Saima Akhtar is an MA Journalism student at The University of Salford. This article originally appeared in The Pen, The Aziz’s Foundation’s scholars blog.
I am of the firm conviction that we have to know the past to truly understand who we are today. Yet, as a person of Bangladeshi heritage, I was never awarded the opportunity to learn about my own histories; at least, not until my third year of university, when I chose a module about the anti-colonial struggle in India between 1800 and 1947. This was the first time in my academic life where I was afforded a glimpse into the lives of my South Asian ancestors. So, when History is taught in classrooms all over Britain, why is there a real neglect of other narratives? How can this make sense, when people of all races and faiths have helped shape and define the British Empire? This article examines why it is important for us to diversify our curriculum, especially in the times we are living in now.
As historians, our job is to educate the younger generations on how our society came to be the way it is. But there is a fundamental flaw in the way British history is taught in schools: the curriculum not only fails to acknowledge the horrors and violence of empire and colonialism, but also the extensive contributions of colonised communities to Western society. Instead, the curriculum promotes a narrative which excludes minority communities. Topics listed on the National Curriculum for Key Stage 3 include industry, empire and challenges to Europe, along with “at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history”. But it is simply not enough to offer just one “world history” option. When the curriculum over-emphasises European histories, it indirectly implies that non-European histories are unworthy of attention, and thus, unimportant.
This type of education inequality fosters ignorance when it comes to the experiences of minority groups. Statistically, people of colour are much more likely to remain in lower socio-economic positions in life compared to their white counterparts, with there also being a clear disparity in the access to education and healthcare. So, when the curriculum pays little to no attention to these histories, our young people grow up without an adequate understanding of how people from these communities have been historically marginalised. That is why the curriculum needs to be diversified, because it is crucial for children to develop healthy attitudes towards people of different cultures, ethnicities and faiths.
This is especially true in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The tragic murder of George Floyd earlier this year is a stark reminder that institutional racism and white supremacy continue to threaten the lives of Black individuals all over the world. So, education is the key to equip our younger generations with both anti-racist beliefs and a willingness to stand up for injustice. Talking about race may be uncomfortable for some; but rest assured, it is far more uncomfortable for those who are experiencing racism in all its forms in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, by utilising a more holistic approach to history, this allows for the deconstruction of western-centric notions and creates a space in which the lived experiences of people of colour can be acknowledged.
Additionally, if we continue to deny young people of colour the opportunity to see themselves within the curriculum, we insinuate that they do not matter. Promoting narratives that are privileged (and therefore inaccessible to people of colour) alienates entire groups of people, causing them to question their self-identity and be viewed as outsiders. Thus, adding greater diversity to the curriculum will amplify the voices of people from these backgrounds, and hopefully encourage positive self-worth.
Alternatively, it is important to educate non-people of colour pupils on the histories of their peers. A greater awareness of different cultures will help build a community which is truly representative of all people. In the recent Channel 4 documentary The School That Tried to End Racism, a South London high school held workshops for pupils on racial issues such as unconscious bias and white privilege. The pupils subsequently confronted their internal prejudices and became more observant about their own behaviour. This proves that diversifying the curriculum provides a teachable moment to model equity and create inclusiveness.
Concurrently, in higher education, it is no longer acceptable for universities to teach History through a Eurocentric lens. To truly decolonise the curriculum, we need academics to teach History without adopting colonial rhetoric or misrepresenting the natives who were colonised. Therefore, universities have a responsibility to teach histories that are both accurate and inclusive of their diverse student populations.
Fortunately, there are organisations which are pushing for more diverse curriculums. For instance, The Black Curriculum is a campaign founded in 2019 to encourage more teaching of Black British History in schools. Likewise, The Teacherist was established by an ex-teacher to decolonise the curriculum and promote equality. Furthermore, Keele University has committed to reframing their ‘pale, male and stale’ curriculum to make it more representative of their diverse staff and student body. Hence, more institutions must normalise this idea of curriculum reform, as it sends the powerful message that they are standing up for equality.
Sibia Akhtar, MA History student (University of Manchester) and Aziz Foundation Scholar, said, ‘There is a long history of migration and settlement of ethnic minority communities in Britain, yet we know very little of our own history. Diversifying our curriculum is important as our current processes exclude non-English histories, which therefore keeps the curriculum inherently racist. We need to centre the history and lived experiences of Black and Brown voices as these are grossly undeveloped within the arts and humanities. Therefore, our educational practises require decolonisation in hope to strive for social and racial justice across all disciplines.’
According to the twentieth-century philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it is difficult to learn from the lessons of the past when important stories from minority groups are missed out in the curriculum. Educators must do better to equip students with a cross-cultural understanding of human history, as this will vastly improve their world view. Diversifying our curriculum may not end racism; but helping young people of colour feel seen and heard will promote social cohesion and help erase the ignorance that fosters intolerance and forms of hate.
 “History programmes of study: key stage 3”, Department for Education, 2013, <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239075/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_History.pdf> [Accessed 6 August 2020]
 “About Us”, The Teacherist, https://theteacherist.com/category/decolonise-the-curriculum/ [Accessed 12 August 2020]
 “Why Is My Curriculum So White?”, Keele Decolonising The Curriculum Network, <https://www.keele.ac.uk/equalitydiversity/equalityawards/raceequalitycharter/keeledecolonisingthecurriculumnetwork/#keele-manifesto-for-decolonising-the-curriculum> [Accessed 26 August 2020]