Why We Should Decolonize the University Curriculum

Manal Hosni and Carine Zanchi are Assistant Professors of French at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.

Decolonizing the curriculum has been a popular concept in academia in the last decade, as many black students felt alienated within institutions that remained very Eurocentric. In 2015, in what became known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement (which later spread to Oxford, and Oriel College specifically), students at the University of Cape Town requested the transformation of universities’ culture, the revision of the curriculum, and the decolonization of education. Their slogan was Why is my curriculum white? In the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe, a group of researchers at the University of Antilles questioned the idea of universalism in education and called for a contextualisation de l’éducation. In the UK, student unions seized the movement and demanded change. A crucial moment in the movement was Keele University’s Decolonizing the Curriculum Manifesto (2018) that defines decolonizing the curriculum as ‘creating spaces (...) for a dialogue on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world’. However, decolonizing the curriculum can have different meanings depending on where you stand. Most of the work done in the decolonization direction is related to minority ethnics groups and LGBT, it aims to give them voice and visibility, but in our context, the problem is elsewhere. While our situation in Kuwait is a result of colonialism, the tension between white and ethnic minorities is not what we are facing in our classrooms. Our situation has more to do with power dynamics.

We have been aware of the gap between curricula and our students’ experiences as we have been teaching the French language and culture at GUST. Teaching a foreign language and its culture is an excellent way to broaden students’ perspectives and to introduce them to diversity. It also entails putting students in simulated real-life situations and letting them interact. However, the content provided by western textbooks is so removed from our students’ reality that these simulations have nothing to do with real-life situations and can only lead to unnatural and artificial interactions. To provide students with meaningful learning, we have to provide them with the opportunity to identify with what they are learning. While learning about a foreign culture is enriching, it becomes more relevant if it is done using a comparative approach that highlights differences and similarities with students’ cultures. Students will not feel alienated with what they are studying, otherness will stop being a threat and will become relatable. The same can be said about many of the disciplines taught within the departments of the Humanities and the Social Sciences; Sociology would be an obvious example.

Curricula provide a framework of the knowledge we value, and they structure the way we perceive the world. Middle Easterners have hitherto been taught to see the world with a Western-centric lens that affects how they perceive themselves. They have thus interiorized the idea that Western norms are universal, and in doing so, have delegitimatized any knowledge they have about the world and themselves. Unfortunately, this colonization legacy is still operational among faculty. It is not a coincidence that the idea of decolonizing the curriculum emerged from the periphery of the West and not from minority groups. What is perceived as “correct” or “ethical” is determined by a Western model portrayed in Western textbooks and is often totally disconnected from the students’ reality or values.

At GUST, at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, we are constantly trying to cover topics related to students’ reality and to supply examples and case studies anchored in their environment. In language and culture, many projects bring French/Hispanic-related issues and Kuwaiti ones. We also create our content that is more representative of our student's experiences and reflects their reality. However, we believe that this is not sufficient. Introducing culturally related topics and examples is a significant step but it won’t change the power dynamics. It might simply transpose concepts and ideas by adapting them to a local setting while maintaining a Western lens. Decolonizing the curriculum implies rejecting homogeneity and enabling students to explore themselves and their values and to define success on their terms. It also demands that faculty invest in the process. The work accomplished in many universities can be inspiring but, as mentioned, it is mostly designated to an ethnic minority context. To be successful, we need to craft our tools and create our strategy. This also demands that faculty understand where students are coming from and that they do not systematically reject their learning style because it doesn’t follow Western models.

Changing the curriculum is not only about reforming content but also about changing mentalities in academic institutions; it involves how universities perceive non-Western knowledge. As long as universities don’t recognize local expertise and subordinate knowledge produced in the region to whatever is produced by the West, the problem will remain the same. Institutions that don’t recognize academic works produced in languages other than English cannot foster creativity among their students; they cannot empower them and make them believe in the legitimacy of their efforts.