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This article was published 7/1/2016 (2083 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba educational institutions have signed the Indigenous Education Blueprint, which shows their commitment to strengthening the connection between institutions and indigenous people and culture.
The University of Winnipeg took it a step further and introduced a new rule that will require all students to take a course in indigenous studies. As a member of university governance a couple provinces over, I'm having trouble seeing value in this through the cloud of empty handshakes and appeasing gestures.
Of course, it is a wonderful initiative to take action to help indigenous people gain more access to higher education. They are generally underrepresented at universities. For example, at my university (Alberta), three per cent of the student population identifies as aboriginal, while the proportion of aboriginal people in Canada is more like four per cent, and even higher in Alberta. Furthermore, we know aboriginal people are less likely to hold a university degree than other groups. So we should act, but what should we do and what should we not do to address this?
We should make sure aboriginal students receive an excellent high school education so they are prepared for and perhaps interested in university. And we should make sure universities are an equally inviting place for all races; this still allows for freedom of expression, speech and academic inquiry, of course, but we should not force all students to learn about a specific culture.
The University of Winnipeg's decision to demand all students learn about indigenous culture is purely anti-academic. The academy exists to foster creativity, exploration, progress and freedom. All of these foundations are shaken violently by selecting one specific culture, interfering with its natural evolution and promoting it as more important than the rest.
To understand this misstep, one need only ask if it would be appropriate to make all students learn about the culture most popular among the French, or the culture most popular among east Asians. How about one specific sport or one specific hobby? By the demographic proportions, those would make more sense.
I'm not one to complain without offering an alternative. It is reasonable, perhaps advisable, to say students must learn about a culture, but not to pick one for them. The U of W could have avoided this problem by strengthening their course offerings in indigenous studies, mandating that all students have more cultural-arts credits of their choice and even lauding their indigenous-studies program as relevant, historically accurate and enriching for students. All of these techniques would be perfectly acceptable alternatives and fulfil their commitment to the Indigenous Education Blueprint.
The blueprint that inspired this decision, which is signed by university, college and school board presidents across the province, is mostly a productive and sensible agreement. Unfortunately, it is littered occasionally with commitments such as "bringing indigenous knowledge, languages and intellectual traditions, models and approaches into curriculum and pedagogy." The pedagogy of a university, which is the theory and practices of teaching and education, should be influenced by what is most effective, not by what is traditional and cultural. Indigenous traditions, like other traditions, have no place here. Traditions by definition are practices that continue to exist simply because they have been done before and passed on. That is in no way progressive or forward thinking.
"Engaging with indigenous peoples in respectful and reciprocal relationships" and "increasing access to services, programs and supports to indigenous students" are also promoted by the blueprint, and rightly so. I can't imagine a context in which these aren't great ideas, but we have to draw the line when it comes to injecting traditions and culture in places where only facts and empirical research should be. And that line ought to be thick and heavy when protecting the academic freedom and objectivity of university stakeholders.
We at other universities that practice less cultural favouritism should take note of this decision and make sure a blunder like U of W's mandatory cultural education doesn't find its way into our systems. 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.
Brayden Whitlock is a PhD student in the faculty of medicine and involved in university governance on the general faculties council, the academic planning committee and the graduate students' association at the University of Alberta.