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Decolonization of the curriculum is the revenge of administrators
The decolonization of curriculums is growing in popularity. Based on social justice ideology, this agenda stipulates that university curriculums reflect Western prejudices, entailing discrimination against non-Western students and the reinforcement of colonial hierarchies. Supporters argue that curriculums should feature non-Western topics and readings.
Whilst some efforts can be laudable – in certain fields (e.g. history), curriculums could be more diverse – other initiatives can seem bizarre (e.g. mathematics) and/or dangerous (e.g. medicine). Therefore, the agenda raises questions about coalitions within universities and the trajectory of liberal democracy.
Notwithstanding academic demand for such agendas – famously, social justice ideology originated within universities - decolonization programmes have exogenous impetus. Curriculums reflect consensuses within disciplines and, given the slow pace of disciplinary change, profound disruption is more likely to come from external sources. And decolonization takes place in fields in which internal demand seems limited, such as mathematics, suggesting an external provenance.
University administration is a prime culprit, administrators being enthusiastic supporters of these agendas. In most Western universities, decolonization has official support. Recently, administrations have grown exponentially, ratios to academic staff becoming more equal and higher proportions of budgets being spent on administrative recruitment, changing the balance of power within universities.
Decolonization is in the interests of administrators. For years, administrators have sought greater control over curriculums, this being part of university power battles and intensifying as administrations have expanded. The decolonization agenda enhances the leverage of administrators. Building on fashionable ideas, such initiatives enable supporters to portray opponents as prejudiced, stifling challenges to administrative control.
And this process reflects a class logic. Generally, social justice ideology appears to be a class ideology, increasing the leverage of young sociocultural workers against older liberals and reflecting the distinct material interests of these groups. Administration has no necessary ideology, yet disruption associated with social justice ideology is convenient, entailing an alliance between administrators and those academics who support social justice ideology.
Beyond convenience, this alliance has a deeper basis. Compared with other subjects, graduates of disciplines in which social justice ideology is strong (i.e. arts and humanities) have less potential to work in industry, many ending up in administration. This is in the interests of the departments and administration; for the former, it perpetuates students and funding; for the latter, it supplies workers and increases bonds with faculties. These conditions solidify the relationship between administration and social justice ideology, making administrators part of the class project and increasing impetus towards central control.
Of course, the decolonization agenda has met opposition, many faculties seeking to preserve the status quo; recently, UK mathematicians mounted resistance. But the alliance between administration and social justice ideology is on the front foot. Aside from decolonization of curriculums, wider equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agendas reflects its logic. Given the power of administration, this agenda will probably continue to grow, becoming built into sectoral path dependency.
We may reflect on implications for liberal democracy. Given the attitude of social justice ideology towards dissent, arguably inconsistent with liberal democracy, administrative support is concerning. Developments in universities are particularly important, universities being traditional bedrocks of liberal democracy. In other white-collar sectors, there are similar trends, the corporate embrace of social justice ideology being famous.
These developments are not necessarily consistent with wider trends in liberal democracies – public opinion tends to be hostile to social justice ideology, implying longer-term incompatibility – yet congruence with developments in white-collar sectors means that, in the medium term, universities will continue with decolonization agendas. Such agendas make political and commercial sense; whether they make liberal-democratic sense is another question.
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