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The Hypocrisy (and Futility) of English-Only "Decolonization"

Afew weeks ago, I attended two committee meetings sponsored by my institution’s College of Arts and Humanities. One was a strategic-planning session, during which a few professors provided a passionate plea in favor of “decolonizing the curriculum.” This phrase, which has become popular in both British and American academe, refers to crafting a course of studies less reliant on the works of “dead white males” and more reflective of a broad range of human experience. The other meeting was about the coursework required of all majors in the college. In the latter gathering, numerous professors and staff members advocated watering down — if not outright eliminating — the college’s language requirement. From those two meetings I received an incongruous message: Some American educators appear to favor a “decolonized” course of studies that’s conducted entirely in English. And they do not seem to recognize the contradictions inherent in that position.

One may attribute the incoherence of such a stance to the vicissitudes of life in contemporary American institutions of higher learning. The dominance of the choose-your-own-adventure curriculum in U.S. colleges and universities incentivizes reforms that are anathema to the spirit of liberal education. Many students fear foreign-language courses for the same reason they dread math requirements: Such coursework typically necessitates more hard work and discipline than do other college classes. Courses that are most likely to provide undergraduates with a rigorous and potentially life-changing intellectual experience, then, become a liability. Especially in our anti-humanistic age, our free-market curriculum encourages a race to the bottom, with faculty members dumbing down their institution’s course of studies in a feverish — and cynical — attempt to court undergraduates.

But support for English-only “decolonization” speaks to much more than merely the perverse incentives of contemporary American higher education. It also provides a warning about how our nation’s colleges and universities can foment a false cosmopolitanism, a paradoxically provincial view of other cultures that encourages an unmerited sense of worldliness among American undergraduates. What U.S. institutions of higher learning advertise as genuine cosmopolitanism can be viewed as a form of intellectual colonialism — an American ideology of cultural difference that conveniently jettisons the necessity of doing the hard work to learn about other nations and ways of life.

In a perceptive article in Journal X from 2004, the comparative-literature scholar Dorothy Figueira came to a similar conclusion about the American penchant for faux cosmopolitanism, in her case articulated in the context of postcolonial studies. “Although postcolonial theory celebrates diversity,” she wrote, “it does so without compromising American tendencies toward cultural provincialism, triumphalism, or indifference to the world. Like those popular ethnic fairs one finds throughout the United States, postcolonial theory allows students to taste other cultures without having to travel or learn hard languages. In the internet age … the Other can now be consumed ‘on the cheap.’”

Indeed, English-only “decolonization” gives the impression that the only required characteristic of a worldly individual is a certain kind of progressive American ideology, one that boils down complex historical dynamics and cross-cultural interactions into an easily digested narrative of right and wrong. 

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education