"it seems that their promise to “decolonise the curriculum” was just empty words"Noella Chye

At my Cambridge interview, I was asked, “what is the one thing human beings have always done?” The answer – one I didn’t know at the time – was simple: humans have always told stories. Based on the Cambridge English syllabus, however, it seems to be only white males who tell stories – and perhaps (albeit rarely) some privileged, white women.

The argument that Cambridge needs to decolonise the curriculum is not a new one. What is new is that Cambridge now seems to market itself as being on the way to accomplishing this. When I joined Cambridge, the English Faculty Library was plastered with posters and information leaflets about how the English syllabus was in the process of being “decolonised”.

There were articles and reports on the Faculty website about the University’s efforts to broaden and diversify the curriculum. It seemed then that the Faculty had been listening.

In reality, tangible changes are barely visible. Two years later, and the aforementioned reports have disappeared from the website entirely. Two years later, I am ashamed to say that I have not studied even one non-white author in detail. Two years later, with hindsight and with more experience of the University, it seems that their promise to “decolonise the curriculum” was just empty words. The decolonise rhetoric has been adopted and appropriated, with little meaningful impact on faculty reading lists.

The University has a responsibility to all of its students to make sure that their voices, and the voices of their history, are heard – not just its white ones

There are few papers at present which facilitate study outside of a Eurocentric view, for example, the Postcolonial paper, which is optional, and only available in your third year. Having a single optional paper in the curriculum which deviates from the narrow norm is not decolonisation: it is tokenism.

I recognise postcolonial works can, in theory, be studied as part of Paper 7b (which covers the period 1870-present). But given that the Part I syllabus also makes eight weeks of Shakespeare compulsory, surely at least some of this two-year syllabus could be centred on the voices of non-white writers? At present this is barely even an option.

The English Tripos is marketed as flexible and accommodating. The faculty website boasts that such a “broad” structure ensures students “try many things” - referring to the range of genres we come in contact with. While in theory students may study whatever they choose, in practice, the reality is quite the opposite. The decentralised nature of the University means that what we study often hinges on the choices of individual supervisors.

While studying for one of my papers, I wondered why my supervisor decided to dedicate separate weeks to Pope, Swift, Defoe, Fielding, and Sterne. I wondered why, in such a broad, varied and complex paper – one which covers nearly two hundred years – we were focusing on a range of white men from similar backgrounds, who ultimately held similar perspectives.

The misrepresentation and side-lining of non-white authors has the potential to create an exclusionary and alienating atmosphere

While focusing on white, male authors may make a predominantly white cohort of academics and students feel comfortable or perhaps more intelligent, it cannot be claimed to make a rigorous or comprehensive course. Such narrow reading is sometimes, in fact, simply a reaffirmation of pre-existing biases.

Being white, I am privileged in that the main way the course’s failures affect me is providing a myopic and biased knowledge base. To some of my peers, the University’s failures are far more insidious. The misrepresentation and side-lining of non-white authors has the potential to perpetuate institutional racism, as well as creating an exclusionary and alienating atmosphere. The University has a responsibility to all of its students to make sure that their voices, and the voices of their history, are heard – not just its white ones.


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Mountain View

Decolonisation efforts branch out across faculties

We must ensure that the Faculty listens to the continuing work of students and members of the University. Sadly, calls for decolonisation, as we have seen, have been too easily swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Cambridge is already a University which is rooted – sometimes appropriately, sometimes not, and sometimes to its own disadvantage – in its own traditions.

The curriculum is one place where it need not be, and should not be. If the University is to continue to claim academic breadth and rigour, its courses need to expand to include non-white voices, rather than focusing on a biased and inaccurate historical view. This is one place where the University can change, and it’s time those changes finally happen.

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