Can only Indigenous scholars teach Indigenous history?

Schools must be allowed to hire scholars on the basis of academic merit, regardless of race, gender or class

Robert PriceA liberal education should deal in ideas that are true and universal.

And such an education should, by definition, prepare students to recognize falsehoods and ideas that divide, like the notion that only people of certain races can accomplish certain feats.

This defining feature of the liberal arts came to the fore again last week, when word leaked that Mount Saint Vincent University hired a white professor to teach a history course about residential school.

Predictably, critics denounced the hiring, arguing that the school should have hired an Indigenous scholar to teach a course in Indigenous history. Hiring a “settler scholar” was oppressive and at odds with reconciliation efforts, said critics.

The Halifax university responded to the criticism by publicly second-guessing the hiring decision – a response that brought further criticism of the most logical and liberal sort.

In a letter to the university’s president, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship pointed out that a scholar’s race and ethnicity are not grounds for academic discourse, and thus not a ground on which to hire a scholar. And, the society’s president Mark Mercer added, the history department followed proper hiring procedures and selected a qualified candidate. (Full disclosure: I am a member of SAFS.)

Following a meeting between administrators, critics and the professor – a meeting held at the request of the professor – the school announced that the professor hired to teach the course would teach the course.

Nearly everybody agrees that residential schools are a black mark on Canadian history and that a university system that welcomes and encourages Indigenous scholars is better than a system that doesn’t.

But the desire to open universities more fully to Indigenous peoples shouldn’t overwrite what schools are supposed to do well: hire scholars on the basis of merit.

While it’s true that experience and belief can make a teacher better (who doesn’t like passion?), it’s untrue to say that only people of a particular background can understand an idea well enough to teach it. This would be like saying that only Muslims can understand the Qur’an well enough to teach its history, meaning and interpretations. Or that men can’t teach feminist theory. Or non-artists can’t teach art history.

And this is what Mount Saint Vincent’s public second guessing of the history department’s decision amounts to.

Ideas exist outside ourselves. If they are ideas, any thinking person should be able – and allowed – to test and measure them. But if these ideas aren’t ideas but some aspect of ourselves, something tied to our physical being, some proprietary object belonging to our group, then what we’re talking about falls outside the auspices of the liberal arts.

And that’s the problem with what unfolded at Mount Saint Vincent. Rather than stand firm for the liberal arts, somebody in the administration of that university thought it wise to acquiesce to a meeting between the new professor and critics so that critics could discuss – vet? approve? – the curriculum.

The school should have stated unequivocally that ideas exist independent of our identities and that any person, regardless of race, gender, class or whatever, can amass the requisite skill and knowledge to teach any idea.

People who have been watching developments in the university system will note that this isn’t the first time that critics have tried to argue that race and ethnicity trump ideas.

Where defenders of the liberal tradition have erred is thinking that critics care about the liberal arts as they’re traditionally understood and that there might be a common desire to preserve liberal education. But many of these critics don’t hold the liberal arts in esteem. And there’s little common ground with people who see DNA, and not ideas, as the fount of truth.

All that said, pathos is a part of learning and good teaching preserves the human element. Indigenous people did incur great suffering and this suffering is part of the history to teach.

But the presumption mounted against one white professor is that she, by virtue of her genetics and status as “settler scholar,” can’t understand the suffering of others, let alone teach the history of suffering, is wrong.

And it’s evidence enough that we need to rebuild and reinforce liberal education.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

indigenous history

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