Decolonizing, Indigenization, Reconciliation and Academic Freedom

November 2023

What should we make of the growing calls in higher education to “decolonize” and “indigenize” universities? To what extent are such initiatives, along with calls for reconciliation, compatible with the fundamental mission of the university to promote truth and knowledge? What threats, if any, do they pose to academic freedom and the adversarial and open practice of critical inquiry?

Progress on these topics has been impeded for both internal and external reasons. The discussions have been hindered from the inside by the ambiguity and vagueness of the featured terms “decolonize” and “indigenize”, terms that have nonetheless gained a secure place in university policy documents. Consequently, we must clearly specify what we mean by them and insist that those who disagree with us explain what they mean so that we can avoid talking at cross purposes and better recognize the political opportunism that has attended their strategic and equivocal uses. This opportunism, by moderates and extremists alike, connects to an external reason that explains why this debate has been so circumscribed and unbalanced: the climate of fear generated by the culture of coercive conformity that continues to plague both higher education and wider society. Not only has this fear helped to drive the opportunism of those within administration advocating for more moderate views but it has also depressed the criticisms that should have checked the excesses of standpoint theory and identity politics that characterize more extreme positions.

One might assume that all indigenizing programs are decolonizing but if not, what distinguishes those that are from those that are not? Is reconciliation decolonizing? This question is apt considering that the impetus towards indigenization and decolonization generated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action, some of which pertain to higher education. Consider, for example, #62 subsection (ii): “Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” What should we make of the qualifier “Indigenous” here? Should we not distinguish between “Indigenous knowledge” and “claims to knowledge made by and/or on behalf of Indigenous people”?

Consider some examples. Lee-Anne Broadhead and Sean Howard cite Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant’s claim that corn plants are “conscious living things” that are “surely more than just plants”.1 They note that Mt. Pleasant, associate professor emerita at Cornell University, was aware of the dissonance between her “Western training” and her “heretical and intuitive” belief. Or consider these remarks by F. David Peat in his book, Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe, as cited by Broadhead and Howard:

I believe the ancient peoples of Central America entered into a deep relationship with the plants around them, including the grasses. The grass that gave birth to corn was not simply a plant but a manifestation of a spirit or energy that moved within the complex pattern of relationships of the natural world. When a people entered into direct relationship with the spirit of the corn, there was an exchange of obligations, a contract between the god of corn and the needs of the human race.2

How should such claims be assessed in a university setting? We can look to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for some useful evaluative standards, namely, truth and reconciliation. According to the Oxford English dictionary the two most common senses of the word “reconcile” are (1) to restore to peace or unity, and (2) to make compatible or consistent. Since the university’s main mission is to promote truth and knowledge, and since this requires that claims to knowledge be subject to the ethically regulated marketplace of ideas, including being subject to dissent and criticism, reconciliation demands that claims to knowledge made by and/or on behalf of Indigenous people be subject to such processes as well.3

Being reconciliatory, however, would arguably disqualify an initiative from being decolonizing. Drawing on the results of an anonymous online survey of “25 Indigenous academics and their allies”, Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz distinguish between Indigenous inclusion, reconciliation indigenization and decolonial indigenization.4 AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 14.3 (2018), pp. 218-219. This article was also the subject of (Indigenization efforts vary widely on Canadian campuses, study finds’ University Affairs, 16 April 2019). They argue, including by citing the ideas of several survey respondents and other academics, that Indigenous inclusion and reconciliation indigenization fall short of decolonization, and since only decolonial indigenization meets the needs of Indigenous communities, it should be the goal instead.

They claim that a failing in the current model is its “Eurocentric” outlook. They approvingly cite Savo Heleta who insists that this Eurocentrism is “rooted in colonial, apartheid and Western worldviews and epistemological traditions” which therefore “continues to reinforce white and Western dominance and privilege” (p. 223). Since these influences threaten Indigenous culture and knowledge, decolonizing is needed to effect “a resurgence in Indigenous culture, politics, knowledge, and on-the-land skills” (p. 224). Decolonial indigenization will “radically transform” higher education (p. 223). It “envisions the wholesale overhaul of the academy to fundamentally reorient knowledge production based on balancing power relations between Indigenous peoples and Canadians” (p. 219). The model they endorse is a “dual university” structure (p. 223) created via a treaty that bestows “co-existing sovereignty” (p. 224). This sovereignty, which would make the Indigenous part of this new dual university “administratively autonomous” (p. 224) is needed to “protect the integrity of Indigenous knowledge” (p. 224) and avoid an “intellectual free-for-all” (p. 224) which is unnecessary because Indigenous communities “have their own processes for determining the validity and accuracy of knowledge” (p. 225).

