Since 2015, universities across the Western world have played host to campaigns to “decolonize” various curricula, meaning mounting a challenge to “the dominance of the Western canon in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the under-representation of women and minorities in academia.”
The genesis of the movement, according to Doug Stokes writing in Quillette, was activists at South Africa’s University of Cape Town demanding the statue of Cecil Rhodes be taken down (the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement). The philosophy quickly moved on to the United Kingdom and the United States.
A “radical call for a new era of education,” decolonization is (unsurprisingly) heavily influenced by critical theory and studies which hold that a “person’s beliefs and worldview are largely determined by their skin color, sexual orientation and gender.” The movement is now endorsed by the British Royal Family and “may well become” policy under a Labour Party government.
But are UK and US (and other) universities truly “the last bastions” of straight white male hegemony as claimed by the decolonizers?
Such a belief is “bizarre,” Stokes says. “In fact, the humanities and social sciences departments across the Anglosphere are nearly all highly progressive and steeped in critical theory.”
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? …
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?
If we examine the depravity of slavery, Stokes says, so too must we investigate the role the West played in its abolition. For example, Britain worked for over half a century to quash the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch slave trade; in the United States, hundreds of thousands of (white) soldiers perished while fighting to end slavery.
Stokes asks, “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?”