A recent open letter from a group of English students at Cambridge university has generated a huge amount of press interest, and the debate continues to rumble on. But what did these students mean when they asked their department head to consider "decolonising" the Faculty of English, and why has their intervention sparked heated nationwide discussion?

What does "decolonising the syllabus" mean?

At its simplest, the call to decolonise the syllabus simply reflects a desire for a syllabus that covers a greater diversity of writers and doesn’t privilege the literary output of white (mostly) British men to the exclusion of other groups. It’s a call to ensure that the diversity of the literature syllabus at Cambridge (and elsewhere) reflects the diversity of the student population, who are increasingly drawn from throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.

While these students may be studying at elite UK universities because of their globally leading status, they’re less inclined than their counterparts forty or fifty years ago would have been to consider themselves to be from the “margins” of the world, and accept without question the idea that the UK is the cultural centre of the world.

But why "decolonising"?

This term is part of why the call to diversify Cambridge’s literary studies syllabus has proved so controversial. It refers to the history of the British Empire, which at its height was the largest empire in global history and encompassed almost a quarter of the world’s population. The historical legacy of the British Empire is hotly contested, but it is beyond doubt that it appropriated and controlled – by means of both diplomacy and military force – a great deal of land, and subjugated a great many people to its rule. It also promoted British art, culture, and values as the epitome of civilisation. The British Empire is also one of the main reasons – along with the post-war dominance of the United States – why English is such a prominent language worldwide, and why so many students come from all over the globe to study in English-speaking institutions.

The Cambridge students’ argument is that by continuing to focus on authors from a narrow range of racial, cultural, and geographical backgrounds, the syllabus both fails to take into account the global history of English and perpetuates the arrogance and cultural dominance typical of an earlier period in British history. Tellingly, the open letter references the influential postcolonial scholar Edward Said, who argued not only that literary studies should take into account works and authors beyond the traditional canon, but – by rereading archetypally English works like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park – that colonial history and British history are irrevocably intertwined, and that English literature can’t be properly read and understood without a thorough understanding of the history of the British Empire.

Why has the call generated so much controversy?

In part, it’s because art, culture and literature are central to our sense of who “we” are. The notion of the literary canon (the term given to works of literature that are universally considered to be of outstanding merit and worthy of study) goes well beyond any individual university syllabus and feeds into broader questions of identity and values. Especially in the current ideological climate, where Brexit and the discussions surrounding the referenda around both Scottish independence and EU membership have generated considerable discussion about what it means to be British in the twenty-first century, the response from certain sections of the press has been highly defensive, fuelled by alarmist and factually inaccurate reports that the Cambridge students wanted to arbitrarily eliminate white, male authors from the canon as part of an exercise in political correctness.

I don’t study literature; why should I care?

Although the terms of this argument are focused on literature, its structure and implications are much more general. Arguments about the literary canon intersect with two broader questions related to Higher Education – one about institutions, the other about disciplines. The call to diversify the syllabus feeds into the debate about how sensitive universities should be regarding diversity and inclusion – which also encompasses recent arguments about free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and so on.

But the literary canon is so hotly contested because it also defines the boundaries of an academic discipline – the questions of what’s worth scholarly attention and what isn’t, and what aspects of a field are considered to form its core or sit at its margins. If you’re interested in any aspect of academic life, from the institutional culture of our universities and the way they treat their students to the ways in which disciplines evolve, this is a debate you’re going to want to follow closely!