This line of thinking derives from Postcolonial Theory, a branch of Social Justice Theory with roots in postmodernism.5 For example, the claim about “Eurocentrism” reinforcing “white and Western dominance and privilege” is a reference to standpoint theory – the idea that knowledge is derived from the “lived” experience of different identity groups – along with cultural constructivism – the belief that knowledge is a product of its cultural context. However, since proponents of Social Justice Theory are also radical skeptics about the possibility of obtaining objective, justified, true beliefs, or knowledge, these references to “knowledge” are either not literal or inconsistencies in their view. Thus when they argue that decolonizing the university means subverting the dominance of Western standpoints by promoting Indigenous “knowledges”, they cannot consistently maintain that Indigenous knowledge claims are any more objective and true than “Western” claims to knowledge are.

Oddly, from their relativist perspective this is not actually a troubling notion. Proponents of decolonial indigenization believe that the radical transformation of the university will render claims to Indigenous “knowledges” legitimate because they will thereby enjoy equal status and power. In other words, the central merit of these “knowledges” is not that they are justified true beliefs; it is that they hold political sway. Hence the need for “sovereignty” and administrative autonomy. However, attending this autonomy is a rejection of academic freedom. From the decolonial indigenization perspective, allowing claims of Indigenous “knowledges” to be subject to critical scrutiny and criticism would be to “de-legitimize” them not because doing so would expose error, though of course it would do this where there is error to be found, but because it would continue to reinforce “white and Western dominance and privilege”. For this reason on the treaty model academics who are not Indigenous would be forbidden from questioning the purported claims to Indigenous knowledge. For example, a non-Indigenous academic or student could not question or contradict the claims to Indigenous knowledge from Mt. Pleasant and Peat that I noted above. Discussing such criticisms in a classroom or expressing them in a piece of research or scholarship, or writing about them in the SAFS newsletter, would violate the autonomy of the Indigenous part of the university by violating the treaty agreement. Think not? Then ask yourself this: why is there a need for decolonial indigenization considering that the present system provides the means for ensuring that actual knowledge claims made by Indigenous people will be validated just as much as knowledge claims made by non-Indigenous people?

Proponents of decolonizing indigenization, just like proponents of postcolonial Theory and earlier postmodernists, confuse practical questions of politics and the exercising of power with academic questions concerning the conditions that must be met to rationally justify a belief as a piece of knowledge. This anti-academic position aligns with their rejection of “Western worldviews and their epistemologies”, including the methods of science and other forms of rational, adversarial, and open inquiry, but it is grounded in various errors. For example, by claiming that “Western worldviews and epistemologies” “reinforce Western dominance and privilege” they exhibit a process/product confusion that is characteristic of postmodernism’s criticism of science. Postmodernists and their descendants have regularly criticized the objectivity and claims to knowledge of “Western” science on the assumption that science is essentially a set of claims that entrench various hegemonic power interests. According to this view, “Western” science is characterized by its content, just like any other ideology. But this is incorrect. Science is essentially a process of self-correction and a methodological antidote to our tendencies to display confirmation bias. As such it does not need to be replaced by superior ideas because it is not a set of ideas. It is a set of methods that endures past the rise and fall of various transitory theories, and since it promotes the pursuit of truth and knowledge, its self-correcting practice is consistent with the main mission of the university.

Decolonization poses a clear threat to academic freedom, open inquiry, and the main mission of the university. It would indeed “radically transform” the university and cause a “wholesale overhaul of the academy” but this would be for the worse. Universities are primarily socially useful insofar as they promote truth and knowledge, and since academic freedom rights play an ineliminable part in this, undermining or limiting these rights will undermine that pursuit. Whereas this is not a concern for those who endorse Social Justice Theory, including Postcolonial Theory, it matters a great deal to the rest of us, especially considering the essential contribution that discovering and applying the truth plays in promoting our individual and collective well-being.