Decolonising the curriculum: addressing the miseducation of business and management
A few weeks ago it was my honour to chair the CABS workshop, ‘Decolonising the curriculum: A toolkit for business & management educators’. Responding to requests from our community, the recently formed Race Equality Action Group (established by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee) hosted one of the most insightful and powerful sessions I have participated in for quite some time.
The combination of speakers and contributors provided a powerhouse of knowledge, experience and insight (thanks to Dr Sola Adesola, Rachael Carden, Dr Sadhvi Dar, Dr Angela Martinez Dy, Dr Kendi Guantai, Corinna Hattersley-Mitchell, Dr Vanessa Iwowo and Professor Stella M. Nkomo).
However, as chair and co-organiser, it struck me that our panel members were all women of colour which immediately raised the question of who is doing the work here? Who is raising the alarm? To bring about long lasting and meaningful change in our academy, this must be a shared and collaborative endeavour, especially when the “future of the world is at stake” (Professor Nkomo).
The workshop was planned around some key questions: why, what, who and how? Why is curriculum decolonisation such an important priority for business schools? What do we mean by decolonising the curriculum? Who needs to be involved in achieving meaningful change and how do we get people to act? In building a community-authored resource, we have started to build a ‘go to’ source of help for anyone who has ever asked ‘how can I better communicate the importance of curriculum decolonisation to my colleagues and get buy-in senior stakeholders/colleagues?’; ‘what specific actions can I take to start decolonising my modules?’; ‘what are the measures of success?’ and ‘how can curriculum decolonisation be explicitly embedded into my business school’s strategy?’.
Decolonisation and dismantling much of what we have known cannot be a simple ‘tick list’ or neat toolkit, but it is hoped that the resource we initiated during the day provides somewhere we can all go as we seek to shake up a system and ‘disrupt the scaffolding’ (Dr Iwowo).
As chair of the event, I wanted to offer some reflections and hint at some of the incredible resources that were shared. I hope my ‘seven Cs’ might capture some of our conversations and help frame the call to action. It is not an exhaustive list, but I hope it might aid people on their journey.
Firstly, comes challenge. Change doesn’t happen without disruption and sometimes outright insurgency. Many of our school missions seem to champion engagement with responsible business agendas and seek to advance social justice, so it is imperative that we address what Professor Nkomo highlights as the continuing “miseducation of our students”.
This is no easy task given it is about making ourselves vulnerable and taking a leap of faith (often through waves of resistance). Professor Nkomo’s powerful questioning of the very foundations of our business systems and knowledge made me question and reassess my own views. Her call to challenge Eurocentric “non-inclusive universalisation” (Nkomo, 1992) and capitalistic ways of managing, leading and doing business as superior and universal must lie at the centre of this decolonising work.
It is incumbent on us all to counter some commonly held views that suggest the world’s history of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery are not relevant to contemporary business management knowledge and processes. We cannot claim our organisational practices are race neutral - they are not. It is this misleading sense of the neutrality of knowledge production we must challenge. As we tackle what Professor Nkomo calls “global intersecting viruses” (i.e. Covid19, racism, environmental degradation, economic inequality, rising nationalism) we need to challenge and then transform the very places, power and practices upon which we have built our business schools (this must be beyond pulling down a statue or two, or renaming our buildings).
In her opening remarks, Dr Vanessa Iwowo quoted an Igbo (Nigerian) proverb, “A person who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body” - an important starting metaphor. Her warning of not “cloaking over issues” and homogenising challenging areas that might alienate the very groups which we are looking to support e.g. the artificial categorisation of 'BAME' was insightful.
I was struck by how vital self-reflection is and the value of pursuing our “own internal journey” (Dr Angela Martinez Dy) in the hierarchy and history of business education. It is perhaps only when we challenge ourselves (a deeply uncomfortable process) that we begin to see decolonisation as a centre of knowledge production. It has been this approach that I found particularly challenging as a business school leader.
