The Symposium Continued: Decolonizing the Curriculum

Professor of History, Chair of Social Sciences
For the UAS Whalesong

Who speaks? Who’s heard? And how many voices are heard? In my work as a teaching professor, these are the questions I continually ask myself when making decisions about decolonizing the curriculum in my history courses.  For me, it’s a work in progress – for nearly twenty years now at UAS, with another dozen years of teaching history at the secondary level and as a university instructor before that. How to decolonize my history courses? I don’t have authoritative answers, but I do have a few principles to follow.

1. De-Center the West – Europe & North America – from its privileged place in historical narratives. I received my Ph.D. as a cultural and intellectual historian of early and modern Europe. But as an area specialization, Europe has no more inherent significance than being a historian of East, Southeast, or South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, or a scholar of Ethnic Studies or Indigenous Peoples. When I arrived at UAS in 1997, Western Civilization was the General Education survey course, which I changed to World History and have taught ever since. I especially enjoy teaching the first semester on the premodern world, in which Greece and Rome do not even appear until the 6th or 7th week of the semester. And when they do show up, they are part of the Mediterranean world that includes Anatolia, the Near East, and North Afrida, not Europe. We read sources beyond the “Classics of Western Civilization” – the Popol Vuh of the Maya, the Ramayana epic of India, or the Judge Dee mystery novels from Imperial China set during the Tang Dynasty. Buddhism becomes the world’s first universal religion – more influential outside its region of origin than within it – and Islam the first world religion of empire. India and China emerge as the world’s most enduring civilizations, continuous from antiquity to today. Europe only makes a brief appearance at the very end of the semester. Yet the patterns of living and belief systems of medieval Christians are keyed very differently from the “values of the West” in contemporary times. Remove Europe from the center of the story, and the world’s history begins to look different.

2. Develop critical perspectives on the largely unexamined importance of the West in the history of the world. Without doubt, Western ideas and values have spread around the globe. There is a very specific history to this that accounts for how, from around the 16th century to the mid-20th, the entire world briefly came to be dominated by the West – through the development of capitalism, the Atlantic slave trade, the scientific and industrial revolutions, political nationalism, European colonialism and imperialism. Yet in the early 21st century, Europe and America no longer dominate the world’s affairs, but are in crisis – politically, economically, ideologically. A critical examination of the “Rise of the West” in world history includes not only its accomplishments, but also a its atrocities and discontents – slavery and wage labor as a capitalist market activities that destroy human values, the social and political hierarchy of racism that places assumes the superiority and “naturalness” of European politics and culture, the genocide of indigenous and marginalized populations, the use of biology and the social science to articulate, classify, and institutionalize sex-based differences and gendered identities. Historically, progress advanced by the West in the modern era is truly a devil’s bargain.

Following these principles, and beyond World History, I offer upper-division courses that critique and offer alternative historical narratives to the “Triumph of the West” – the Holocaust, the History of Gender and Sexuality, last year a history seminar the History of Pacific Peoples and next year one on Colonial and Postcolonial Novels. Decolonization is not a thing, it’s a process. I’m still working on it. Who speaks? Who’s heard? And how many voices are heard?

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