Decolonising the Curriculum? Reflecting on Possibilities and Contradictions at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience

Collectively Written Black History Month, Critical reflections

History matters. Black History Matters and it shapes the present and the future. That is one of the primary premises of the movement to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. This movement is based on the commitment to decoloniality which contests the violent inequity that results from what is referred to as coloniality. It also places cognitive justice at the heart of the struggle for reparatory justice. 

This article is written based on reflective workshop as a part of Black History Month at the Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience 

Colonization refers to the historical physical occupation of land and the subjugation (if not the genocidal displacement) of predominantly black peoples, indigenous peoples and other people of color by Europeans approximately starting in 1500. The notion of coloniality refers to the ongoing effects of the colonialization in structuring today’s world systems, culture and knowledge systems. Coloniality is characterized by the omnipresence of racist, patriarchal, heteronormative and Eurocentric orderings in social and material life.  

Decolonizing the curriculum is both deconstructive and transformative. On the one hand, it is about recognizing and dismantling how coloniality shapes knowledge and academia. On the other, it is transformative as it is about centering the voices, agency and power of Black learners, teachers, ways of knowing and cultures in learning and pedagogy. Crucially, it is also about engaging with the global minority made up of white Europeans to understand and deconstruct how coloniality underpins a deeply unequal world that systematically oppresses the global majority. 

The movement to decolonise the curriculum at universities has gained momentum through Black-led campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall and Why is my Curriculum White? Yet universities have always been and continue to be profoundly shaped by coloniality and are deeply contradictory sites to advance decolonisation 

“It was in universities that colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for the dispossession, oppression and domination of colonised subjects.” (Bhambra 2020:5). 

Today, western epistemologies hold a monopoly in Universities, white male bodies are dominant in positions of power and the burden for calling out and addressing ‘racisms, diversity and inclusion’ is often shouldered by black and ethnic minorities and women. Curriculum often reflects what Freire (1993) refers to as a ‘banking style’ of education that delegitimizes the knowledge, lives and cultures that students embody in a classroom. When this one-way process is dominated by white men (e.g. less than 6% of professors in the USA and less than 1% in the UK are Black) and when most readings and resources in the curriculum are authored by white men, it reflects a cultural hegemony that reinforces the coloniality of knowledge and power. 

So, can universities be decolonised? On many levels, this seems to be a contradiction. This was one of the questions discussed at a workshop held at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University as a part of Black History Month. As a community of praxis, we have been reflexively working through our own relationship to coloniality as well as how to participate in and contribute to the decolonise the curriculum movement. We clearly have a long way to go. 

In discussing the pedagogy of decoloniality, human rights and anti-racism leader Gus John, provided some preliminary remarks to our interactive workshop. He shared how, One size fits all approaches to teaching and learning is leaving people behind. He asked, Instead, how do we enable students and teachers to bring the totality of their experience into a curriculum that we have not yet even imagined. Rather than a fixed curriculum, we can create a learning community with these perspectives and help provide analytical tools to students and staff so they feel confident to bring the lifeworlds and experiences that they are often told to leave behind to study and teach at universities. 

There are a range of black-led interventions and processes underway that have generated useful points of reference and learning for anyone interested in engaging with/in decolonial pedagogy in a university setting. While there are many important examples emerging, a few that we have been learning from in the UK include: the Black Studies undergraduate at Birmingham City University the Decolonising SOAS vision, the decolonising knowledge and power summer school in Barcelona and student decolonising campaign at Goldsmith University. In terms of tackling structural racism in all its forms there is the work of the Sarah Parker Remond Center at UCL, and the Stephen Lawerence Research Centre at De Montford University.  

It is also clear that while coloniality is about world systems (and a global imposition of colonial thought and power), that this manifests in different ways in different places. Movements for decoloniality will thus look different and have different language, tactics, and approaches in settler-colonial states (e.g. Canada), former colonies (e.g. in Africa) and in European countries (e.g. in the UK). And, of course, there are many differences between peoples and places within and across these distinctions. 

As Gus continued to share his insights, he pointed out that,Decolonising the curriculum requires decolonising the institution.” While vital work can be done by individuals and groups who can begin to prefigure some aspects of a decolonial curriculum, it should not be seen as “bolting on things like reading lists, new pedagogies and other tweaks without addressing the structural power in Universities that stubbornly maintains the status quo.  

He articulated how people and communities are already grappling with these issues in concrete ways and are in the thick of struggles for decolonisation (even if they don’t call them that). The Saturday School/Supplementary Education movement that has existed in the African Caribbean community since the 1960s is a case in point.   

Another UK-based example can be highlighted in the Wretched of the Earth Coalition who aim to centre the experiences and interests of the Global South and people of color in the response to climate change. In 2019, hey published an open letter to Extinction Rebellion highlighting the need to decolonize the movement and bring issues of class, racism and capitalism into the foreground.  

While fraught, we turned our discusssion to the role of people based in academy in enabling self-actualization in communities through decolonial approaches to research and learning, rather than ‘feeding’ off them. 

Gus went on to argue that, we must work creatively in universities, but the scope of decoloniality must go beyond the Global North/Global South binary and look, for example, at the nature of the nation state, how workingclass communities have been marginalized in the education system and denied knowledge of their own history, how women had to struggle to make their demands heard, etc. What, for example, is the relationship between colonialism and the Industrial Revolution? 

As we wrapped up the session, Geraldine Brown, reminded us all that, while decolonising the curriculum is often taken up in universities in intellectual ways, decoloniality is for many about life and death. Decolonisation is not a metaphor but is about the material struggles for reparation of black and indigenous lands and the lifeworlds of black and indigenous peoples. It is not something to toy with in the privileged spaces of academia but is a challenge to those in academia to decenter themselves, to transform the ivory tower and to support the struggles of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color. Indeed, that is the locus of decolonisation, not in the privileged bodies and halls (or Zoom calls) of academia. 


Click here to access our own current ‘resource list’ on Decolonising Universities and Curriculum. 


Written by: Colin Anderson, Geraldine Brown, Gus John, Jessica Milgroom, Jasber Singh (alphabetical order)