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Why the Eurocentricity of university English courses needs to be challenged

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While foundational figures such as Shakespeare, Pope, or Byron are undoubtedly important to an understanding of the history of English literature, the exclusion of black and ethnic minority (BME) writers needs to be identified and challenged.

As a prospective or current English student in higher education, it is difficult to ignore the Eurocentricity of the university curriculum.

British universities’ English courses are overwhelmingly white, almost entirely structured around the literature of white authors and European thinkers.

Indeed white male authors such as Homer, Eliot, and Shakespeare feature majorly on the compulsory components of the curriculum and, at best, there are opportunities to study outside this sphere in limited optional modules such as African literature, colonialism, and gender and sexuality.

The issue is deep-rooted and can be traced back to the structure of primary and secondary education where global history, and not just the history of literature, is taught from an exclusively British perspective.

This colonial lens is carried through into higher education, realised in the curriculum’s narrow focus upon the British canon, which is notoriously historically problematic in writing out the works of BME writers and female authors.

By exclusively focusing on literature, art, and film created by white European authors, universities' syllabuses reinforce a single colonial perspective of literary and global history, contradicting the basic premise of higher education.

How can students, as per the aims of their course, think critically and interrogate assumptions, meanings, and perspectives when their curriculum does not include the long history of English literature composed by black and minority authors?

“Decolonising” the curriculum does not mean that foundational authors such as Shakespeare should be excluded from university syllabus, but it instead demands more serious attention and weight should be afforded to the literature of BME authors and thinkers of the global south, in order to enhance students’ perspectives and intellectual thoughts.

Tellingly, university students have called for the diversification of English courses at British universities on more than one occasion.

In 2004, students at University College of London (UCL) initiated a campaign named 'Why is my curriculum white?' attracting national attention to the lack of representation afforded to BME authors in the curriculum.

More than a decade later, in 2017, 150 students at Cambridge University followed suit by signing an open letter titled ‘Decolonising the English Faculty’.

The letter, written by Lola Olufemi, the Student Union women’s officer at the time, calls for a change in the elevation of white male authors on the syllabus of one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

In the letter, Olufemi states: “As a whole, [the curriculum] risks perpetuating institutional racism.”

Their concerns echo that of the first black woman to be president of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouatia, who stated in an interview with the Guardian in September 2016 that BME students are “being forced to engage with content that doesn’t relate to them, and perhaps is psychologically destructive.”

Their comments prove that furthering the representation of BME authors on the curriculum is not just about widening perspectives but also crucial to challenging structural inequalities in the higher education system and questioning the colonial ideologies behind our reluctance to stray from the “traditional” British canon of literature.

English courses could also benefit from the inclusion of non-European literature and literary traditions, for instance, the long and rich history of oral tradition and community-based story-telling in West African countries such as Somalia.

By broadening the curriculum to include the artistry and traditions of different communities around the world, students’ learning could be enhanced by analysing how other cultures’ literary traditions are related or opposed to more exclusively canonical literature.

The diversification or “decolonisation” of the curriculum will not happen overnight, but, nevertheless, practical change can be put into place by introducing lectures which invite intellectual discussion of colonialism in the history of English literature or encourage students to employ different perspectives and by increasing the representation of BME authors and non-European literary traditions in compulsory modules.

In doing so, universities can create significant dialogue about race, class, and gender, and encourage students to challenge the colonial ideologies which continue to permeate the curriculum.

Lead image: Suzy Hazelwood

Image: Abby Chung

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