“Indigenizing The University”: Improving Education Or Inveigling Condescension?

January 2016

“Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it” – Pericles of Athens

In many universities across the country, a new policy initiative is emerging—“Indigenizing the University”. This initiative has its roots in the Association of Canadian Deans of Education’s Accord on Indigenous Education, which encourages the blanket incorporation of indigenous cultural features, including aboriginal “ways of knowing” and “knowledge systems”, into “all Canadian learning settings.” My own institution, Mount Royal University (MRU), has embraced this advocacy in its draft Aboriginal Strategic Plan. The draft Plan is intent on “meeting the educational needs of all Indigenous peoples and their allies” with a commitment to “recognize, value and apply Indigenous knowledge, culturally responsive pedagogies and practices”.

While universities are to be commended for trying to address the educational needs of aboriginal students so as to improve the low level of educational achievement that exists in native communities, attempts to “Indigenize the University” have serious problems in their efforts to achieve this objective. This is because a great deal of what is being proposed has the potential to diminish, not improve, educational quality at Canadian universities. A negative educational effect is likely because documents exhorting university indigenization evade defining the terms necessary for understanding the policy implications, and it is implied that respect for aboriginal people entails an acceptance of all of their ideas.

The Lack of Definitions of Important Terms

How can one be in favour of something that is not understood? This is a major problem with documents pertaining to “Indigenizing the University”, including MRU’s draft Aboriginal Strategic Plan. While several words commonly used in a university setting – “knowledge”, “research methodologies”, “scholarship”, “research ethics”, and “pedagogy” – are given an “Indigenous” adjective, there is no attempt to define the meaning of the “Indigenous” addition, or to show how this makes the various terms different from their non-indigenous counterparts.

Providing definitions is especially important because, when one examines the literature on indigenous “knowledge” and “pedagogy”, what is referred to is often inconsistent with academic attempts to understand the world (both natural and social). Many examples of “Indigenous knowledge”, in fact, consist of aboriginal spiritual beliefs that are actually contrary to knowledge. We are told, for example, that “Indigenous knowledge” includes giving thanks to the sun or moon otherwise they “will one day stop fulfilling their duties and not rise in the morning and the evening”, that humans can turn into non-human animals and vice-versa, that throwing beaver fetuses into lakes enables them to be “reborn”, etc., in documents discussing the subject. In the social sciences and humanities there are also problems with various historical claims, whereby the myths of indigenous groups are recounted as accurate representations of the past. In “Indigenous archaeology”, for example, it is maintained that aboriginal people did not

migrate from the Old World thousands of years ago, since some aboriginal people believe that they were “created” in North America in the “beginning of time”.

Similar problems exist with respect to the references to “Indigenous pedagogy”. Discussions of this in the literature have little to do with the study of teaching. They concern the use of oral (as opposed to written) communication and teaching by example rather than using abstract instruction. Betty Bastien, in her article “Indigenous Pedagogy: A Way Out of Dependence”, even asserts that “[t]raditional learning is premised on a ‘knowing’ that is generated through a participatory and experiential process involving kinship relationship networks known as alliances”. This includes the use of prayer as a mechanism to maintain a “path for good relations among one’s alliances”. But it would be a serious problem for professors at a secular institution like Mount Royal University to use prayer as part of the teaching process, or to avoid written assignments or abstract instruction. The former is a violation of the right to be free from religion; the latter ignores the fundamental importance of clear writing and the development of abstract thought for increasing our understanding of the universe.

Confusing Respect for People with Respecting Their Ideas

All people are entitled to respect. This is especially important in a university environment, as the educational experience is enhanced when empathy is shown towards others and fairness is embraced as a principle. Universities should provide a welcoming environment for all students, encouraging them to inquire about the ways of the world and to seek the truth. Respecting a person as a human being with a right to dignity and security, however, does not include respecting their ideas. No idea should be “respected” or “honoured”; there should be continuous questioning of all ideas so that we can improve human understanding.

The confusion between respect for people and respecting their ideas can be seen in the assertion of Universities Canada (an association of Canadian university presidents) that “[m]utual respect for different ways of knowing and recognizing the intellectual contributions of Indigenous people is essential to building trust, understanding, and sharing”. Here “respect for different ways of knowing” is linked to both “trust”/“sharing” (social considerations) and “understanding” (an aspect of knowledge). While Universities Canada argues that “[t]he cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge on campuses has the power of opening a dialogue among cultures and enhancing our shared knowledge” (again conflating social considerations such as “opening a dialogue” with “enhancing…knowledge”), this will only be possible of we have methods for separating true claims from those that are false. The insistence that “Indigenous knowledge” be “respected” and “honoured” inhibits the evaluation of evidence that is needed to develop shared knowledge. Effusive pronouncements to “Indigenize the University” are actually asking academics to forego critical thinking processes and to accept, without question, that “Indigenous knowledge” and “Indigenous pedagogy” will contribute to educational processes.

Similar problems exist with respect to the demands to “respect” and “honour” indigenous “traditions and practices”. Once again, respect for a practice or tradition cannot be predetermined; it requires evaluating whether or not a practice is socially beneficial. What happens when an Indigenous practice or tradition is perceived to be harmful? Does “Indigenizing the University” demand that this practice be “welcomed” anyway? This tension

has arisen at a number of universities, where indigenous elders presiding over ceremonies declared that it was in keeping with their traditions that women should wear long skirts, and that menstruating women be prohibited from attending. This led a number of faculty members to argue that this “traditional practice” was discriminatory and undermined equitable relations between men and women.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the “Indigenizing the University” initiative is the constant assumption that being an aboriginal person necessitates an acceptance of spiritual beliefs. It is this assumption that leads to the ubiquitous holding of prayers at any gathering that is linked to aboriginal people, as well as MRU’s concern with “[e]nsur[ing] spiritual…student success” and instituting “culturally appropriate…spiritual resources”. While all members of the MRU community are entitled to believe whatever they want, it is inappropriate for a secular educational institution that promotes critical thinking to encourage students, faculty or staff to hold beliefs that are contrary to reason. In addition, the assumption that a particular group of people inherently holds spiritual beliefs constitutes a racial stereotype.

“Indigenizing the University” implies that “respecting” and “honouring” Indigenous ideas, traditions, and practices will build trust between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people and facilitate reconciliation. But building trust and achieving meaningful reconciliation requires honesty. For universities to demand that professors venerate ideas, traditions and practices with which they oppose is to compromise their academic integrity. It is also extremely condescending towards aboriginal individuals, and deprives them of engaging with the critical analysis needed for intellectual development.

Opposing Condescension Masquerading as Respect

Professors in Canada cannot ethically support “Indigenizing the University” until it is understood what the “Indigenous” adjective means for concepts such as “knowledge”, “research methodologies”, “scholarship”, “research ethics”, and “pedagogy”. Until this is made clear, professors should refuse to participate in the initiative as it could result in a lowering of educational standards and the quality of scholarship at Canadian universities.

Rather than encouraging professors to critically analyze the “Indigenizing the University” initiative, MRU’s draft Aboriginal Strategic Plan assumes that it is automatically beneficial for the entire university community; supporters of the initiative are perceived as “allies” of aboriginal people, implying that potential critics are their enemies. MRU’s draft Aboriginal Strategic Plan even identifies “[s]trong/active individual opposition by MRU community members” to university indigenization as a “barrier” that must be overcome to achieve the “decolonization of education”.

Demanding that professors unconditionally “respect” and “honour” anything that is deemed to be “Indigenous” cannot result in educational improvement or “reconciliation”. Educational achievement can only be improved if aboriginal people are better able to understand the world around them. This understanding cannot emerge if it is pretended that ideas contrary to knowledge are true. Deceiving others, even if it is rooted in good intentions, also cannot inspire trust. One of the most liberating effects of a real education is that it reveals that we can break

free from the chains of tradition. To deny this realization to aboriginal people is a form of educational malpractice, preventing them from becoming actual contributors to knowledge production and human progress.