In the following article, Gurminder K. Bhambra and John Holmwood respond to Dylan Riley’s recent piece ‘Notes on the Curriculum’, published on the New Left Review Sidecar blog on 7th October 2021.
Dylan Riley’s presentation of efforts to decolonize the curriculum lacks historical understanding. It is reminiscent of mainstream responses to other disruptions, such as those of Marxism, feminism, and queer theory. What reason could there be for Riley not to entertain the similarity between disruptions, then and now, except that it is his own intellectual practice that is currently under critique? Why defend a canon now when he, and the New Left Review on whose editorial committee he sits, are evidently invested in past disruptions?
Decolonizing the curriculum, for us, is not about unseating the classics, but about bringing other histories and experiences to the table. More specifically, it is about recognising the role of colonialism and empire in the development of modernity, its forms of knowledge, and its social and political structures. Understood this way, it is not necessarily about taking things out, but putting them in, and, in doing so, reflecting on how that requires a transformation of the concepts that currently organise our research and teaching and the questions we ask. Precisely because it is a critique of current concepts in sociology and other disciplines, it is an engagement with them.
Riley asks us to think of the canon as a shorthand, a way of organising a discussion of ideas associated with competing epistemologies and ontologies to facilitate the reproduction of disciplinary identity. We agree, but the convenience of a shorthand should not place it beyond criticism. Riley refers to just one contribution to the decolonizing debate – that of Raewyn Connell – in order to characterise decolonizing as nothing more than the production of extensive annotated bibliographies. This, he says, is a recipe for cynicism. Yet, could there be a better illustration of the dangers of shorthand devices than Riley’s own, given the richness of the debate to which Connell has contributed?
Riley also introduces an analogy from Marxist economics (in truth, human capital theory), that academic research and teaching involves ‘sunk costs’ for professors in the form of past investments in notes, teaching materials, etc. Challenging the canon will pose a threat to the value of these assets and will, thereby, generate resistance. So far, so good. The problem is how he goes on to characterise the ensuing ‘class(room) struggle’.
He makes the strange claim that the most conservative actors are likely to be those in the weakest positions with fewest opportunities to re-tool. Advocates of postcolonial critique, he suggests, should stop rocking the boat in the name of solidarity with those whose positions are precarious. This isn’t a very plausible analysis.
Those in more precarious positions are likely to be early-career academics. They are necessarily those who have yet to make extensive investments because of their career stage. In contrast, the most conservative are likely to be older, well-placed academics who seek to act as gate-keepers both of the curriculum and of appointments.
Curriculum change is necessarily part of the reproduction of a discipline over generations. In the past, radical transformations took place in periods of expansion of higher education, while conservative double-down has taken place in periods of retrenchment (think of the return of neo-functionalism and analytical sociology in the 1980s and 1990s).
Riley invokes the neoliberal university and its precarities to suggest that the academics who are most well-placed will have the most time to re-tool. But they are well-placed because of the recognition afforded to their earlier academic investments. They will have no need to re-tool, except that they accept the force of the better arguments coming from proponents of postcolonial and decolonial critique.
But here is the paradox of Riley’s argument. He claims that those who wish to decolonize the curriculum have no ideas, no arguments. For him it is just a play for positions, not for a renewed sociological practice. Wouldn’t his agitation be better directed against the academic investment capitalism of the neo-liberal university, rather than in an acceptance of it? Just who is the cynic here?
Gurminder K. Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the Department of International Relations in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
John Holmwood is Professor Emeritus in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.
Together, they are co-authors of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).