Decolonisation, while not a new concept, has increasingly been given light in public and academic discussion in recent years. Maybe you have seen calls to “decolonise your classroom” or “decolonise the curriculum”, but are not sure what this really means, or how to go about it. In April and May, EuroClio is focusing on decolonisation - most notably with a dedicated webinar series on the topic. This blog post we hope serves as a first introduction to the concept decolonisation in the history classroom and the history curriculum more broadly, with background information and resources for how to put these ideas into practice in classrooms across Europe.
What is decolonisation?
Decolonisation can refer to the historical events in which many former colonies became independent countries. Decolonisation as we discuss here refers to a wider movement to address and decentre hegemony established by colonisation.
In history teaching this results in two main aims:
- Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples.
- Challenging how Western and European history is traditionally constructed and taught
Scholars emphasise that one cannot be done without the other. For example Canadian scholar Sarah Nickel criticises an “add-and-stir” approach, in which indigenous peoples may be acknowledged in Canadian history, but the conventional narrative of the country which privileges a primarily White and British story is not seriously challenged. Methods are as important as content when it comes to decolonising the history classroom.
Why decolonise the curriculum?
The aims and methods of decolonising history dovetail with EuroClio’s wider mission for responsible and innovative history, citizenship, and heritage education by promoting critical thinking, multiperspectivity, mutual respect, and the inclusion of controversial issues. Here are some key points for why decolonising the curriculum is important for European history education.
Breaking down the ‘natural order’ of current (historical) hegemony.
History has and continues to be a powerful force in European society. Traditional national narratives may ignore or not fully address the history and lived experiences of colonised people. Critically questioning what stories are left out and why helps to dismantle systems that can privilege some groups over others.
Allow for greater critical thinking.
A decolonised history curriculum, beginning from younger ages, can improve discourse at higher levels. Often ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’ topics relating to colonial history are left out of the curriculum for younger students. However without a baseline knowledge, such important topics cannot be properly interrogated at secondary or post-secondary levels.
History skills building
A key component of a decolonised history curriculum is questioning how history is formed and taught in the first place. This offers an excellent setting for students to critically engage with history as a discipline, and gain skills in history methodology and practice.
How to decolonise history?
It is key to point out that decolonisation does not necessarily mean an outright rejection or erasure of European history and disciplinary methods.
Lawrence Meda describes two main approaches to decolonisation: “The first is a radical approach where Western knowledge is fully rejected. The second is an integrative approach which seeks to accommodate both Indigenous and Western knowledge.”
Many countries in Europe have national-focused history curriculums. An integrative approach in European history education would see these integrated with new content and methods. This decentres the primary place of a Eurocentric perspective and works towards decolonising the curriculum.
What might this look like in practice? Here are some examples under our two key headings.
Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples.
- Examining sensitive subjects such as slavery, colonisation, persecution.
- Highlighting people of non-European descent in European history.
- Bringing in primary sources and testimony of non-Europeans
Challenging how history is conventionally taught.
- Bringing in multiple perspectives and primary sources on one historical event
- Question how narrative history has privileged one story or group over others
- Examining resources not conventionally used in the European historical tradition. For example: oral history, legends, modern art and media.