For too long our schools and universities have excluded people of colour from the canon of great writers. All students, whatever their heritage, should be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read. In our increasingly diverse society that means that Plato and Socrates, Locke and Hume, Dante and Dickens – just some on the roll call of ‘dead white men’ – should be taken down from their pedestals to make room for others. That’s the argument made by advocates of decolonising the curriculum. Many of these campaigners don’t want to entirely eliminate white men from the reading lists. In their view it’s more about acknowledging how racism and colonialism have shaped our past and present and making learning relevant to the cultures and identities of the young people being taught.
But others strongly oppose this campaign and believe that it fundamentally misunderstands the value of the great writing of the past. While they welcome a curriculum that includes such names as Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison, they do so because these are great writers who touch on something universal, not because of their ethnicity or identity. We cannot understand who we are today, they argue, unless we understand where we’ve come from, and that means we need to keep studying the great men of the past, even if some of them – like the Enlightenment thinkers Kant and Hume – had racist ideas that most people today find deeply abhorrent. After all, they claim, it was Enlightenment ideas about universal human dignity that led to the condemnation of slavery and racism, and indeed fed into the progressive values that drive the decolonising campaigners today.
Join us on June 7 as Jeffrey Boakye, former English teacher and author of the acclaimed memoir I Heard What You Said, and journalist Tomiwa Owolade discuss and debate this timely topic.