English Literature lecturers at the University of Cambridge will not be “forced” to drop white writers from the curriculum in favour of black authors, the institution has asserted.
It had been reported that, following demands from students to “decolonise” the curriculum, professors would have to “ensure the presence” of BME writers on their courses under new plans put forward by academics.
According to The Telegraph, this was “likely to lead to existing authors being downgraded or dropped altogether”. The newspaper said it based many of its claims on the minutes of a meeting of the university’s Teaching Forum.
But a spokesperson for Britain’s top university said there had been “no decision” to alter the way English is taught, adding that any future changes would “not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others”.
“That is not the way the system works at Cambridge,” they said.
“There is no set curriculum as tutors individually lead the studies of their group of students and recommend their reading lists – those reading lists can include any author.”
The spokesman added that the Teaching Forum has “no decision-making powers”, saying its decision points are questions to be discussed by the faculty.
The statement comes after more than 100 students - led by the student union’s women’s officer Lola Olufemi - signed an open letter to the university calling for non-white authors and “postcolonial thought” to be “meaningfully” incorporated into the current curriculum.
Specifically asserting that the letter was “not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists”, the students claimed that a refusal to challenge “Eurocentric thought” suggested that the stories “of anyone who is not a white man” are not valued.
“For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others,” the document reads.
“What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism.”
But while the university confirmed that it had received a letter from students about the decolonisation of English courses, it said discussions about how postcolonial literature is taught are at “a very early stage”.
“Post-colonialism is taught at the moment in a non-compulsory paper – the faculty constantly looks at what papers will be compulsory,” a spokesperson said.
“We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”
Olufemi told Varsity, Cambridge University’s student newspaper, that the Telegraph article was “riddled with factual inaccuracies and attempts to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is”.
Meanwhile, she said the story tried to “delegitimise me as a co-author of the open letter by using out of context quotes in an attempt to turn me into a ‘controversial figure’.”
The graduate added: “Not only have no official changes to the curriculum been made by the faculty as of yet, the attempt to reframe any changes as ‘caving into demands’ positions BME students as aggressors and is intended to start a moral panic about white men disappearing from reading lists - when this is not what is being proposed.”
Others took to Twitter to criticise the way the story had been handled and share their support for Olufemi and other students involved in the campaign:
The row follows a campaign at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where students demanded a “decolonisation” of the curriculum.
Campaigners at the university - the only one in Europe to specialise in the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East - were slammed as “snowflakes” after suggesting lessons should focus on Asian and African philosophers instead of those from the West.
But college bosses defended students, saying critical debate about the curriculum was “healthy” and “proper”.