Are the university’s Arts and Humanities courses still stuck in the past?

Coming to university, you are told that you will be moving away from the spoon-fed nature of a school curriculum to one that encourages critical thinking and expands your knowledge even further. However, broadening your academic horizons proves not to be so easy if you happen to study a course that only offers a Eurocentric view on history, art or literature. Following the launch of the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign in 2015, which brought attention to a lack of diversity amongst its taught subjects, Leeds has certainly tried to move away from a Western focus in the Arts and Humanities.

One of the first things my tutors encouraged our class to reflect on in our first year of Art History was how, for centuries on end, the subject has highlighted the brilliance and teleological development of European works in contrast to the so-called ‘primitive’ style of art being made in non-Western parts of the world. We were brought face to face with the fact that history has been consistent in its attempt to project the West as superior to the undeveloped ‘Other’. However, we were certainly allowed to challenge this notion ourselves by being given the chance to learn about the fascinating art that has been and is still being created outside of Europe.

My academic experience at Leeds has definitely enabled me to escape an education on all things Western, but only to an extent. The Faculty Of Arts, Humanities and Cultures does offer a number of modules on famous European artistic eras such as the post-war Avant-Garde, the Abstract Expressionists of New York and the Italian Renaissance – also known as the beacon of most Art History survey textbooks – but there is also the opportunity to study a more diverse History of Art. In first and second year our core modules always included a number of references to Art History from outside of the Western bubble. In later years, you also have the opportunity to explore art historical and museological representation of Asian and African art from the early centuries to the present day, taught by professors that have an incredible knowledge of the field.

A diverse curriculum is also present within the faculty of English, which holds a number of modules in final year that focus on non-Western work. A core module on Postcolonial literature brings to light the important writing by contemporary authors from several post-colonial nations that reflect on the issues that infiltrate these countries following decolonisation. There is also the opportunity to study an extremely pertinent module on contemporary refugee writers and their experiences. It’s a refreshing break from the classical white-dominated canon.

Now, while I seem to praise the university for their diverse curriculum, notice that I only mention a mere two programmes here amongst the wide array that exist within the Arts and Humanities faculties. It is true that there are many programmes of study at Leeds that allow students to question literary, historical, and sociological canons through the lens of post-colonialism and feminism. However, despite an increase in more diverse modules, there is still certainly an imbalance in the curriculums of many subjects, with modules about white male artists, white writers and white history, propped up by predominantly white reading lists, being more readily available to study than those on the works, histories and writings of people of colour. So, while Leeds has certainly diversified the curriculum of Arts and Humanities modules to an extent, there is still plenty more room for change.

Fiona Holland

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