What impact does an ethnocentric curriculum have on a child’s identity?

Sociology student Jade Hargreaves discusses the issues that arise from our ethnocentric education system

Times Higher Education website

An ethnocentric curriculum is one that reflects a narrow belief based on the superiority surrounding a dominant ethnic group or culture. In Britain, we can observe an ethnocentric curriculum that centres itself around a white, British culture. This comes as a shock to precisely no one, or at least no one who holds a level of observance and tolerance within them. Calls for multiculturalism have had little to no success, and a curriculum that is diverse and celebrates all of its pupils backgrounds has yet to be achieved. However, at least we have moved on from education policies in the 50’s that disregarded different cultures all together, and instead tried to assimilate non-white pupils into British culture. But progress from this oppressive policy is not enough. Education is still favouring children from a white and British background, and leaves pupils outside of this demographic marginalised and excluded.

We can see in the national curriculum the lingering effects of colonialism, where figures such as Christopher Columbus are suggested to be a case study for ‘significant individuals…who contributed to national and international achievements’. One would only assume that teachers are omitting the fact he was instrumental in the appropriation, displacement, and genocide of people who originally occupied the land he ‘found’. The further we look into the curriculum, the more we see that it is littered with colonialism and ethnocentrism. Such as, geography lessons that focus heavily western societies. By KS1 (age 5-7) a non-white child could be seeing that their history is not as important as white british history, or that their home country is not worth learning about. The impact of this exclusion is detrimental to a child and the development of their confidence. As the years progress they may lose confidence in their identity, and feel left out because of it. This is just one of the devastating effects colonialism has had in creating a discourse of the ‘other’. This is a discourse that encourages racial stereotypes, prejudice, and ignorance. Ironically, education can (and should) be a solution to reducing all three of these harmful actions.

Alternatively, pupils may see that another institution, fuelled by racism, has failed them. Students may become disillusioned by the education system, and reject what school teaches them. Personally I have witnessed how a narrow curriculum can noticeably diminish students enthusiasm for learning. I found myself in the week leading up to the Christmas break teaching a class of twelve KS1 children on the outskirts of Birmingham about why we celebrate the holiday. The majority of these children did not celebrate Christmas, and their usual excitement for the class had fizzled away. I felt the class had suddenly become ideologically charged. It led me to the bleak realisation that this will not have been the children’s first encounter with a topic they cannot relate to, and it would not be their last. Eventually this would become a bore, so can we blame non-white pupils who become disinterested? In performance tables, black students are reportedly the ‘lowest performing group’. In 2014 black students were 3.4 points below the national average, with 51.3% achieving grade A*-C at GCSE. Could this be a reflection that the ethnocentric curriculum is failing non-white students?

In either case, an ethnocentric curriculum is failing to provide a meritocratic education for all its pupils. Instead it favours repeatedly teaching an exclusive curriculum. Simple changes can be made to the national curriculum to incorporate and encourage diversity. These changes could include representing other historical discourses that challenge colonialism, and provide role models of colour to show children that anyone can be a ‘significant individual’ and make history, which would boost their confidence. Engaging white teachers in discussions about white privilege is also vital, so they can reflect upon their role in reproducing the dominant ideologies in education. Of course, these simple changes cannot altogether eradicate the institutionally racist structure on which schools function. Bigger changes must be made to policies, and the wider structures in society that would feed into the school system. Whilst there was widespread re-evaluation across institutions in 2000 with the race reforms act, many would argue this wasn’t enough to make education equal for all, and there is still a long way to go. But even small steps towards diversifying education are better than no steps at all.

On a fundamental level, the purpose of education from a functionalist perspective is to socialise children into the norms and values of society. So what are we really teaching children with this narrow, exclusive curriculum? Values that encourage exclusion based on skin tone. Norms that accept racial hierarchy. If you’re looking at the big picture, an ethnocentric curriculum is breeding ignorance, racism, and failing school children. On a micro scale, it’s destroying the confidence of a child.

Jade Hargreaves is second year sociology student at Warwick University

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