Indigenous Education “By Force?”

The University of Winnipeg (where I work) made headlines this past year with its unanimous Senate decision to mandate an Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) for all undergraduate students starting in the fall of 2016. This was undertaken after a great deal of deliberation and consultation and is to be done in such a way that it doesn’t increase the number of credit hours that students would be required for graduation.

The move has not been without controversy, however, both within and without the University. I recall at one of the consultation sessions — co-chaired by Associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Angela Failler —  one faculty member objected to the idea that all students would be “forced” to “learn about one culture”, to which Failler replied that the ICR is not geared towards learning about so much as it is about learning from Indigenous cultures. She described how her own research into the public memory of the 1985 Air India Bombings had been informed by Indigenous world views, and considerations of Indigeneity in the Canadian context. This really resonated with me, as I had recently published an article applying postcolonial and Indigenous theories to the study of the authorship of Shakespeare.

Yet opposition remains, much of it grossly misinformed. Case in point: yesterday the Winnipeg Free Press ran an op-ed by a (white) medical student Brayden Whitlock with the inflammatory title, “Indigenous Education By Force,” in which he argues that the UW mandate is “purely anti-academic” and a “misstep”, as it promotes one culture as “more important than the rest.” He concludes,

A public university has no place in making decisions based on culture. We are here to investigate, explore and help people learn, not to decide what people learn or which cultures they should appreciate most.

Whitlock’s piece totally misses the point — and the irony, quite apart from conveniently ignoring that for generations Indigenous children and youth were violently and forcefully indoctrinated into Euro-Christian culture. Western education systems have always based their decisions according to primacy of Western values and culture, prioritizing Western thinkers, writers and leaders, and assuming that Western cultures, literature etc. should be appreciated most. American Indian historian Ward Churchill goes so far as to characterize Western education as “White Studies” by stealth:

As currently established [he writes], the university system in the United States offers little more than the presentation of “White Studies” to students, “general population,” and minority alike. The curriculum is virtually totalizing in its emphasis, not simply upon an imagined superiority of Western endeavors and accomplishments, but also upon the notion that the currents of European thinking comprise the only really “natural” — or at least truly useful — formation of knowledge/means of perceiving reality. In the vast bulk of curriculum content, Europe is not only the subject (in its conceptual mode, the very process of “learning to think”), but the object (subject matter) of investigation as well.

The Indigenous Course Requirement is but a step in correcting this totalizing imperialism of the mind, and — as Dr. Failler and I have both found — can only enrich our education and our scholarship.



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