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Join the Black Studies course, and learn why studying is bad for black people


Two weeks today, the A-level results will be out. If you’re hoping to go to university but are still unsure of what or where to study, you could think about Birmingham City University’s ‘Black Studies’ course.

Here you won’t be limited to dull learning, but can take part in ‘building a radical community of practice’. BCU no longer sees itself limited by the old-fashioned notion that universities should simply teach. They are there to change things through ‘social activism’, necessary in the face of an educational system that is so racist that according to Dr Kehinde Andrews, an associate professor on the Black Studies course, universities are like ‘slave plantations’.

What we need, according to Dr Andrews, is the ‘science of liberation’ to lift black people out of oppression. In the TED talk linked to above and in a separate speech here, he argues that only the teaching of Black Studies as a separate academic discipline can challenge this racism.

Dr Andrews tells us that our schools are an ‘oppressive force’ for black young people. He doesn’t seem to cite a great deal of evidence but apparently the whole curriculum is either racist or at best Eurocentric, even science and maths. We are not told, though, what non-Eurocentric maths or science would look like. Would it make a difference to the engineering that went into the last plane I flew on, my last flu jab or the algorithms running my smartphone? Dr Andrews complains that the curriculum ‘privileges some knowledge’ over other knowledge. Perhaps he thinks all ideas are of equal value and that universities shouldn’t discriminate between things that are intellectually valid and things that aren’t?

He gives the example of ‘African Socialism’ as a way of doing things that has been ‘discarded’, doubtless from sheer racism. Given the awful damage socialism has done to African economies since independence, thank God we’ve discarded it.

He also claims that our educational system trained black people in ex-colonial countries to run them badly and corruptly. Sixty-odd years after the end of empire, all the misery in our former colonies is still our fault. The educational system he works in is ‘the enemy’ and we can no longer allow ‘the enemy to educate our children’.

For Dr Andrews, we must change the system and have ‘education for liberation’. Black Studies courses should not just develop students and researchers but activists who can make those changes. Here, we cross a line. Of course academics should be free to express whatever views they like, up to and including total nonsense, but the role of a university is to teach, to provide a forum for learning and debate. Its role is not to be a mini political party or an ideological platform, even for just causes.

Beyond the university, Dr Andrews’s course links to the Black Studies Association which aims at the wider promotion of the subject. Its website tells us its committee ‘will serve as a place for scholars of African heritage from a wide range of academic disciplines to share the hegemonic and heterogenic impact of their work’. (I assume white scholars can’t contribute). Further, it has ‘an unyielding commitment to challenge Eurocentric epistemological and ontological notions of discipline and embrace silenced global majority notions’. If you share my appreciation of tortured syntax, the website is well worth a visit.

Black Studies seems to be growing in influence, with Dr Andrews as one of the movement’s more prominent representatives, with plenty of TV appearances and, unsurprisingly, pieces in the Guardian.

And this all matters. When Dr Andrews and his colleagues make statements such as ‘school is bad for black people’ and even compare schools to prisons, how much harm does that do to young black people? Why work hard on your GCSEs or A-levels when everything is stacked against you? If, as Dr Andrews claims, ‘the point of schooling is to make it much more difficult for people like me to succeed’, what’s the point of trying to engage with it? Why should parents get involved in their child’s education or encourage effort if the system hates them? Perhaps I should have told some of the great black teenagers I’ve known and worked with in voluntary roles over the years just to give up? What a miserable message to send to any of our young people.

Politics has changed in the nearly forty years since I used to go on marches against the very real and nasty racism of the National Front. So perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me to think we should try to exclude race from education, or perhaps it’s just my ‘white privilege’ clouding my judgement.

But if you do want to spend three years at university finding out how evil and racist everything is, it won’t be cheap. It will cost you £27,750 for three years of tuition before all the other expenses of student life, which typically means a total debt at graduation of around £50,000. You might think that’s a reasonable cost to take on at the start of your adult life. That it will enhance your career prospects in a jobs market over-stuffed with graduates. That you will impress potential employers with your sense of grievance. Or you might choose to do something more useful.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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