Opinion-Policy Nexus

Over on the Northern Public Affairs blog, there is a great piece on some of the dangers of instituting mandatory Indigenous Studies courses at the university level.  

For me, the key theme in the essay is the role of universities.  Should they be places that challenge students to question their beliefs? Or should they be places that reinforce certain dogmas?

Midway through the essay, the author writes: "Mandating IS courses also means that Indigenous instructors and students now have to share the class space with students who probably wouldn’t choose to be there of their own volition. There arises a concern that has to do with the safety of the Indigenous instructors and students who are now mandated to engage with unsettling material in a potentially hostile and unsafe space with people who either don’t want to be there, or aren’t ready to acknowledge their own privilege or self location."

To some extent, this is exactly why we need mandated IS courses. One of the purposes of requiring all students to take at least one IS course is to force students to understand what it means to be "privileged" and "self-located", especially as it relates to Indigenous communities in Canada. If students are not forced to take an IS course that requires them to consider these issues, then there is the possibility they never will during the course of their studies. And in fact, it is these students, the ones who are unaware of their privilege and self-location, who are the ones we need to reach. Although there is value to teaching and talking to only like-minded individuals, that only gets you so far. Transformative, societal change means reaching out to others who are not like minded and engaging in a dialogue with them to generate the possibility for change.

In the next sentence, the author writes: "In a worst case scenario, students who don’t want to be there or aren’t ready to learn the material may openly challenge the instructor and the experiences of other students in the class. To force Indigenous instructors and students into these spaces doesn’t seem entirely ethical."

Again, I think at least, that this is exactly what university is for, is it not? It's not supposed to be a place for dogma, but rather is supposed to be a place for debate, discussion, dialogue, and changing one's mind. Universities shouldn't be places driven by single ideologies, by instead should be places that facilitate intellectual exchange and clashes. It is supposed to be somewhat uncomfortable! Certainty is the enemy.

That being said, as the author rightly points out, the instructor of these courses is key. Instructors need to be prepared to be facilitators of discussion, gently prodding students to question their beliefs and to hold them up against the beliefs of others to be tested. This is no easy task but it's one that is perfectly suited for university professors.

Again, I agree with Mc. McDonald when she writes: "Just one inappropriate or malicious comment from one student is enough to shut down a robust group conversation. Is it fair to force students who don’t want to be there into a space where open-mindedness and open-heartedness are critical to the learning experiences of the rest of the class?"

Where I disagree is that inappropriate and malicious comments are not always bad, but are powerful and potential "teaching moments" that can sometimes spark real change in how people view the world. As well, I don't think it's fair or even ideal to only have "open-minded and open-hearted" people into university classes. Open-mindnedess and open-heartedness are skills and values that need to be learned and taught. And what better place to do that then at university?


Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 13:43