Truly De-Colonizing The Curriculum
The Chapin School is a posh private girls school in New York City. It costs about $55,000 per year in tuition. It is, of course, very woke. Take a look at the Chapin page listing “Affinity Groups & Culture Clubs.”
A reader connected to the school passed on this description of the curriculum for 10th grade English: “English 10: The Revolutionary Self.” The descriptions below, says the reader, come from the teacher. This is what 10th grade girls at one of Manhattan’s most elite girls schools learned in English literature class. This is a description of what they read last fall:
Here, first, is a description of what they read in fall 2020:
We spent the fall term focused on materials that elevate voices that have been marginalized in the past. The summer reading, Madeline Miller’s Circe, shifts the narrative focus to the character of Circe from The Odyssey; in this novel, Circe tells the story of her own life, in which Odysseus is simply a minor chapter, and interrogates The Odyssey’s assumptions about power and virtue. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a Black woman in Florida in the 1930s tells the story of her own life to a friend. As they read and wrote about this text—written by an author famous for being an anthropologist was well as a writer of fiction—students examined the power of dreams, the journey to selfhood, definitions of freedom, and the relationship between the individual and the community. As part of this unit, students conducted research inspired by Hurston’s recordings of music collected during her work for the Federal Writers Project. We also watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and students analyzed the cultural significance of the film as a statement of postmodern Black feminism. Critical texts by bell hooks and Tamara Harris enhanced this unit.
Here is a description of what these student have done this past winter term:
We spent most of our seven-week intensive focused on Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel that explores the experiences of two Chinese families during the turbulent second half of the twentieth century. Readings from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and guest lectures by Jilian Ohikuare ‘16 and Dr. Keisha Brown, an historian on modern China and Sino-Black relations and Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History, Political Science, Geography, and Africana Studies at Tennessee State University, asked students to consider sociopolitical events of the period in both China and the U.S., as well as the conceptual relationships between artistic expression and identity, individualism and collectivism, stability and chaos, and quiet and noise. Students completed a Formal Conversation Paragraph placing Arendt’s ideas in conversation with Thien’s novel in preparation to generate a full Process Essay during a five-day guided procedure that included structured writing workshops, multiple rounds of peer review, and the creation of individualized rubrics reflecting self-generated goals. We ended the term by examining Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto We Should All Be Feminists in the context of Black Feminist Thought, popular songs that convey notions of womanhood and femmehood, and philosopher Carol Hay’s op-ed, “Who Counts as a Woman?” Students had the opportunity to write their own manifestos inspired by Adichie’s work and their conversations with one another.
Here’s how the Hay op-ed was presented in the NYT:
The reader adds:
This is educational malpractice of the worst sort. It reflects an unapologetic abuse of authority to manipulate students in order to get them to embrace a radical political agenda and close their minds rather than opening them.
This is truly decadent. These daughters of Manhattan elites are being taught to despise their culture before they have been taught to love it. No wonder we’re falling apart.
Here, by contrast, is the 10th grade literature reading list at Covenant, a classical Christian school in Dallas. It’s not as detailed as I’d like for the sake of drawing a contrast, but you get the idea:
Look at classical, or classical Christian, schools near you, and inquire about what their students are learning in 10th grade. I guarantee you the parents of those schools’ students aren’t paying $55,000 per year to be radicalized by teachers who hate Western civilization.
I read the Chapin stuff aloud to my wife, who is a teacher and administrator at our local classical Christian school. She said, “If Chapin wants to be edgy, have the girls read Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy is edgier than bell hooks.”
In my last article, I explained how the ‘decolonise the curriculum’ campaign is a sham. Indeed, it promises to ‘diversify’ higher education by challenging dominant Western moral and philosophical ideas and exposing students to a wider variety of perspectives. In fact, it does the very opposite of this : ‘decolonising’ higher education here really means making it subservient to a particular school of thought rooted in postmodernism. This successor ideology, as it is sometimes called, interprets all aspects of human culture – including art, religion, philosophy and even science – as means by which identity-groups (races, nations, genders etc.) exert power over other identity-groups. A ‘decolonised’ humanities curriculum, then, is one which requires students to approach their chosen fields in the way prescribed by neo-postmodern ideologues. That is, in a way that makes undermining ‘structures of oppression’ the central concern of academic inquiry, rather than, say, the quest for truth or beauty. In practise, this means ‘critiquing’ classical thinkers like Plato and Descartes for their failure to live up to the standards of postcolonial and critical race theory (both offshoots of postmodernism).As I argued, there is nothing remotely ‘decolonial’ about treating a contemporary intellectual tradition as the yardstick by which all other traditions are to be judged (especially when the yardstick is itself deeply Western). What we have here is an organised effort to colonise the academy with a strange, new doctrine.
In light of all this, what could genuinely decolonising higher education consist in, if not in inviting students to critically examine the moral foundations of the liberal-progressive West? After all, the majority of undergraduates will likely have been raised in WEIRD societies, and thus with the assumptions that being free means ‘doing what you want’, that there are no limits to ‘progress’, that nothing is really sacred, and so on. These seem like obvious targets for an education system that wants to style itself as daring and controversial.What might this entail for the curriculum, concretely? Speaking only for my field, i.e. philosophy, a greater emphasis on medieval philosophers would be an excellent start. Contempt for the 1000-year period which we now call the ‘Middle Ages’ has always been a staple of Enlightenment mythology. While this seems to have changed somewhat in recent times, many students still finish their philosophy degrees with the impression that nothing of intellectual worth was produced in Europe between the Ancient Greeks and Descartes. Studying the works of towering figures like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas would help to students to revisit their beliefs about pre-modern thinkers and world-views. It would also enable them to seriously engage with sophisticated alternatives to the atheistic scientism of the Enlightenment, and its desacralisation of reality.Moreover, students would benefit from being exposed to the strongest arguments for moral positions which they may initially strike them as illiberal or outdated. These could include arguments for the pro-life stance on abortion, natural law approaches to sexual ethics, nationalism, etc. The point wouldn’t be to persuade students to change their minds, but to help them to see where people with different moral foundations might be coming from. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had an undergraduate student (who considers himself left-wing) ask me why texts and thinkers in the conservative tradition were never covered in political modules. A colleague tells me he was asked the same question by other students. Many are curious to know what the ‘other side’ has to say, and wonder why their professors discourage them from finding out.