Written by students Lily Davis (3rd Year BA History) and Lauren Young (3rd Year BA History and Sociology).

2020 has been a year of change for many reasons. Following recent events, including the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death, the Department of History at Essex have renewed their goal to decolonise the curriculum, and they held an event on this topic on 20 October as part of Black History Month.

We attended this event and joined in an honest and open conversation about the discipline, the curriculum, what is chosen to be taught, and why.

The concept of decolonising can be complex, and is different from inclusivity. The co-chair of the University’s Race Equality Self-Assessment Team, Dr Hannah Gibson, has explained that inclusivity alone isn’t the way forward in decolonising the curriculum. Inclusion invites people to join an existing structure that has been built to suit a specific group of people, rather than addressing any changes that need to be made in the structure. Decolonisation acknowledges that changes need to be made to benefit a wider community.

The Department of History has previously recognised that it needs to do more to decolonise, but this was the first time that they had brought together staff and students to discuss it. As Andrew Priest, the Head of Department, put it at the start of the event: ‘colonisation is not something that just happened in the past—it continues, and that is evident in our curriculum’. Everyone in the conversation agreed that more work needs to be done, and any changes must be more than just tokenistic.

It’s important to see why the history department are taking this issue so seriously. Ensuring that students receive a high standard of education, as well as an accurate and well-rounded view of their chosen subjects, is paramount. Furthermore, fostering an environment of critical analysis, debate, and curiosity can hopefully inspire new generations of historians.

During the Decolonising the Curriculum event, the department opened up some great discussions about the modules that are currently on offer, particularly in the first year course. Working from the ground up, participants explored ideas of a more inclusive curriculum that should be available from the beginning of every student's journey at Essex. Modules that reach every history student are considered vital in doing this and so discussion turned to ‘Europe Transformed: 1450-1750’ and ‘The Making of the Modern World Since 1750’, the department’s two core first year modules.

This discussion led to some basic but crucial questions being asked. What is the purpose of these modules and are they currently fulfilling that purpose? Are they, for example, providing a basis of historical knowledge to assist students in their later studies of more specialist topics? Or are they encouraging critical engagement with history, a key skill for historians? How do lecturers ensure that they achieve a balance between teaching key learning objectives whilst providing opportunities for varying perspectives, criticisms and debates?

Discussion also turned to the very formation of these modules, such as the connotations of defining historical periods, which automatically imposes a certain narrative on them. Suggesting that the ‘Modern World’ is a product of Western Enlightenment in the 18th century, for example, only acknowledges ‘modernity’ in a Western narrative, excluding large proportions of the world, their cultures and histories. This was a really interesting point to consider and the history department were really eager to explore alternative suggestions from both staff and students. In the discussion, people noted the importance of recognising these narratives and working towards making meaningful changes and that integrity is a key part of decolonising the curriculum. As historians, we are well aware of the benefits of learning from the past, and acknowledging what hasn’t worked very well is the only way to shape a better learning environment for all.

Suggestions for rethinking the way we teach and learn history included focusing on commodities, rather than specific places or people. Dr Tom Freeman, for example, offers ‘A Global History of Food, c.1400 - c.1750’ as an option on the MA History course. Similarly, concepts such as ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, which have been successful books and radio shows, allow us to learn histories, to follow migration, integration, and power, from a perspective that removes the importance of a person and where they might come from. Of course, this should not distract from the fact that people play an integral part in history; instead it reassesses how we tell their stories. A focal news point during the Black Lives Matter protests across the summer was the destruction of statues depicting figures who had links to slavery and empire, sparking a global debate about history and memory. Many argued that tearing down statues was counterproductive, as it only destroyed historical monuments and disregarded historical events. Others were adamant that slave-owners and colonisers should not be celebrated and immortalised through monuments. All of this considered, who should students be learning about in their history classes? Students and staff were in agreement that sweeping uncomfortable truths under the carpet is not a constructive way of decolonising the curriculum. Instead, we should recognise the horrors of the past. A good example of this are the actions of the National Trust which, in June, highlighted the links that their heritage sites have to slavery.

Historians all have biases. In fact, that is one of the first things you are taught as a history student. Historians study, write, and teach history from a certain perspective. The ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ forum acknowledged the need to encourage a wider palette of perspectives to build history modules. Whether that is varying perspectives, new ways of exploring the past, or addressing complicated truths, it is clear that history as a discipline can only benefit from this approach. By hosting this event, the history department has demonstrated a commitment to being part of that change. We are proud to be part of a department that is taking the time and effort not only to learn and promote this important cause, but to actively take part in reforming the very structure that perpetuates it.