at the statue of Cecil Rhodes which he walked past every day on the University campus. The act sought to draw attention to the enduring legacy of apartheid in South Africa and kick started the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which has since developed from successfully calling for the removal of the statue from UCT into attacks on institutional racism in Universities not only in Africa but also in the UK and the US.

Rhodes Must Fall

Students attack the defaced statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on 9 April 2015. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Inspired by events in Cape Town, students at the University of Oxford began their own campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College, supported by the Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign at the University of Cambridge. At the University of Leeds, students began the Why Is My Curriculum White? campaign as a means of questioning how the history of colonialism has shaped what is taught in the arts and humanities at degree level. Across the Atlantic, students within the Department of English at Yale have recently started a petition to abolish the study of dead white male poets as an introduction to literature and to ‘decolonize – not diversify’ the course’s foundational texts. At the Harvard Law School, Rhodes Must Fall influenced Royall Must Fall and the eventual scrapping of the School’s crest that was based on the family crest of Isaac Royall, an eighteenth-century slave owner. Encompassing all of these diverse campaigns is the desire to highlight the overt and covert manifestations of colonial ideologies in a post-colonial world. As Ama Biney has commented: ‘The project of genuinely decolonizing the university must be part of an inclusive task to transform the wider society of which the academy is an integral part. It is a long term undertaking which surely starts with the audacity to name the elephant in the room: white supremacy’.

This is no doubt an important and urgent development; yet, there are those who are also sceptical that the process of activist-led transformation negates the need for debate. Removing statues from campuses and texts from curricula is not, many argue, the same as challenging the history of white male supremacy. Responding to the petition at Yale, for instance, Katy Waldman has maintained that, ‘The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it. […] [It is not possible] to reckon with the racist, sexist, colonist poets who comprise the canon – and to transcend their failures – via a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy’. At the heart of a University education, this argument runs, is a dynamic and critical engagement with the discourses of racism, sexism and homophobia, which is not well served by a complete disavowal of the dominant forms of cultural production that have informed – and were informed by – such discourses.

An overhaul of the canon as we know it, moreover, has the potential to disregard the influence of canonical writers upon postcolonial, feminist and Decolonising_the_Mind_coverqueer studies. The call to ‘decolonise’ has its intellectual roots in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s seminal 1986 text Decolonising the Mind, which foregrounds the need to view the process of decolonisation as more than a political act. Peter J. Kalliney’s recent book Commonwealth of Letters gives just one example of the surprising impact upon Ngũgĩ and his friend Kamau Brathwaite of the work of F.R. Leavis, a dead white male who notoriously championed the ‘Great Tradition’ of dead, white (mostly male) writers. This suggests that to fully appreciate marginalised literatures and histories it is necessary to first have an understanding of the traditions that they are writing in and against.

The Northern Postcolonial Network is dedicated to providing a forum for convivial exchanges relating to the most important issues facing the field of postcolonial studies today. The ‘Postcolonial Education’ symposium will include roundtable discussions with postgraduates and academics from the UK, Africa and Asia on the formative role of education for colonial rule and contemporary approaches to teaching postcolonialism within the academy. The day will also include poetry readings from Malika Booker and the Leeds Young Authors, a screening of the film Sugar Cane Alley, and the launch of forthcoming special issues of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. We hope that this wide-ranging event will contribute to and help progress discussion of the intertwined histories of colonialism and education.

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