Debating the value of Birmingham University’s black studies course
Kehinde Andrews, Associate Professor in Sociology at Birmingham City University, wants to talk about studying black subjects. Birmingham City University has opened a black studies university course. The black experience in Britain is worthy of study, of course it is. But doesn’t this course limit black students, make what should be a full education with all the navigating between opinion, debate and textual evidence into a ‘safe space’ where minds are narrowed? It’s more divisive than it is empowering, offering segregation over equality. He writes in the Guardian:
While in the UK the student body has also become undoubtedly more diverse, the staff and therefore academic interests have remained overwhelmingly exclusive and white. Black British-born staff make up only 1% of full-time staff, representing just 85 out of the UK’s 18,510 university professors and face barriers to promotion once employed. The unfortunate reality is that black studies has not emerged sooner because there has not been a critical mass of staff who could teach the subject.
We at BCU are able to offer a high-quality black studies degree because our department has six full-time black academic members of staff who work in the discipline.
Only black teachers can teach black subjects? Is work by non-black scholars like Harvard’s Roland Fryer into the causes of economic disparities between blacks and whites invalidated? What of non-black academic Eugene Genovese’s studies on slavery and the role of religion in black American history? Is black history only for blacks? As she asks, is the course about black justice, politics and rights or a bona fide filed of study?
We have started to build a network of scholars, a research community and to publish work on black studies in Britain. Sadly the majority of academic departments in the UK have no black members of staff at all, let alone enough to even hold a conversation about starting a black studies degree.
Movements such as Why is My Curriculum White? and Rhodes Must Fall show that students are tired of some of the unrepresentative and outdated knowledge and experiences being reproduced in British universities.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large populations of poor immigrants arrived in the U.S.–Irish, Italians, and Jews from Russia and Poland. Their extreme poverty placed them at the bottom of the social ladder, and they were often treated with contempt. Yet just a few generations later they were assimilated, and their rapid upward social mobility had produced mayors, senators, judges, and even Presidents from among their ranks. None of this could have happened without first-rate public education.
To be sure, they worked hard to get ahead, but they were not obstructed by something that afflicts the have-nots of today: as they walked through the school gates they were not met by people intent on luring them into Irish or Italian Studies programs whose purpose was to keep them in a state of permanent resentment over past wrongs at the hands of either Europeans or establishment America. Instead, they could give their full attention to learning. They took courses that informed them about their new land’s folkways and history, which gave them both the ability and the confidence needed to grasp the opportunities it offered them.
When we compare this story with what is happening to minority students today, we see a tragedy.
Dr Andrews says that’s not so:
“Birmingham is the perfect place to launch Black Studies, being one of Europe’s most diverse cities, with a strong history of community activism and engagement. For too long UK universities have overlooked the experiences and perspectives of those in the African diaspora. The contributions of Black scholars, activists and communities have not been recognised, creating a limited curriculum.
“Student movements have recently demonstrated this across the country, complaining of a ‘narrow knowledge’ in universities, including the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign “The new degree offers students a critical understanding of British and global society, international study abroad opportunities and experiences working to improve conditions in communities.”
Isn’t University education meant to be expansive? Is this a course in a bubble? Would you sign up?