I have often reflected on my own positionality and how my teaching might have been colonised by accepted (and unquestioned) ideologies, but I’ve never really thought about how this then must create spaces for imagining a new university. As Dr Iwowo urges, “Build your own consciousness which will in turn create new knowledge”, and this will lead to the development and construction of new teaching content, methods and pedagogy.
Construct (after deconstruction)
My doctoral disciplinary subject area was tourism and a previous colleague called tourism “the violence-rendering rhetorical instrument of imperialism” (Hollinshead 2004: 31), I wonder if the same might be said of business education?
Before we can construct a new curriculum, we must break down systemic barriers and inequities, and challenge its violence rendering power and influence before we are able to rebuild and construct a more inclusive and equitable educational system. As one workshop delegate put it, “it's not just about content, but about a new process and way of doing everything’, and another suggested, it is the “removal what has been embedded in the system for centuries".
The important work of BARC collective presented by Dr Martinez Dy is an incredibly useful resource to help us engage in activism and create those spaces by thinking about what decolonising is not, as well as what it is to “disrupt white rationalities by centring the feelings and emotions in the room”. I was also struck by the way Dr Iwowo asked us to reflect on the ideological violence done to the ‘Other’, echoing Professor Bannerjee’s (2021) plea for us to move beyond the “epistemic blindness that make invisible alternate ways of knowing and being”.
The business school is an important component of the intellectual economy that upholds the system; it is the 'how exactly it does this' that we need address. As many reflected during the day, it is difficult to entertain the ‘otherwise’ and unlearn much of what we have learnt, but if we can’t as an academic community, then what hope is there for other sectors and organisations?
The activism that must happen must not lie solely with people of colour. This is perhaps why the panel membership both inspired and concerned me. All too often I have called out for champions and allies, but it was Professor Nkomo’s call for ‘co-conspirators’, rather than allies, that struck me as a powerful and important step change.
The change will only come through committed collaboration and collective buy in, but this must happen by meeting people where they are and drawing them in to this endeavour. However, delegates noted community building is not without its issues, as one recalled, "As much as our colleagues are open minded and progressive, understandings of colonialism/ decolonisation are not uniform by any means. Often people think about diversity instead. I think it is a very difficult conversation and the way to start is by educating our colleagues".
One of our most powerful co-conspirators are our students, working with us in proactive anti-racist work. Increasingly projects to decolonise the curriculum with students are gaining traction and impact. It was, after all, students who fuelled the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ agenda when the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement saw students demanding the removal of Cecil Rhodes. We see the power of student collation in initiatives such as the University of Brighton’s Curriculum Advisers Scheme (Hall et al. 2021), Kingston University's Inclusive Curriculum Framework and the UCL student campaign, ‘Why is my curriculum white’? As Felix and Friedberg (2019) note "academics must be ready to learn from students too, rather than assume they know best". We need to do this in collaboration through open and brave conversations.
We need to share stories to prevent us from cloaking issues. Change comes when people are aware and heard; it needs more than tick lists, isolated events, and audits. Blogs such as the Decolonsing Alliance have led this work, but it must also happen at a more local faculty and department level. For example, faculty-run book clubs on key texts have been reported as high impact occasions for triggering important conversations and discussions. Moreover, Dr Iwowo urged us to never lose sight of how we have got here in the first place (the rise of Empire requiring ideological substitution) and consequently, the marginalisation we see today. Decolonisation must reverse gross epistemic injustice, yet before this can happen, we have to reflect, discuss and engage in difficult conversations.
In the work to decolonise, we cannot avoid the psychological and emotional labour that is required. It is also impossible to 'un-do' what has been embedded without a consciousness and conversation about 'what exactly was done' and to whom. Another approach has been to organise university and school-level conversations. In my own institution, the ‘Conversations about Race’ have been powerful vehicles to bring students and staff together in safe and brave spaces - sharing stories and lived experiences. Community organising techniques and external facilitation approaches surfaced numerous reflections and questions that had not been previously communicated.
