A recent news item in The Times reported on the growing movement against studying ‘dead white men’ [DWM] and their contribution to knowledge and learning. The story was sparked by an independent report commissioned by Office for Students. Throughout the report there is frequent reference to the “lack of diversity in the curriculum”, the need for “inclusive intervention” such as including Black-Caribbean authors “the teaching of which is delivered to, and of benefit to, both underrepresented and over-represented groups.” The report asks how can teachers and assessors decolonise the curriculum.
In higher education, ‘dead white men’ has become the catch all phrase against white-supremacism in academic study with various campaigns calling for less Eurocentric content and for more non-white academics and writers to replace DWM.
What particularly struck me about the news item in The Times was a claim that Kingston University had ditched a course strand or degree course on rural Britain, which was situated in the Geography department. This was covered by The Daily Mail nearly a year ago, which stated that “Academics feared their teaching ‘normalised white experiences’, while ‘disadvantaged’ undergraduates from other backgrounds struggled to grasp concepts such as the ‘rural idyll’ – so scored lower grades.”
I have no knowledge on how rural Britain is studied in Geography, but as mentioned, it is part of a bigger trend within academia and in GCSE and A’ Level courses. I worry about the ghettoization of knowledge, of the study of art and culture where the intellect, creativity and insight of DWM are banished to a past, tainted by the stains of imperial and colonial history. I also worry about this patronising, racialised assertion that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] are unable or unwilling to make the intellectual, imaginative or experiential leap to grasp concepts outside of their experience, such as that of a ‘rural idyll’. Now that is a racist claim!
I grew up in inner city South London for most of my life and rarely ventured out to the English countryside, my parents as islanders from Mauritius loved seaside and garden trips but the rugged rural England was not for them as working-class migrants. I get it, I don’t think I ever ventured out to rural England, but when I had the choice to either go to Middlesex Polytechnic (aka Middlesex University) or Thames Polytechnic (aka University of Greenwich) in the 1980s, I chose neither. Instead I ventured to West Yorkshire, to a virtually unknown little experimental college on top of the Yorkshire moors in Ilkley to study a combined arts degree. I admit, the elemental, blustering breezy moors were like an alien landscape to me, I’d never seen heather and bracken turn to an autumnal purple. I was a stranger in a strange land but I fell in love with this foreignness. This little town and countryside which was over 17 miles from Leeds and 12 miles from Bradford, wooed me, seduced me.
Being part of that landscape as a student developed my passion for the English Romantic poets and artists, Gothic literature and of course, Wuthering Heights. I also developed a love for ale, particularly Timothy Taylors’ Landlord and the friendliness of rural country pubs. I embraced it all, everything was new, different and fresh compared to my urban upbringing.
I cannot imagine not studying DWM in art and literature, there were no black writers on my curriculum, but that didn’t bother me. After my degree, I remember picking up Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ and devoured it while sitting alone on the the Ilkley moors, on balmy summer afternoons. Rushdie’s novel marked a turning point for me, further developing my becoming my own person. The thing is, with art and literature is, there’s so much out there, and our journey continues after an undergraduate degree, tastes change, new ideas encountered, new writers to read. However, I have no regrets studying DWM and embracing the awe and dread of the beautiful and terrifying English landscape and I contest this assertion that BAME people can’t understand the ‘rural idyll’, the sublimity of nature foreign to our experience, or the more prosaic, material notions of a cultivated landscape.
A good teacher would also know that reading the Romantic poets, looking at a Turner painting, studying rural life in England is also a glimpse into Britain’s relationship with the wider world. I would hate to see Wordsworth replaced by Linton Kwesi Johnson, whom I am fond of, ever since he came to our school as poet in residence back in the mid-70s before his fame as a dub-reggae poet. I also used to bump into him a lot when I lived in Brixton in the early 2000’s.
Zadie Smith understands this dilemma. When she was asked in an 2009 interview about how she felt that her bestselling debut novel White Teeth (2000) was an A’Level English Literature set text she said that she felt “Honoured, incredulous, a tiny bit depressed. I mean, happy obviously, but not if I’m taking the place of an actual dead person who might be more useful to them. Seems to me that you can read White Teeth any time – I don’t think it serves much of a purpose on a syllabus.”
Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, producer/curator, artists’ mentor & advisor, writer and arts campaigner for the Manifesto Club.