You can’t understand the world without learning about empire

Observing the protests against racism in the streets of the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere feels like watching not only a mass movement, but also a classroom, crackling with intellectual energy. For the movement on the streets is not just protesting against specific acts and omissions, it is also making connections and joining dots, insisting on seeing patterns where once there were only isolated facts and unhappy coincidences. 

The protestors, many of them young and yet mature beyond their years, are making linkages between the history of colonialism and slavery and the structural racism which is its legacy. They are doing so despite, rather than because, their education has equipped them to make such connections. The street is their classroom because their classrooms have failed them. 

It should not, and need not, be so. At Goldsmiths, over a decade ago – well before students began to raise the demand to ‘decolonize the curriculum’ – we began a process of overhauling the courses we teach. We introduced new courses that link contemporary movements and issues – including Black Lives Matter, the politics of statuary, and the numerous struggles against neocolonialism in the Global South – with the histories of conquest and colonialism that have made them inevitable and necessary. 

Beginning with the first year of a degree in Politics, we introduced a course on colonialism and the making of the modern world, which starts with Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter, and then ‘works backward’ to include the conquest of the Americas, slavery and the heyday of colonialism and the British empire. 

Our aim was and is to tell a story about the making of the modern world, one that is not about how European genius and innovation came to encompass and reshape the world – the conventional ‘first the West, then the Rest’ narrative  but about how slavery, conquest, colonialism and imperialism created for the first time in human history a single, but profoundly unequal world. 

We also introduced a range of courses for the subsequent years of an undergraduate degree, with two aims in mind. First, to make it impossible to complete a degree in Politics (or a combined degree including Politics) without having even the option of encountering Africa, China, South Asia, Japan, the Middle East and Latin America – that is to say, the vast majority of humankind. Second, to make it possible for students to study the processes of slavery, empire, colonialism and immigration that connected these regions and peoples, and in doing so made our modern world and our modern politics.

This has not been without its difficulties, including, sometimes, resistance from some colleagues. But there has been no resistance from our students. This is despite the fact that they have little or no familiarity with the material we present. The majority come to us having scarcely encountered this in the course of their schooling, for as has often been noted, including by a University of Liverpool and Runnymeade Trust report in 2019, it is possible to study history and politics at school and barely confront Britain’s imperial past. But we have found that this makes our students all the more eager to learn of this past, and to connect it with their, and our, present. We have been struck and gratified by the eagerness, the thirst, with which our students debate colonialism, race, slavery, conquest and dispossession. 

More than half of our students are people of colour, and for many of them, this is the first time in their education they can see something of themselves and their parents and grandparents, and of the events and processes that shaped their lives – and led them to the UK. But as with the protestors, our most passionate students are as likely to be white, as black or Asian. For we emphasize that what we teach is not minority or ethnic or black history, but British and world history and politics – but that this cannot properly be understood without according a central place to slavery, empire, and non-western peoples. 

The aim of our courses is thus not ‘inclusivity’, or any of the other well-meaning but superficial formulas currently in circulation, and even less is it to induce guilt amongst some of our students, but rather to illuminate the world-historical processes that shaped and continue to shape everyone’s present – albeit in different ways. The industrial revolution, contemporary international politics (including the division of the world into rich and poor nations), immigration patterns, art, music, and much else besides, we seek to show by tracing the connections, are incomprehensible without a knowledge of colonialism and empire, including the largest and most consequential empire of modern history – the British Empire. Teaching about non-western peoples, and including many black and brown authors on our reading lists, is a consequence of this pedagogic mission, rather than a belated and self-conscious attempt to keep abreast of current developments. 

Our aim throughout has been to maintain intellectual rigour, not by confusing such rigour with a distance from the everyday world and its struggles, but by providing the tools by which the everyday and contemporary struggles might be better understood. We have sought to bridge the divide between the classroom and the street. We have not always been successful, and where we have failed, our pupils have told us so and have become our teachers, as during the remarkable occupation of Goldsmiths in 2019, when students demanded that the institution confront and address its own complicity in the reproduction of structural racism. At this current moment, when many of our students are active in anti-racist organisations, campaigning and protesting, they are once again showing us that the classroom and the street are not only connected, as we have sought to teach: but that sometimes, they need to be seamlessly joined. 

*the authors of this article direct the Centre for Postcolonial Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

A very different version of this text was published in Spanish by Diario Publico of Madrid: