Indigenizing The University: When Reason Is Afraid To Speak

September 2016

On June 3, 2016, a roundtable discussion was held at the University of Calgary, which served as an example of what awaits the academy when the “Indigenizing the University” initiative is fully applied.

The discussion was organized by Frances Widdowson, an associate professor at Mount Royal University, as an attempt to examine the implications of indigenizing, and to have professors, students and the interested public attempt to understand the effects of including “indigenous knowledge” in university curricula, as well as the broader implication for the campus atmosphere.

The panel consisted of Keith Carlson, Professor of History, University of Saskatchewan; Robert Innes, Associate Professor, U of S; Frances Widdowson, and me—filling in for a last minute cancellation of a scheduled participant. The panel selection was intended to balance the pro-indigenizing view (Carlson and Innes) and the oppositional position (Widdowson and me). We spoke in alphabetical order.

Carlson’s presentation was a display of sophistry worthy of a high school English class; Carlson dismissed the lack of clarity in attempts to explain indigenization by stating that other terms at MRU were just as vague. His false analogies involved examples including Buddhist and Catholic beliefs, neither of which logically compares to the attack on modern scholarship that indigenizing the university entails. Since neither of these religions, nor any others, are currently advocating for changes to university curricula or culture, this farcical comparison was the resort of a weak argument.

I spoke next. The thrust of my presentation was that the nature of education is progressive evolution. The progress of education traces from the Socratic Method, through the middle ages of church-dominated education, transitioned to the modern period by the fulcrum of The Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment turned away from religion and tradition to reason and science as the means of understanding the universe. Rational and critical thinking have become the standard for education in all but private religious schools. The theme of my presentation was a quote by Richard Dawkins in the form of a question:

“Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak?”

I chose this quote because it was so opportune to the indigenizing initiative at Mount Royal University. Many professors have privately expressed concerns about the implications of indigenizing curricula in science and the humanities, disciplines where rational judgment and critical thought are fundamental to the course of study, but none (except Widdowson) has stepped forward to question it. The inevitable tactic of censorship of anything critical of aboriginal initiatives is accusations of racism. The overwhelming guilt for the colonial history, and sympathy for the native victims, has constructed an aegis against criticism, thus isolating native people from the constructive dynamic of open debate. Reason is, indeed, “too intimidated to speak.”

And for good reason; halfway through my presentation, a foreboding of the entitlement and privilege of indigenization erupted. One woman yelled that she wouldn’t stand for any more of my views, and attempted to get others to leave with her, though she eventually stayed. There was the distinct assumption that the native people in the audience had a right to stop me from speaking because they didn’t like what I was saying. In the indigenized university, will professors be bullied into censorship, delivering material only acceptable to native students? Will support for mythology and unscientific beliefs become a requirement of future hires?

There was much hubbub with shouts of “racist” and other insults including the charge that I had called native people primitive. In fact, I had said that ideas that are irrational and antiscientific constitute intellectual primitivism. I don’t, in fact, subscribe to the prevalent stereotyping of native people as all thinking alike, and there is every possibility that some native people are free of spiritual beliefs. I know that many other people are mired in beliefs unsupported by evidence, and I characterize all spiritual, irrational and uncritical beliefs as primitive, regardless of the ethnicity of the believers, as they are emblematic of a distinctly earlier period.

Though I called upon the moderator, Liam Haggarty, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies at MRU, to bring order to the session, he scurried over to Innes to ask what he should do. Innes advised that he should “let it go”, according to Innes’ notes. It had become apparent that Haggarty had an agenda of disruption, and exhibited none of the objectivity the role demanded. During the presentations, he and Innes sent around disparaging “tweets” about Widdowson’s and my participation.

Rob Innes spoke next. His presentation surprisingly ignored the subject of the roundtable—the effects of indigenizing the university—choosing instead to talk about his grandmother and aunt; where he lived; how he couldn’t figure out how he ended up teaching in a university (a curiosity I share), and how native studies are a good thing. Native studies programs have been included at MRU for a few years, so Innes cannot have mistaken the discussion subject; he just chose to avoid it—or to obscure it.

Frances Widdowson was up next. I won’t describe her points here, but one incident indicative of what “indigenizing” will mean to the university occurred during the question period when she told a student in the audience that her behavior was intimidating and prevented her saying what she thought was true. The student’s response was “so don’t say it then!”

In a nutshell, the other panel members came with a predetermined bias that whatever we said should be opposed; even to prohibit us from speaking. None were prepared to directly contest our views. Instead, a clamor of censorship represented the level of opposition to our contentions that spiritual beliefs, mythology and the unquestioned views of elders are backward elements in the educational system, reverting to the dark ages, that attempting to incorporate such features into rational programs is an assault on academic studies, and that the initiative will entrench the low educational levels suffered by aboriginal students, while imposing a burden on non-native students. More alarmingly, critical thought will be eliminated, because the application of it will expose the fallacy of indigenous and Traditional “Knowledge.”

The initiative of indigenizing the university is an assault on higher education, free and open debate, and critical thought. A collective response by defenders of academic freedom and scholarship in the academy is urgently needed.