Cambridge University in England. Photo: Mark Fosh

Sadly, it goes without saying that Cambridge is a pretty white place to study. Everything from its elite, largely privately-educated student body, to its Euro-centric syllabus, to the cracked, pale-faced portraits that line the walls of its dining halls signify the ultimate whiteness of the place. This week, Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for the Cambridge student union was publicly vilified for trying to change just one of those things by calling for the English curriculum to be decolonised. 

Olufemi’s ordeal began after members of the university’s English faculty said they would consider how to implement demands made by Olufemi and other students in June to decolonise the curriculum by including more non-white writers on reading lists. 

Olufemi instigated the decision by authoring an open letter to the faculty in which she bemoaned the current state of the curriculum. Not only is it ‘far too easy to complete an English degree without noticing the absence of authors who are not white’, she wrote, but non-white perspectives are not ‘meaningfully incorporated’ into to any part of the syllabus, beyond a few token courses.

For speaking out, Olufemi had her image splashed across the front page of The Daily Telegraph, illustrating an article that erroneously claimed she had successfully forced the English faculty to cut white authors from the curriculum. She’s gone on to be ridiculed by The Daily Mail and other online news sites and she has received racist and misogynist threats online.

I can’t speak for Cambridge’s English course, or indeed its undergraduate programs, but when I studied there as a history graduate I was struck by the narrowness of the syllabus. Authors studied followed a well-defined trajectory from Sophocles through to John Rawls, with only Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah Arendt providing any deviation from the solidly male line up. 

Olufemi and the scandal she provoked should give New Zealanders pause for thought. Though the situation in our universities is not quite as dire as at Cambridge, it could be far better.

If only William Hobson and James Busby had given as much thought and study to the meaning of kāwanatanga as they probably did for words like imperium, we might live in a much fairer country than the one bequeathed by their lazy scholarship.

In my experience in the New Zealand system, academics made a strong effort to analyse literature from a broad range of diverse perspectives. To take one of Olufemi’s examples, it’s common in New Zealand to analyse Shakespeare through a colonial lens, rather than just his contemporary, Elizabethan context. However, it is still possible to go complete an arts degree in New Zealand without encountering much non-white writing. This could become more difficult as humanities departments struggle with costs and have to make tough decisions about which courses to continue. 

Like Olufemi, I am not in favour of removing white authors from the curriculum, but we do need to consider how these subjects are taught and which authors and events are given precedence in our curriculum.

The best education helps us make sense of the world around us. Any education that fails in this basic premise is failing both its students and the society to which they belong. For this reason, events like Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American and French Revolutions should always find themselves in the curriculum.

The outcomes of these historical events are with us in many practical ways. The Glorious Revolution, for example, though it is given little attention in many curricula, led to constitutional thinking which hamstrung Robert Muldoon’s plans to stop superannuation contributions without parliamentary approval in 1976, and just last year the UK Supreme Court found, using this same thinking, that the executive could not trigger the process for leaving the European Union without the approval of Parliament — a decision that provoked immense uproar in post-referendum Britain, but uproar that might have been quelled had people better understood the history of their institutions and how they work. 

To be truly relevant, however, these canonical historical events must contextualised within their colonised moment and taught from a non-white perspective.  

Teaching the American Revolution for example, we might consider how Thomas Jefferson, the man who left his nation the immortal phrase ‘all men are created equal’ could at the same time own hundreds of slaves, one of whom he is now believed to have raped as a teenager. 

Jefferson’s personal hypocrisy is every bit as useful for making sense of the modern America as his political writing. For example, it provides a useful context to the tragic events that played out earlier this year at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson himself founded. 

And then there’s our own experience and the education we have historically valued. I shudder to think how many long, cold hours I spent at Cambridge thinking and rethinking the Latin political vocabulary: imperium merum imperium, res publica, as generations of wannabe colonial governors had before me. If only William Hobson and James Busby had given as much thought and study to the meaning of kāwanatanga as they probably did for words like imperium, we might live in a much fairer country than the one bequeathed by their lazy scholarship.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. This year we’ve seen the New Zealand Wars reinserted into the canon of popular knowledge alongside the two World Wars. Whereas our engagements abroad help to create the myth of a cosy, brotherly New Zealand – the nation with the best race relations in the world, our internal wars of the 19th century tell a markedly different story, one that is far more useful to understanding the divided nation we inhabit today. 

Mihingarangi Forbes’ recent documentary, The Stories of Ruapekapeka, for example, is an excellent introduction to the causes of some of the problems that continue to blight our country. 

Any education that doesn’t reflect or engage with its cultural surrounding isn’t worthy of the name. Education the world over is in desperate need of rebalancing. Māori, Pasifika and immigrant voices can and must form a greater part of our curriculum, alongside a more critical reading of established subjects

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