Decolonise the curriculum?

Andrew Macdonald Powney
4 min readSep 15, 2020

Decolonising the curriculum could mean first, looking at imperial history in the context of global history, then, returning to national and local history and inserting that new understanding of empire into it — so that Scots children knew there is hardly a street in Scotland that did not have connections to slavery.

Decolonising the curriculum did not need to mean, removing mention of anyone thought to be on the wrong side of imperialist issues and studying instead the people who were airbrushed out of the picture used by previous generations — so that one statue replaces another, but none tells the story. Mary Seacole without Florence Nightingale, rather than Florence Nightingale and no Mary Seacole.

If BLM really were Marxists (as many people want them to be), the first way of decolonising the curriculum should surely have been what BLM supporters of decolonised curriculum would promote, because it is very close to the Marxist idea of praxis.

We need to take a moment to work out what Marxist praxis really is if we’re going to agree on what decolonising the curriculum should mean.

Praxis is not learning from practice. Neither is praxis, obviously, imposing some theory. Praxis is finding out what is really going on and acting according to that. Marxists do form a theory, by thought-experiment, and praxis means acting according to that theory — not some theory got from elsewhere.

The classic case is the commodity. Against Marxism, marginal utility value says that in any local market for a given commodity in a particular place geography will have meant that it happens to be more or less useful in that place. In the overall market, perfect equilibrium may obtain, but no one trades in the overall market: they only trade where they trade. Prices are caused by local shortfalls and excesses of supply and demand even though overall, all these even out.

A Marxist will do a thought-experiment. Imagine this perfect equilibrium market. It is never actually encountered; only local markets are encountered. But imagine it all the same. Where would the value of commodities come from? Marx claims to show that labour is the only place that value could come from (or at least: average socially-necessary labour time). Then he puts that theory back into the reality (which Marx doesn’t deny).

So if the argument Marx makes for his claim is sound, it will follow that when prices appear to be determined by utility at the margins of markets, what is really going on is that prices misrepresent value. What is really going on is that the same local arrangements of labour laws and conditions make expropriation of value possible even when they seem to set a fair price.

The bad news is that the only way to assess that argument is to study Capital. We can apply a theory of perfect equilibrium regardless of the actual markets; we can try to learn from our own situation and practice; we can do the thought-experiment and see if the argument is sound, applying its conclusion, if it is, to our own situation.

The Marxist praxis which would follow would not be reforming prices and wages, but acting on the knowledge of what the Marxist considered really was going on, to disrupt the exploitation of labour — and that is how schools of Marxism have ended up arguing that workers’ conditions had to get worse, prices go up and wages fail to meet them, before change could be achieved. Often this was not what reformists and trade unions themselves wished to hear. They wanted to change wages, not the wage system. They wanted improved conditions in their own short term, and not an end to exploitation. Trotskyist groups devised slogans which appealed to the self-interest of individual workers (better perqs, more pay) and disguised the real aims to which it would harness them (economic collapse).

Marx may be right or wrong in his arguments, but if decolonising the curriculum were a Marxist project, it would be a philosophy of praxis. It would neither obliterate the memory of imperialists nor present them as cartoon villains. It would show them in all their complexity and context. Often this is not what teachers and students wish to hear: partly because it involves more study, not less; also because to act on a knowledge of imperialism would cause them to question whether better wages and conditions for workers in the West really did advance the cause of workers of the world. The neat link between affluent careerist graduate in London and fearless Leftist wordsmith online might be broken. Such students might be led to the conclusion that praxis required an overthrow of their own position which ended the exploitation by which their cheap goods were made; that, globally, they were the rich.

Decolonisation of the curriculum is not a Marxist project. Already at this early stage, perhaps no one now knows clearly what it is. But I know what it could be. It could be a faithful recording of the whole history, and of events from many points of view. It could be studying a book on imperialism right under the nose of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, instead of vanishing his statue as thoroughly as the existence of the people who made the student’s underclothes (and will still be making the next load of pants). It could be changing our practices not cancelling dead people as one way to build networks. It could be the historian holding a mirror up to humanity, and inhumanity, and a basis of choice.