Author: Liam Greenslade, Project Officer – Canterbury Christ Church University
In October 2017 a large photograph of Cambridge University Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi appeared on the front page of the Daily Telegraph beneath the headline ‘Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors’. The article inside referred to a petition she had submitted on behalf of over 150 people, to ask that the curriculum included ‘postcolonial or BME authors’, as it was in danger of ‘perpetuating institutional racism.’
The accusatory tone taken by the newspaper was subject to significant criticism in social media, not least because it seemed to invite readers to attack Ms Olufemi personally. Under pressure from students, academics, and politicians who expressed their support for Ms Olufemi, the paper was eventually forced to publish an apology and retraction.
The Telegraph’s hysterical and, as it turned out, inaccurate attack on Olufemi represents the latest stage in a tense dialogue which has become increasingly significant in British universities over the past decade or so. It reflects concerns regarding the relationship of the country’s history as a colonial power, and the many injustices that history entailed, to the diverse make-up of the contemporary student body.
It is a discussion which raises questions of content, emphasis and understanding, or the lack of it, about the status and authority of the voices and discourses at play in the modern university. For its proponents the task of decolonising the university curriculum is a critical project aimed at improving the quality of the curriculum by critiquing its narrow eurocentrism and its implicit privileging of a largely white, male, and middle class point of view in the description, analysis and perception of the world.
Shortly after this incident I was invited by the Sociology programme to participate in an ‘awayday’ for faculty members of the School of Psychology Politics and Sociology at the University of Canterbury Christ Church. Awaydays are often organised at Canterbury as a developmental means of bringing colleagues together to engage in general discussion and debate around a given theme of relevance to the processes underpinning their pedagogic practice.
My role in this was to provide an overview of the Changing Mindsets project and indicate linkages between elements of the project and the wider the project of decolonising the university curriculum.
Despite the project’s emphasis on individual psychological variables, such as mindset and intelligence, the latter being a particularly troublesome concept in the decolonisation framework (e.g. Chitty, 2007), and its focus on adapting and changing the attitudes and behaviours of individuals towards academic work, there are nonetheless a number of points of engagement with the structural and social historical approach taken by advocates of the decolonised curriculum.
As Gopal (2017) puts it
“Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning… Knowledge and culture is (sic) collectively produced and these groups, which intersect in different ways, have as much right as elite white men to understand what their own role has been in forging artistic and intellectual achievements.”
In this context, it is in fact possible to see the whole process of changing mindsets and its components as linked to a wider set of structural effects and practices which inhibit the enabling of ‘self-understanding’ alluded to by Gopal.
One way of conceptualising this is to view the relationship between fixed mindsets, implicit bias, and stereotype threat as elements in a communication process. Unexamined, tacitly or explicitly communicated implicit biases can re-inforce the experience of stereotype threat which in turn discourage students from developing the challenge-embracing attitudes and behaviours needed for acquiring a growth mindset.
Their ‘resistance’ to change is then interpreted as a characteristic of their group membership which further confirms the tacit biases and beliefs surrounding that group, and so on. In this view, some groups’ collective responses to messages in that circuit contribute to what Pearl (1991) described as a ‘cultural and accumulated environment deficit model’ of those groups which in turn leads to sweeping generalisations about their shortcomings and the problem they present as learners. For example, one colleague overheard another describing a certain minority group as ‘lacking a culture of learning’, the pedagogic problem being one of providing an effective response to that deficit.
The colonised curriculum can be seen as a characterizing element of the communicative ecology or structural context in which learning (or the lack of it) occurs. Or, in more overtly sociological terms, a structuring element of the pedagogical ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977) in which our students learn to act. Habitus is a particularly useful concept in this context. According to Bourdieu, habitus shapes our expectations and aspirations according to what we perceive implicitly as the probabilities of success and failure in the world about us. The world which Bourdieu describes is one in which the self-fulfilling prophecy plays a significant role (Swartz, 2002). Our implicit understandings shape our choices for acting in much the same way that our implicit biases shape our perceptions of others.
Moreover, as Nash (1990, p.432-3) points out, the habitus is
“… a system of durable dispositions inculcated by objective structural conditions, but since it is embodied the habitus gains a history and generates its practices for some time even when the objective conditions which gave rise to it have disappeared.”
Thus, Britain may no longer be a colonial power, but the history of colonialism and its impact linger on, playing an important constitutive role in the implicit biases of pedagogy. The defensive response to Lola Olufemi’s letter described at the start of this piece leaves no doubt about that.
These ‘durable dispositions’ emerge in the elisions and selections which are made implicitly by lecturers: white only or male only reading lists, the absence of explicit acknowledgement of the contributions of non-Europeans, women, and working class people to the content of our disciplines. Our choice of texts and authors, the perspective from which we position our analyses, and our ideas of history and culture are rarely reflected upon in the process of compiling and delivering content to students.
We teach what we were taught, often in much the same way we were taught it, even though the recipients of that teaching have changed significantly. And if their reactions are under-performance arising from stereotype threat, alienated withdrawal from academic challenges, self-segregation within the academic space, and careless microaggressions resulting from our implicit biases and lack of understanding, then the onus is on us, not them, to put matters right. If we want our students to acquire growth mindsets, then we have to address the challenge decolonising the curriculum presents to our own fixity of mind.
In the second part of this blog, I shall return to the practical issues which face us in un-fixing our mindsets and how the growth mindsets approach can help with that task.
Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chitty, E (2007) Eugenics, race and intelligence in education London: Bloomsbury
Gopal P (2017) ‘Yes, we must decolonise: our teaching has to go beyond elite white men’ The Guardian October 27. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/27/decolonise-elite-white-men-decolonising-cambridge-university-english-curriculum-literature Accessed 01/02/17.
Nash, R (1990) Bourdieu on education and social and cultural reproduction British Journal of Sociology of Education, 11( 4), pp. 431-447
Pearl, A. (1997) ‘Cultural and accumulated environmental deficit models’ In Valencia, R.R. (ed) The evolution of deficit thinking: educational thought and practice London: Falmer Press. pp. 132-159
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.