A piece in yesterday’s Telegraph:
Mile, inch, yard, pound and ounce are ‘tied deeply to idea of the Empire’ and their presence in the curriculum could change, say scholars
Oxford University has suggested imperial measurements should be “decolonised” over links to the British Empire.
The mile, inch, yard, pound and ounce are “tied deeply to the idea of the Empire” and their presence in the curriculum could change, decolonising plans by Oxford’s maths, physics and life sciences faculty suggest.
Undergraduates have been recruited (on living wage) to conduct extensive research this summer, alongside scholars, into how Oxford’s science curricula can be made less “Eurocentric”.
They will draw up proposals for lecturers to implement any recommendations in syllabuses, in a drive to “diversify” maths and science courses.
The plans, seen by The Telegraph, advocate a “cultural shift” in teaching so that Oxford students’ learning is broadened so they understand the “global historical and social context to scientific research”, and assess “historical work revising older narratives of scientific progress”.
It acts on a pledge by Oxford’s vice-chancellor to embed teaching on colonialism into courses following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and is among a raft of decolonising overhauls currently underway on campuses across Britain.
The Government also announced in this week’s Queen’s Speech that universities will face fines for silencing students and academics, under new free speech legislation to combat “rising intolerance” on campus.
One new curriculum addition to be considered in Oxford’s eight-week decolonising project, is “history of modern measurement, which is tied deeply to the idea of the ‘Empire’ and Imperial standardisation”.
Another, for maths courses, is “ancient Chinese number theory – particularly the Chinese Remainder Theorem”.
In biology, “economic plant collecting in colonial Brazil (1500-1800)” could be investigated for addition to the curriculum this autumn.
Imperial units of length, weight and volume could be given historical context in Oxford’s physics curriculum, which currently includes modules on classical mechanics, condensed matter and fluids.
The system of units were officially introduced in the 1824 British Weights and Measures Act, and by 1826 were widely adopted across the British Empire and Commonwealth.
However, Imperial units have a longer history, born out of the so-called English Units, a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Roman systems of measurement which included variations of feet, inches and yards.
Since the colonial period many countries shifted to metric units of measurement, such as metres and kilograms, but some African and South Asian nations still use limited forms of imperial units, including gallons for volume.
Following pressure from students angered by George Floyd’s death in the US last summer, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Prof Louise Richardson, committed to a “diversity fund” for teaching resources to shake up curriculums, saying it was “an area that is frequently overlooked”.
Protests saw Oriel College launch an inquiry into a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes on its facade, and Prof Richardson vowed to ramp up decolonising efforts. “Many departments in social sciences have begun work on making their curriculum more inclusive and adding diverse voices to it,” she said.
“This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics, embedding teaching on colonialism and empire into courses, changing reading lists to ensure substantial representation of a diverse range of voices, and ensuring better coverage of issues concerning the global South in syllabuses.”
The campus “decolonising” drive, often focused on the humanities, is increasingly sweeping the sciences.
Two faculties at Sheffield University have named Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics, and Charles Darwin as figures who may need historical context when their theories are taught because of apparent ties to the Empire.
An Oxford spokesman said: “The university supports the diversifying STEM curriculum project, which is looking at how curricula might change to acknowledge questions of diversity and colonialism.
“We value the input of students into this work; all recommendations arising from the project will be referred to departments to consider next steps.”
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