Decolonization: Coming to a College Near You

Bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome, Italy. (Andrea Colarieti/Getty Images)
Add the word to your woke vocabulary — it’s part of the revolution against the basic institutions and ideals of Western civilization.

Western civilization is out, and decolonization is in. Not familiar with the term “decolonization”? You should add it to your woke vocabulary, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot in the future.

Loyola University Chicago’s website defines decolonization as “resisting and actively unlearning the dangerous and harmful legacy of colonization, particularly the racist ideas that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) people are inferior to White Europeans.” The site offers a lengthy checklist for faculty members interested in decolonizing their syllabi.

The decolonization movement is part of the anti-racist movement, as noted in the edited volume Decolonising the University. The book asserts that what is currently taught at universities is Eurocentric and steeped in racism and colonialism. As the editors write in their introduction, “The content of university knowledge remains principally governed by the West for the West.” The goal is to “dismantle” (a favorite word of the woke) and transform the Western approach to knowledge in virtually every academic discipline.

Consider what’s happening at Brown University, where I’m an undergraduate studying history. In the fall of 2020, the student group Decolonization at Brown (DAB) lobbied to remove the statues of Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus from campus. Signs decrying ancient Rome’s involvement in colonialism and white supremacy now cover the base of Caesar’s statue.

In an op-ed for the Brown Daily Herald, DAB activists state that the statues are harmful to students because “they celebrate the ongoing occupation of Native land by the United States and replace Native histories with monuments to white, Western civilization.”

In a close vote, Brown’s student government rejected DAB’s plea to remove the statues. The university plans instead to relocate and restore them — at least for now. However, the reasons for moving the statues appear unrelated to DAB’s decolonization efforts. In fact, the administration would like to place the Caesar Augustus statue in close proximity to the slave memorial on campus, which has sparked further controversy.

Demanding that statues be taken down, or, as has happened across the country, tearing them down, is a jarring reminder of the revolution against not only the symbols of Western civilization, but also our basic institutions and ideals. As DAB leaders admit, it is “one step in a broader project of decolonization by confronting Brown’s institutional and ideological legacies of colonialism and white supremacy.” According to the group, one of the ways to resist this legacy is by changing the curriculum at Brown to make it less Western. (Oddly, DAB believes that decolonizing the university also involves abolishing the campus police and police departments in the United States in general.)

The decolonization campaign is not confined to a fringe group of students inside the gates of our hyper-woke elite universities. It is part of a broader trend that has permeated higher education as a whole. Over the last several decades, colleges and universities have eliminated Western civilization course requirements, as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has documented; as of 2010, NAS found that only 32 percent of America’s 50 most elite schools offered courses on Western civilization, and none of the colleges and universities required them. While some schools have dropped those courses entirely, others have reformed curricula to become less “Eurocentric.” It was a sign of the times when Indigenous Peoples Day replaced Columbus Day on an increasing number of campuses, Brown among them.

In 2018, members of the protest group “Reedies Against Racism” at Reed College in Portland, Ore., successfully persuaded the university to completely transform its required humanities course, an introduction to the Western classical tradition, which had been taught since 1943. The protesters, who staged lengthy sit-ins and disrupted classes, argued that the syllabus was too white, male, and Eurocentric.

The trend has accelerated this year. In June, Princeton University eliminated its Greek and Latin requirements for classics majors in the name of combating alleged “systemic racism.” At American University, the dean of the school of education suggested giving grants to those who want to “decolonize our curriculum.” Earlier this year, Rutgers University’s Livingston Writing Center inaugurated an internship called “Decolonizing the Writing Center.”

In January, the Cornell University English department changed its name to the “Department of Literatures in English.” The academic Left has a particular affinity for plurals such as “literatures,” as it signals their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the language of woke. Moreover, the department is changing its requirements, now mandating that English majors study literature from cultures outside of the United States and Europe. Although this in itself is certainly not a bad thing, the change appears to be driven by an obsession with race. Caroline Levine, chairwoman of Literatures in English, admitted that giving students more freedom of choice “could also be a liability when it comes to the question of race.” Associate Professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi explained that this transition is a win for the “decolonization” of the department.

What starts on college campuses doesn’t stay there. Critical race theory has infiltrated the public schools, corporate America, and the military. Decolonization is following the same path. In September 2020, Lululemon, an expensive athletic-apparel company, held a “Decolonizing Gender” workshop to “unveil historical erasure and resist capitalism.” America’s second-largest defense contractor, Raytheon, instructs its employees to “decolonize your bookshelf” as part of their critical-race-theory training.

All of this is deeply troubling. Many of humanity’s most important achievements — from the scientific revolution to the concept of human freedom — grew from the soil of Western civilization. A civilization that detests its own culture and people cannot survive. Neither can a nation that forgets what it stands for and rejects its own values.

No modern American president understood this truth better than Ronald Reagan. In 1989, in his farewell address, Reagan spoke about the importance of parents’ instilling an “informed patriotism” and a love of freedom in their children at a time when American culture no longer did so: “We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”

Reagan was right: The enemies of freedom are legion, and we need all hands on deck to resist them.

Jack Wolfsohn, a rising junior at Brown University, is an intern in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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