Decolonisation is not ‘censorship’, says professor

Michelle Donelan has misunderstood “academic debate and of the nature of a curriculum”, according to one professor

The likening of decolonisation in academia to Soviet-style censorship by the universities minister is “worrying politicisation of higher education”, according to a professor of postcolonial and decolonial studies.

Minister Michelle Donelan discussed efforts to ‘decolonise’ history curriculums at universities in a podcast produced by The Telegraph called Chopper’s Politics. She said: “The so-called decolonisation of the curriculum is, in effect, censoring history.”

This censoring of history “doesn’t work”, Donelan said, adding: “Look at the Soviet Union, look at China. There are multiple examples where it’s been tried.”

Gurminder K Bhambra, a professor at the University of Sussex, wrote a column for the Council for the Defence of British Universities – a not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote academic freedom in research and teaching – that criticised these comments.

“Her intervention is a worrying politicisation of higher education,” Prof Bhambra wrote. “It involves a misunderstanding both of academic debate and of the nature of a curriculum. In particular, her comments demonstrate a general failure to understand processes of change in the production of knowledge.”

Prof Bhambra likened the arts, humanities and social sciences with the sciences that “argue that knowledge proceeds through changing previous selections”. Decolonising curricula was not preoccupied with “removing colonial histories from the curriculum, but rather about taking such histories into account”, Prof Bhambra said.

Prof Bhambra said that the concealment of atrocities committed during the Empire – rather than the decolonising of curriculums – was “more appropriately understood as ‘Soviet-style censorship'”. Prof Bhambra referred to the revelation in 2013, following the declassification of Foreign Office archives, that a British civil servant ordered the destruction of documents pertaining to atrocities committed during the Empire in 1961.

Donelan said that “as a history student […] I’m a vehement protector and champion of safeguarding our history. It otherwise becomes fiction, if you start editing it, taking bits out that we view as stains”. Dr Bhambra that argued decolonising aims to examine “those stains”.

Most of the narrative that is coming out … is about removing elements of history, about whitewashing it and pretending that it never happened, which I just think is naive and almost irresponsible
Michelle Donelan

“A fundamental part of our history is about learning from it, not repeating the mistakes, being able to analyse and challenge why those events happened, how those decisions were made so that we don’t repeat those actions in the future,” Donelan said.

She added: “If we’re going down this road of taking bits out, are we then going to end up putting bits in that we wish had happened?

“It’s a very dangerous and odd road to go down, and certainly it has no place in our universities, I would argue, and it has no place in academic study.

“And it just doesn’t work when governments try to remove elements of history. Look at the Soviet Union, look at China. There are multiple examples where it’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

“I’m all in favour of adding stuff in to enriching our understanding of history, to adding in sources from less well known and often overlooked individuals in history.

“Let’s enrich our understanding and give our young people a fuller picture and a fuller and deeper understanding of our history.

“But most of the narrative that is coming out … is about removing elements of history, about whitewashing it and pretending that it never happened, which I just think is naive and almost irresponsible.”

“A lot of the talk of the de-colonisation is actually removing those elements, it’s not about packing in extra into history.

“And when you look at people that are saying that our study is wrong in the UK, you don’t often hear them talking about just enriching the sources that are used for students to study from it, it’s about removing certain texts and books and replacing them with alternatives.

“And I also feel sorry for the students here, I mean, students want to actually properly learn and if we’re adding stuff in, brilliant, but taking it out is not going to achieve them learning.”

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