Sanctioning Ignorance in the Academy

Recently, I’ve been researching and reflecting on a particular body of stigmatized scholarship in the academy, namely that concerned with the question over who wrote under the name “Shakespeare.” This topic is essentially taboo in the academy, widely ridiculed and disparaged, its researchers excluded from conferences and mainstream journals. As Thomas Kuhn noted in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, academic culture can be particularly hostile to new paradigms which challenge the dominance of established modes of scholarship, what he called “normal science.” Shakespeare scholar Roger Stritmatter observes that new scholars are encouraged

not only to forgo dalliance in the field of unauthorized ideas, but to zealously defend, as a matter of honor and sanity, the jurisdiction of the paradigm into which he has been initiated. A reluctance to do so marks him, at best, as an outsider or a misfit: unqualified for employment, tenure, or professional respect [1].

What has been striking for me as an Indigenous Studies Librarian in this exploration is the extent to which the marginalization of this scholarship shares similarities with the that faced by Indigenous epistemes. Indigenous scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami), echoing Stritmatter, asks

Why, then, more academics are not envisioning alternatives? A brief visit to recent conferences in numerous fields and disciplines show that most scholars, including some Indigenous intellectuals, are content to limit their thinking within existing, hegemonic paradigms and become satisfied in asking complacent questions such as “minimum requirements” for our participation in current structures. Ironically, those who do not limit themselves to telling others to create alternatives and new visions but attempt to elaborate them are ridiculed as utopian and idealistic even by those who call for alternatives. 

Kuokkanen (who has written extensively on this issue) highlights how universities wall off Indigenous world views from the mainstream, even while Indigenous Studies departments proliferate:

[t]he university remains a contested site where not only knowledge but also…eurocentric, patriarchal and (neo)colonial values are produced and reproduced. As [Louis] Althusser and others have exposed, the academy is one of the main sites of reproduction of hegemony. Not surprisingly, then, the studied silence and willed indifference around the ‘Indigenous’ continues unabated in most academic circles. In the same way as Indigenous people remained invisible in shaping and delineating of the nation-states in the “New World”…Indigenous scholarship remains invisible and unreflected even in discourses of western radical intellectuals [2].

Postcolonial theory can assist us here, in comprehending the exercise of power relations, deconstructing hegemonies and naming the oppression of “subaltern” or dominated groups. Essential to an understanding of subalternality is the notion and meaning of “speaking” in a colonial context: Post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak famously observed that subalterns are unable to “speak,” that others speak for them and listen only with “benevolent imperialism,” not actually hearing what the subaltern says.[3]

While Spivak disapproves of marginalized groups within the academy referring to themselves as “subaltern,” Kuokkanen argues that even if we do not use the term as such, the problem remains that, for scholars finding themselves outside the accepted discourse in the academy, they cannot fully “speak,” as their episteme is not recognized and as a result it is misrepresented and misunderstood.[4] For Kuokkanen, the repression and marginalization of scholarship is the result of what Spivak refers to as “sanctioned ignorance,” a culture in which those benefiting from a hegemonic worldview protect their own power and privilege by rejecting and disqualifying the worldviews (or epistemes) of others. Such ignorance occurs at the individual and institutional levels, and assumes both passive and active forms. In the first, there is a refusal to acknowledge, learn and know the epistemes of the marginalized scholar; in the second there is active denial of their scholarship — both of which, she stresses, are mutually reinforcing.

When there is a refusal to know, assumptions of shared and narrowly defined values preclude welcoming competing ways of knowing. The Western episteme being taken as normative, all others are considered only inasmuch as they relate to the West. Outright active denial too can take many forms: exclusion of contested content from curricula, as well as from the means to contribute to scholarship. By ensuring competing worldviews are “left out of the books” the privileged academic establishment maintains its hegemony, while maintaining “privileged innocence” that they bear any responsibility for or complicity in this “epistemic violence.”[5] The impacts of sanctioned ignorance are profound: In Vandana Shiva’s words, by making such “knowledge invisible by declaring it non-existent or illegitimate, the dominant system also makes alternatives disappear by erasing and destroying the reality which they attempt to represent.”[6]

To counter this, Kuokkanen argues that Indigenous epistemes should be welcomed in the academy as a “gift” with the potential to enrich scholarship and enlarge the scope of Western thought. I believe the efforts of the University of Winnipeg are bearing Kuokkanen’s vision out: the University is deeply invested in its Indigenous Studies programs, as well as creating a culturally rich and supportive environment for its Indigenous students and reaching out to the wider Aboriginal community through its Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre. It’s been a privilege as the University’s Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian to play a part of this process of welcoming the “gift” of Indigenous knowledge into the academy — and into my own world view.



[1] Roger Stritmatter, “What’s in a Name? Everything Apparently.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 60 2 (Fall 2006), 37-49. Retrieved July 9th 2014 from

[2] Rauna Johanna Kuokkanen, “The Gift Logic of Indigenous Philosophies in the Academy.” The Gift Economy. Retrieved July 9 2014 from

[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Sarah Harasym, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (New York: Routledge, 1990), 60.

[4] Rauna Johanna Kuokkanen, Reshaping the University Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift (Vancouver [B.C.]: UBC Press, 2007), 81.

[5] Kuokkanen, 154.

[6] Vandava Shiva, “Monocultures of the Mind,” Trumpeter vol. 10, No 4 (1993), 4. Online at