University of Liverpool tells history lecturers to “problematise Whiteness”.

According to an article in The Telegraph on 15 June, the University of Liverpool recently issued a new set of guidelines to lecturers in the history department, advising them on how to “diversify” and “decolonise” their curricula. The guidance, sent to teaching staff earlier this month, explained how current courses lacked emphasis on “queer history” and encouraged lecturers to “think creatively” about how to incorporate issues of gender and race into their modules.

As a means of sparking such creativity, the History Curriculum Diversity Audit, as the report is called, asks academics to ponder whether a “module that teaches exclusively about race relations [could] do more to problematise and de-centre whiteness”. Lest it be thought that this is merely a call to widen reading lists and include authors from a range of backgrounds, the guidance goes on to say that such measures are not sufficient. Rather, lecturers should encourage discussions about the diversity of their reading lists, and ensure that seminars are always “safe spaces” for students who may find certain topics “emotional.” Moreover, the Audit urges the history department to create compulsory sessions on “inclusive teaching” to ensure that teaching staff feel “comfortable initiating and managing such conversations”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one lecturer from the university told The Telegraph that the advice came across as “ideologically driven” and insisted that this is “the wrong way to approach history.” Elaborating further, the lecturer said, “Historians should have the freedom to teach what they believe is true rather than having an agreed ideology that you’re not supposed to question.”

Of course, this should be an uncontroversial point, yet the fact that the lecturer in question felt the need to express his or her concerns anonymously indicates an unhealthy academic environment in the department, and perhaps at the university more generally. Clearly, Liverpool teaching staff feel constrained by the official guidelines in their ability to teach modules as they see fit, and do not even dare criticise these guidelines.

For its part, the University of Liverpool defended the new guidance, denying that it contravened academic freedom. A spokesperson told The Telegraph that “reviewing [the] curricula to ensure content is reflective of cultural, historical and societal contexts” is an important part of the university’s commitment to “an inclusive experience” for all students. The spokesperson added that a complete “decolonisation framework” would be “a useful and important guide for staff in the development of their modules and, as always, colleagues will retain full academic freedom in how this is best applied.”

While this statement pays lip service to the idea of academic freedom, it completely misses the point. Insisting that lecturers follow the “framework” of a particular ideological viewpoint does in fact limit academic freedom, and merely granting them the privilege of deciding exactly how to implement the framework does not alter that fact. There should be no official “framework”. Rather, lecturers should be free to teach their modules in the way they find most appropriate, regardless of whether that includes “decolonisation” or not.

Naturally, the University of Liverpool has a responsibility to ensure that all modules are of a sufficient academic quality and in line with expected standards, but this is already ensured by its Programme and Module Approval process. If anything, it seems likely that the new guidelines will impair the quality of modules, by restricting the range of topics and arguments that lecturers can discuss with their students. A thriving academic environment requires a variety of competing viewpoints, not “diversity guidelines” demanding that certain concepts must be “problematised” or “de-centred”.