The University of Cambridge has recently been embroiled in controversy surrounding the syllabus of the English Literature Course. A group of undergraduates have called for a ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum, which currently takes a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach. For the first two years, the broad scope of ‘English’ Literature is covered, and it is only in third year that students are given the option to study Postcolonial Literature. Therefore, these students believe that there is a distinct lack of Black and Minority Ethnic writers, and that these writers should be included, alongside bringing postcolonial interpetation in across the board, for example, looking at Shakespeare plays such as Othello and Tempest through a postcolonial lense.

Others have worried that introducing more of these writers would cause the elimination of the white writers who currently dominate the syllabus, but Churchill fellow Priyamvada Gopal has iterated that white writers would not be affected by any of the proposed changes, rather that a more diverse range of writers and text would be considered ‘in coversation’ with one another. Both the students and academics considering the changes believe that it isn’t just about adding texts, but about rethinking the nature of what we consider to be British and English in a post-imperial world, including issues of race, gender and sexuality. The students campaigning also believe that such a development in the curriculum would encourage more students of a BME background to apply, which is another area of concern for both Cambridge and Oxford. 

This discussion follows a recent move by Oxford to include a compulsory non-European paper in their History curriculum, following campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall.

English Literature students, especially those interested in literature outside of the British Isles, should consider their stance on this argument and be prepared to discuss the nuances of it at interview. They could also further explore the literature written by authors in the postcolonial era and the themes this change in society give rise to. The same argument could also apply across Arts and Humanities subjects, including History of Art, Music and Languages.

Education students should consider how this may be relevant to education at younger ages, and whether the incorporation of more BME writers at an earlier stage may also be necessary. Similarly, History students can explore how the study of history, both in and out of education, might incorporate a variety of perspectives and how this changes our understanding of history. Politics applicants could consider whether politicians should get involved in such discussions.

More Resources