Thursday 4 February 2021

Indigenizing the University: Book Note

This week I read the proofs of a book edited by Frances Widdowson, entitled Indigenizing the University: Diverse Perspectives (Winnipeg: Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2021 forthcoming). I read it at Dr. Widdowson’s request, with a view to possible providing an endorsement. Here is the endorsement:

“This book is a fine introduction to debates about the indigenization of universities. Although Widdowson herself opposes many aspects of indigenization, she lets her authors speak for themselves. The second section is particularly interesting, discussing whether indigenous science exists. Authors investigate physics, biology, psychology, economics, and political science.”

Frances Widdowson is  a professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University. As I noted in the endorsement, she is a very strong opponent of indigenizing Canadian universities, so some readers might think I should not have endorsed this book. However, I learned a lot from it. I had expected the various contributions to be polemical, but they were not. Whatever one might think of Widdowson’s views and the views of other contributors, they are backed up by an impressive amount of research. If I wanted to pursue this debate, I would find a huge bibliography in Widdowson’s and others’ articles. 

The first section of the book contains two useful historical chapters. Rodney A. Clifton, a professor emeritus at the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba, and Masha V. Krylova situate the history of indigenization of Canadian universities within the broader context of Canadianization of those same universities. The late Alan Cairns of the University of Waterloo contributed a chapter on the history of aboriginal research. He is particularly scathing about the 1990s’ Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He asserts that it was driven by an ideological agenda that privileged the situation of Aboriginal (as they were then called) people living in bands on reserves, while ignoring people living in urban areas, those who were intermarried, and those who had Aboriginal ancestry but did not identify themselves as Aboriginal (p. 63). He also noted that some Aboriginal women testified in camera at the Commission because they were afraid of retaliation at home if they spoke about abuse on reserves (p.60).

Other chapters in this section address several other concerns. Widdowson argues that Indigenization might result in the lowering of academic standards. Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus in the department of political science at the University of Calgary, provides an addendum to Widdowson’s chapter, considering the unintended detrimental consequences – in his view-- of affirmative action programs on the United States. David Newhouse of the department of indigenous studies at Trent University argues strongly for the right to speak what he calls indigenous truths.  Kerryn Pholi, a sometime Aboriginal civil servant is Australia, is a strong critic of what she called the “Aboriginal industry” in that country.

The second section of the book, “Indigenizing Academic Disciplines,” debates whether there is one universal science with universal standards, or whether there is such a thing as “Indigenous science” which should be considered by Canadian universities as on equal footing with what its advocates call “Western” science.

The late F. David Peat was a physicist in his early life. He argues that debates among physicists show that there are various “physics.” Similarly, he argues, Blackfoot and other Indigenous worldviews can be considered as independent concepts of physics. James Trefil, a professor of physics at George Mason University, replies “teach it if you must, but don’t call it science.” He points out that Peat argues by analogy, that debates among physicists do not mean that there are different sciences of physics.

This exchange is followed by a debate between Root Gorelick, a professor in the department of biology at Carleton University, and Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at City University of New York. Gorelick argued strongly for an Indigenous biology. He also advocates including spiritual and indeed poetic elements in that science. Gorelick is particularly concerned that traditional indigenous environmental knowledge be acknowledged as scientific. Pigliucci agrees that Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) should be taken seriously by scientists. However, such knowledge must be verified by standard scientific methods. Also, aspects of TEK that derive from spiritual beliefs must be discarded. In and of itself, TEK is not science.  

Following these debates on physic and biology, Stephen B. Perrott,  professor of psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University, assesses whether the discipline of psychology should be indigenized. He accepts the need for more Indigenous psychologists and more sensitivity to Indigenous clients, but does not agree that the discipline itself should abandon its scientific roots.  Ambrose Leung of the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mont Royal University politely replies to a claim by Carol Anne Hilton, a First Nations business entrepreneur, that there should be an “indigenomics.” He shows how each of Hilton’s arguments about omissions of indigenous concerns (such as environmental impacts of development projects) is already addressed within the discipline of economics.

The final chapter in this section is by Widdowson herself, assessing indigenous content syllabus materials and political science. Among her many arguments against indigenization, she introduces the concept of “neotribal rentierism” (p. 277). Rentierism is the ability to extract benefits without actually making any productive contribution to the economy, as for example European landlords did when they extracted rents from peasants and serfs. Widdowson argues that Indigenous leaders are now extracting “rents” from the federal government.

I think that Widdowson may be right that some Indigenous leaders do engage in this type of behavior, but I believe her criticism is too strong. I agree with Indigenous advocates that colonialism has stripped them of much of their capacity to be economically self-sustaining, from land theft to denial of civil and political rights to under-education and abuse in residential schools. In any case, even if colonialism hadn’t occurred, the Canadian government is responsible to ensure the human rights of all its citizens. This includes economic human rights such as the rights to housing, education, and health care. Despite their assertions of Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous peoples are still citizens of the Canadian state, whether living on or off-reserves.

The debate in section 2 of  Indigenizing the University about Indigenous versus “Western” science is resonant of the debate on whether universal human rights are really universal or whether they are in fact “Western.” To a significant extent, both the human rights and the Indigenous science debates rest on the fallacy of origins. This fallacy is the belief that ideas are applicable only to the people or social categories who generated them.

In my own work, including In Defense of Universal Human Rights  (2018), I have argued that while the concept of human rights may have originated in the West, from its earliest legal origins at the United Nations in 1948 non-Western countries bought into the concept, which they elaborated over the next seven decades. Moreover, all people everywhere are entitled in principle to such human rights. Similarly, even if concepts of scientific rigour such as falsifiability and secularism originated in the European Enlightenment, they have now spread far beyond the Euro-American world. Scientists in China and India use the same standards as scientists in North America and Europe. Scientific findings apply to all people everywhere.

For example, I have yet to hear of any Indigenous people arguing that the various Covid-19 vaccines currently being imported into Canada are unusable by Indigenous people because they are “Western” in origin. Indeed, the fallacy of origins argument does not seem to be used for medical or technical developments, although tragically, some years ago in Ontario two sets of Indigenous parents tried to cure their young daughters of leukemia using “indigenous” treatments. After one of the children died, the other mother returned her daughter to “Western” medical treatment.

One final note: Widdowson tried very hard to find indigenous contributors for this volume. At least one Indigenous person declined, not wanting to debate with her at all. This is a shame, as she included all the chapters without her own commentary. As a matter of principle, moreover, Widdowson  identified her contributors only by their professional designations, not by their identity, Indigenous or otherwise. Root Gorelick identified himself as non-Indigenous, while Kerryn Pholi identified herself as an Australian Aboriginal. Others did not self-identify, so one is left to judge their arguments purely by their scientific validity, not by their identity, which is what Widdowson apparently wanted.

Extra note (February 9, 2021): Just after I posted this blog, I heard reports of Canadian Indigenous people who were very hesitant to have Covid-19 vaccinations.  This hesitancy stems from a long history of justifiable mistrust of white people in authority, including those in the medical profession. But as far as I know, the mistrust is not because Covid-19 vaccinations are thought to be "Western" as opposed to Indigenous medicine.