In The Classroom – How to start ‘decolonising the curriculum’ without having to change all the topics you teach.

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‘Decolonising the curriculum’ is usually taken as meaning a complete overhaul of the curriculum, and that’s something that takes time and money, both of which are in short supply at the moment. However you can achieve some of the goals of the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ movement by simply rereading existing topics you teach with a more critical ‘decolonising’ eye.

This has the advantage that it can be done immediately and inexpensively as it doesn’t require teachers to learn new topics and acquire new resources.

Let me give an example of a lesson which shows students how they can reread a school textbook with a decolonising perspective. I used to teach this lesson to students on the International Relations MA programme at NYU but I’m sure it would work just as well in secondary schools.

STEP ONE: Ask your students to read this extract from an online school textbook in the USA about the Wounded Knee Massacre and set them these questions:

  1. Is this written from a neutral perspective or do you think it is biased towards one side?

  2. Underline text where you think the author is being partial to either Native Americans or White Americans.

As you might expect in a NYU International Relations course the class was made up of students from around the world. It quickly became apparent that students from Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia were answering these questions very differently from students from Asia, Africa or South America. After this had happened several times I realised that the difference in views was shaped by whether the country the students had grown up in was, in its past, a colonising country or a colonised country. In general the students who came from countries founded as settler colonies  thought the book was a reasonable attempt to be fair. They would point out examples of even-handedness, for example, that the the event was described as ‘The Wounded Knee Massacre’ not ‘The Battle of Wounded Knee’ although that is still the name used on the official memorial at the site, and that phrases like ‘shot in cold blood’ and ‘cut down as they tried to run away’ were evidence that the author clearly understood that the victims here were the Native Americans.

Students who came from historically colonised or settled countries invariably took a much more critical view. They accepted the examples of impartiality quoted above but they saw them as unconvincing ‘tokens of empathy’ for Native American suffering. They argued that consciously or unconsciously the author was trying to deflect criticism away from the real crime which was the successful ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Native Americans by white settlers supported by governments over four centuries.

I’ve annotated the pages in the textbook below to show some of the textual criticisms that they made, and I think these will be eye -opening if you are teaching a mainly white British class.

Notes:

  1. ‘Ghost Dance’ is a pejorative term coined by US soldiers but is used as the descriptor throughout – initially with speech marks to acknowledge the provenance of the term but later on the page the speech marks are dropped.

  2. ‘The arrival of the Ghost Dance movement resulted in another human travesty’ is clearly biased for a couple of reasons. First, it suggests that a non-violent spiritual movement was the cause of the massacre which is classic victim blaming, and second, the use of the phrase ‘human travesty’ while appearing to offer understanding and sympathy mainly serves to deflect guilt from white settlers and soldiers who between them created the situation which led to the murder of 300 Native Americans.

  3. The Native American voice is relegated from the main narrative to the side bar.

  4. The words used to describe the religion ‘meditated, had visions, chanted, and performed’, ‘ritual’, ‘worked its participants into a frenzy’ make it sound exotic, and foreign, more like magic than religion, and we are then prepared for the author’s bland statement that this was ‘disconcerting to the soldiers and settlers throughout the South and West’. The author seems blind to idea that Christianity also contains rituals, chanting, meditation, movement, and what an outsider might perceive as the magic of communion.

  5. ‘Whites feared […] a great Indian rebellion’ passes without any comment from the author, either to say that by 1890 those fears were groundless, or that the term ‘rebellion’ would have been rejected by Native Americans who saw their acts as resistance against invasion, land seizure and the eradication of their culture and way of life.

  6. ‘Local residents of South Dakota’ – this is a revealing phrase when the author uses it to describe recent white settlers. Surely the local residents of South Dakota were Native Americans?

  7. ‘300 Sioux did leave the reservation’ This is a subtle but telling point revolving around the use of the word ‘did’. It would have been more natural for the author to say ‘300 Sioux left the reservation. When the author says ’did leave’ it is to recognise and acquiesce to the argument which is lurking off stage – ‘if they’d stayed on the reservation like they’d been told to, then none of these bad things would have happened to them, so they need to bear some of the responsibility.’

  8. ‘A Final Tragedy’ is a description which removes responsibility from White Americans for killing Native Americans and also suggests that the story of Native Americans ends in 1890, and creates a comfortable distance for white students reading this book in the 21st century.

  9. The Seventh Cavalry was out to revenge the defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn so why does the author only hint that ‘revenge’ might have been a motive.

  10. Only a descendant of white settlers would chose to describe the culmination of the destruction of the Native American life in the terms ‘The frontier officially closed’

STEP TWO- Discuss everyone’s findings. 
If you are lucky enough to have students in your class from a variety of cultures you should be able to generate an interesting discussion around these texts. It will help you show them that although the facts are the facts, historians always have a ‘perspective’, and that it’s possible to reveal that perspective through careful textual analysis.

At NYU the white students who had  thought the text was impartial and then heard the criticisms from others were initially surprised, and perhaps a little indignant at being ‘caught out’ as they perceived themselves on the progressive end of the political spectrum. On reflection, however, they agreed that it had been an extremely illuminating educational experience. As one of them said ‘the problem with unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious’.

Michael Davies is the Editor and Founder of Parallel Histories