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Debate: It’s Time To Ditch the Canon of Great White Men

For too long our schools and universities have excluded people of colour from the canon of great writers. All students, whatever their heritage, should be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read. In our increasingly diverse society that means that Plato and Socrates, Locke and Hume, Dante and Dickens – just some on the roll call of ‘dead white men’ should be taken down from their pedestals to make room for others. That’s the argument made by advocates of decolonising the curriculum. Many of these campaigners don’t want to entirely eliminate white men from the reading lists. In their view it’s more about acknowledging how racism and colonialism have shaped our past and present and making learning relevant to the cultures and identities of the young people being taught.  

But others strongly oppose this campaign and believe that it fundamentally misunderstands the value of the great writing of the past. While they welcome a curriculum that includes such names as Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison, they do so because these are great writers who touch on something universal, not because of their ethnicity or identity. We cannot understand who we are today, they argue, unless we understand where we’ve come from, and that means we need to keep studying the great men of the past, even if some of them – like the Enlightenment thinkers Kant and Hume – had racist ideas that most people today find deeply abhorrent. After all, they claim, it was Enlightenment ideas about universal human dignity that led to the condemnation of slavery and racism, and indeed fed into the progressive values that drive the decolonising campaigners today.

In June 2023 we brought together Jeffrey Boakye, former English teacher and author of the acclaimed memoir I Heard What You Said, and journalist Tomiwa Owolade to discuss and debate this timely topic. The debate was chaired by Shahidha Bari.


For the motion

Jeffrey Boakye

Author, broadcaster, educator and journalist, whose latest book is I Heard What You Said , which calls for a revolution in education. 

Author, broadcaster, educator and journalist with a particular interest in issues surrounding race, masculinity, education and popular culture. Originally from Brixton in London, Jeffrey taught secondary English for fifteen years. He is a senior teaching fellow at the University of Manchester and has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Leicester. Jeffrey’s books include Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime; Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored; What is Masculinity? Why Does it Matter? And Other Big Questions; Musical Truth: A Musical Journey Through Modern Black Britain and Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer. He is also the co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s double award-winning Add to Playlist. His latest book is I Heard What You Said, which calls for a revolution in education.   
Against the motion

Tomiwa Owolade

Writer and critic, whose new book is This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter

Writer and critic. He is a contributing writer at the New Statesman. He has also written for many other publications, including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Financial Times and The Observer. His new book is This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter.  

Chair TBC


Shahidha Bari

Writer, academic and broadcaster

Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. She is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 3's Arts and Ideas programme, Free Thinking, and an occasional presenter of BBC Radio 4's Front Row and Saturday Review. She contributes to Aeon, The Financial Times, Frieze art magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. She is the author of Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes.