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Decolonization

Summary:
There is a current trend by people in education or in our institutions to “decolonize” the culture they work within. It is quite an amorphous project, and it is quite difficult to focus on what the term actually means. One of its exponents put into words what its programme entails. “Decolonizing the curriculum means, first of all, acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone. It is a cumulative and shared resource that is available to all.” Does anyone suppose that knowledge is owned by anyone? Most people would probably think that knowledge is already a cumulative resource available to all. People can access it because it is not hidden and restrictive but open to all. Delving more deeply into what “decolonizing” the culture might entail, we are confronted with the notions that

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There is a current trend by people in education or in our institutions to “decolonize” the culture they work within. It is quite an amorphous project, and it is quite difficult to focus on what the term actually means. One of its exponents put into words what its programme entails. 

“Decolonizing the curriculum means, first of all, acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone. It is a cumulative and shared resource that is available to all.”

Does anyone suppose that knowledge is owned by anyone? Most people would probably think that knowledge is already a cumulative resource available to all. People can access it because it is not hidden and restrictive but open to all.

Delving more deeply into what “decolonizing” the culture might entail, we are confronted with the notions that logic, mathematics and physics are “Western,” and have “Western” values and assumptions built into them. To think that these disciplines might be objective and open to all of humankind is thought by some to represent “colonial” thinking. The assumption seems to be that there is a more “inclusive” kind of logic, and a mathematics and physics that do not have to follow the rigour of systematic linear thinking.

 It is quite difficult to conceive of a logic that does not follow the rules of logic, or indeed a mathematics in which the numbers and equations do not have to follow the remorseless rules of that discipline. For that matter, it seems unlikely that there can be an alternative physics in which theories do not have to predict and explain, or be tested against the world of our observation.

It could be that “decolonization” simply means declaring that the British empire and all others that preceded or succeeded it were bad. This is a value judgement that could be supported or contested. All empires have involved conquest, but some have been more benign that others. In Roman Britain, for example, the citizens who enjoyed roads, villas, mosaics, clean water and central heating were not, for the most part, invading Roman overlords. They were the British people who had fought against the Romans initially and then became Roman themselves, to enjoy a lifestyle they preferred to the one previously available to them.

The British empire saw its share of conquest and war crimes, but most people would rate these as less atrocious than the mass exterminations of Nazi death camps, or the brutal murder and starvation of many more millions in the Soviet empire of the dictatorship of Mao’s Communist China. The strange woman who teaches literature at Churchill college thinks otherwise, of course, and in a free society is allowed to express views that would have led to swift execution in those other empires.

The British Empire was the first advanced nation to abolish slavery, a practice that had been endemic in every previous culture. It spread science, technology, and ultimately democracy to parts of the world that had seen little of it, and in doing so raised living standards, together with the advance of moral and ethical standards that tend to accompany that.

It spread trade, enabling people to interact and exchange with distant other people beyond their villages. It helped raise the prospects and the aspirations of peoples within it.

There were atrocities, as there have been throughout history, and armed with our present-day morality, we condemn them as we do the others. But they lived by the standards of their day, not by ours. Most of the great thinkers and the virtuous lives we revere in history owned slaves because this was the norm. The fact that it is not now owes something to the people of the British Empire who campaigned for decades to make that so.

If “decolonization” means condemning all the past because it is not the present, it seems to offer little, and puts at risk the heritage we have acquired, and through which we have gained what we today regard as moral improvement.

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