Is it time to decolonise the curriculum?

The Open University has identified the decolonisation of the curriculum as one of the top trends likely to influence teaching in the next ten years. Likewise in South Africa calls to decolonise education, already loud, have been growing. In this post Jonathan Smith, using the English Curriculum as an example, argues for integration as opposed to decolonisation.

Recently I was sorely challenged on the foundation of the English Curriculum when Antjie Krog shared at the Franschhoek Literary Festival about the Africa Pulse Project she is a co-ordinating. She spoke passionately about African Language literature masterpieces—some with the scope of Dickens, the tragedy of Shakespeare, the guile of Harper Lee and the cynicism of Plath—which have lay neglected for decades. Her team has brilliantly translated these classics into English; from Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho—the nuances of poetry and the possibility of epics laid bare in a universal language.

This endeavour led to me question what relevance these have to high-school English classes, in particular in the discussions around “decolonising” education. Perhaps an exploration of “Beauty” can guide us.

“The classic cannon we teach within our schools is still largely European.”

In each of our minds, the idealistic loveliness of a “Helen of Troy’ differs; yet the feelings and emotions and images crafted by wordsmiths seeks to enable our imaginations. The defining traits of beauty are often based on depictions that are cultural—and feminine. This is no more evident than in the field of poetry and literature.

So: if we follow Shakespeare, beauty is a “temperate” “summer’s day”, a “rose” that “blushes”. It is a “grace” that makes dark a white: “For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright and “whose shadow shadows doth make bright”. Beauty is Daisy: “a face lovely with bright things in it and “a voice full of money” and hoping for a “beautiful little fool”. Beauty is the depiction of “…a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” It is like Tolstoy’s Anna: she was the white light “as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” All this beauty—so often linked to light, not darkness. Linked to Whiteness, not Blackness. The only type of Black Beauty I ever came across at school was linked to a horse.

Subsequently, these are the depictions of beauty with which we teach and engage the children in our care. As an English teacher, I am a firm believer in the worth of exploring literature; the creation of worlds and the ability to seek to present empathetic characters that become real to us. Perhaps we can say you are what you read, at least in part.

“Authors such as Vilikazi, Mqyai and Khaketla, giants of literature who, had they been born in England would have had streets and monuments after them, come to life in these translations that speak to the South African soul and experience.”

And the classic cannon we teach within our schools is still largely European, white and based in a ‘foreign’ culture that represents a largely white view of beauty…and life! That is not to say that if we only read one type of literature we are wrong; rather, it asks the question as to what we are missing out on. The Western classics are taught for a reason; they embody great universal truth and empathy, and those stories, and the power of world-making, still enchants us to this day. Yet perhaps we can add some voices that share even more lived reality.

This is not about decolonising the curriculum; it is about integrating it, making it more inclusive and open to classical voices from all types and climes and ideas. Authors such as Vilikazi, Mqyai and Khaketla, giants of literature who, had they been born in England would have had streets and monuments after them, come to life in these translations that speak to the South African soul and experience.

The challenge is then, surely, to teach the canon of classics and incorporate these voices into our syllabus. We would gladly teach an English translation of Tolstoy. So then, let us teach a Shakespearean sonnet AND a Vilikazi Limerick. Let the stories of the Zulu Drakensberg monster Kodumodumo live alongside the monster(s) shown in The Lord of the Flies. Let the Lawsuit of the Twins be engaged alongside the issues of law in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  This is such an easy task; Krog and her team have enabled us, as teachers to bring life to literature in all guises, shapes and colours.

How depressing that my concept of beauty may have, in part, be determined by the voices I have read. Until I, in my mid-thirties, heard Vilikazi’s Nomkhosi of my fathers, I cannot recall hearing ‘black beauty’ elegantly praised. May the children in my class, reflecting the South African diversity, learn that Black can be as Beautiful as White. As Vilkazi writes:

 I love you for you Blackness

Which is like the beginning of night,

Which lightens up cats’ eye;

Those eyes are yours, Nomkhosi.

I love you for the hair in your head,

A black mamba of the forest

With monkey-ropes coiled around its body.

It shines like fat.

Jonathan Alexander Smith gave up the corporate world to follow his passion for teaching. He is currently an English teacher and a Housemaster at Michaelhouse in the Kwazulu Natal Midlands, having taught at St Johns College previously. Jonathan has a PGCE and Master’s Degree. He has a keen interest in gender issues, a passion for exploring injustices as they are perceived and believes that ‘patriarchy is not God’s dream for the world’.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonoAsmith.


  1. “…which have lay neglected for decades.” You need to take care to ensure you proofread your work. “Lay” (neglected) should be “lain”, that being the past tense of “lay” and you use too many semicolons and colons where commas would suffice.


    • Lay is also the past tense of lie so it works. Semicolons, colons and commas are more a matter of writing style so while commas might suffice, that is the choice of the author. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Are you in agreement with the main argument of the post?


      • Yes, I strongly agree with you that (South) african authors should be included in your curriculum. When I was at MHS (late ’50s) I always rather envied that small and exclusive knot of boys (all white of course) who studied Zulu for matric. It should have been mandatory for us to learn one of SA’s native languages. I hope it is now.

        I do remember being pleased that our poetry set book, Poems for Discussion (compiled by A G Hooper & C J D Harvey), included Roy Campbell and William Plomer. Again, both white but that was better than having nothing about Africa.

        With regard to “lay”, Yes it does also work for the past tense but not if you put “have” before it. Had you written, “…which lay neglected for decades.” it would not have jarred me and my pedantry would have remained unknown to you!

        Best wishes,


  2. I enjoyed reading your blog, thank you. I think that decolonising the curriculum is exactly about integration, so that we are exposed to many different voices and not just that of those who previously colonised us. May your children, indeed, learn that black and white can be equally beautiful.


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