Global history is a necessity, not an option

Image credit: Noella Chye

Over the past few weeks, the row over an open letter sent by students to the Cambridge English Faculty asking it to ‘decolonise’ its curriculum has highlighted the deep-rooted problems with diversity in this university. The misleading coverage by The Telegraph, and the resulting torrent of abuse aimed at Lola Olufemi was even more discouraging. It has shown that black and minority ethnic students and activists are punished for addressing issues of inequality. Perhaps because manifestations of this inequality are no longer as explicit as they were 40 years ago, they are harder to confront head-on. Yet it is precisely these issues that we must continue to call out and fight against, because their influence is often the most insidious.

For me, the saddest thing about the open letter to the English faculty was the fact that I wasn’t surprised. Olufemi has critiqued the fact that many English students “go through their entire degree without formally studying any authors who are not white”, but this is not a problem specific to the English tripos. My own subject, History, has a conspicuous lack of diversity both in the papers on offer and subsequently in the reading lists too. As it stands, it is possible to go through the historical tripos without studying anything other than periods of British and European history. The only requirements are that you offer a period of British political, British social and economic, and a period of European history.

Of the 23 optional papers for Part I of the tripos, just four are devoted to non-European history. Two of these cover the history of North America, meaning that the remaining two papers cover the histories of the rest of the world from the fifteenth century. The same amount of study is devoted to ‘British political history from 1485-1714’ as ‘Empires and world history from the fifteenth century to the First World War’. The options for Part II are more diverse, with roughly an equal split between ‘world’ and European options, but there remains no requirement to study any non-European history.

This Eurocentric focus is inevitably reflected in our reading lists, since historical scholarship on Europe does not tend to attract many non-white historians. Many reading lists for the papers on British and European history will not feature any non-white historians. Of course, the study of British or European history does not mean the exclusive study of white people – for example, students taking the paper on 20th century British society can explore issues of race and immigration, and the growth of British BME identities. Yet this is not the central focus of the paper; there is no escaping the fact that the approach exhibited in Cambridge is weighted against the study of non-white histories.

This dearth of diversity in the course at one of the leading universities for the study of history is deeply worrying. Just as those who wrote to the English faculty sought to expand the boundaries of what we perceive as ‘great’ literature, we must question the ways in which we privilege certain histories over others. History is one of the most important tools of cultural memory and understanding; it’s the reason why colonisers have almost always tried to take history away from the oppressed. Our task in the 21st century is to remember not only the histories of colonised peoples, but of pre-colonial civilisations, independence movements, and interactions between non-European cultures.

Given the global nature of the world we live in, we can no longer study one area to the exclusion of all others. Naturally, a course in history at a British university will privilege British and European history to some extent, and Cambridge is not unique in this respect. Yet the tunnel vision evident in the papers offered for this tripos cannot prepare students for the real world. The task of tackling the disparity in BME students applying and being accepted to Cambridge must start not only with outreach efforts, but with a focus on the inequalities in the curricula themselves. We can and should do better than this. Global history must be seen as a necessity, not an option.

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