Decolonisation is not just a social media campaign during Black History month or the occasional mention in faculty newsletters. In their powerful article ‘The business school is racist: Act up!’ Dar, Liu and Dy (2020) stress the need for collective action to dismantle racialised power structures. Their argument could not be clearer, and yet how has this call permeated our local faculty communities? I was struck by how powerful the conversations were during the workshop, but we need to find ways to replicate this same openness, transparency and visibility in our Schools.
It is only by mainstreaming these issues that changes will come and we shift beyond by what Jammulamadaka et al. (2021) refer to as “the periphery of debates about decolonising higher education”. In my own university, I have become increasingly concerned that the ‘decolonisation’ has become a synonym for diversification and ‘adding’ more resources, rather than dismantling structures. – it is not the same. As Banerjee further notes (2021) on Decolonizing Management Theory , we need to “explicit acknowledgement of the colonial basis of knowledge whereby only a Western knowing subject can produce histories and knowledge about the Other”.
Finally, we come to the curriculum! Despite the workshop being focused on the curriculum, it struck me that it is only after we engage in the debates summarised above that we can even think about what we teach, how and why. Dr Sadhvi Dar highlighted that our business curriculum remains stubbornly uniform and fails to engage with the kinds of critical debates which characterise other disciplines. Dr Dar reminded us we need to create more porous boundaries in our discipline, making our own discipline vulnerable to being overturned and challenged. As another delegate notes, “it’s about rewriting narratives, redefining knowledge, and challenging norms put forward based on colonisation, imperialism and radicalisation” which is so much more than adding a black or brown author to a module’s Reading List (although this is a step in the right direction).
The re-emphasis that Dr Sola Adesola placed on not just ‘adding’ decolonisation to the agenda is an important one given the levels of intervention must be multiple, across the university and outside the formal classroom. Meaningful change will require transformation of society and the breaking down of structural inequalities, and this work will then start to flow into our curricula. I am concerned we might have this the wrong way around; we seek to change the curricula but ignore the structures and deep injustices behind their very creation.
Securing the active engagement of colleagues and senior teams in this decolonisation work is a challenge that must be pursued by us all. The current practice where colleagues from non-white populations take the lead in advancing an anti-racist agenda is unjust, unfair and ultimately not sustainable. We need to create spaces that acknowledge the cultural, colonial and race history which has informed our curriculum to date and capitalise on the multinational character of the Business School. Students seek learning and knowledge to help them in the labour market so we need to be seeking alternative models to engage our communities (re)shape our pedagogies. Audits may well be one short term task necessary to kick off this change (but what do arbitrary metrics do apart from pressurise people?). Perhaps it’s better we work with colleagues and students in a common and shared endeavour in this place of resistance and activism - ensuring they have the resources, the recognition, support and the power to make the changes we all seek to make. I look forward to continuing this endeavour with the Chartered ABS community.
Professor Sally Everett is Vice Dean (Education) at King's Business School, King's College, London
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Banerjee, S. B. (2021). Decolonizing Management Theory: A Critical Perspective. Journal of Management Studies (published online), doi:10.1111/joms.12756.
Bhambra, G.K., D. Gebrial and K. Nişancıoğlu (eds.) (2018) Decolonizing the University. London:Pluto Press
Building the Anti Racist Classroom (BARC) (2021). Workshop Guide. Accessed at: https://barcworkshop.org/workshop-guide/
Felix, M. and Friedberg, J. (2019) To decolonise the curriculum, we have to decolonise ourselves. WONKHE 9/4/19. https://wonkhe.com/blogs/to-decolonise-the-curriculum-we-have-to-decolonise-ourselves/
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Nkomo, S. M. (1992) The Emperor Has No Clothes: Rewriting Race in Organizations. Academy of Management Review 17(3): 487–513