38. THE ACADEMIC GYP OF IDENTITY STUDIES

Go on,  despise science and reason,
Highest of all powers that humans have,
And only let the lying spirit give
You strength in works of magic and illusion.
Then without question you are mine.- Goethe1

Tyson began talking about New Age philosophy. He questioned its vaunting wisdom. “In practically every idea we have as humans, the older version of it is not better than the newer version. With the invested effort of generations, and centuries, and sometimes millennia of smart people who have been born since that idea came out, we have improved ideas. – Rebecca Mead, “Starman”2

When identities are multiplied, passions are divided.- Robert Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow (above)

A man does not have roots. He has feet.- Riad Sattouf 3

Universities have lost their way and no longer see the pursuit of truth as their ultimate aim. -Frances Widdowson 4

Indian post-secondary education is big business for Canada’s universities and colleges. The fairly recent proliferation of “native studies” departments in all our major universities and colleges has to be understood in this business-context light.

Native studies, a genus of “identity studies”, and their academic departments, have been created to tap into the many millions of new dollars being somewhat indiscriminately thrown at the “aboriginal problem” by our current governments.

By doing this these educational institutions naturally better ensure their own fiscal health and longevity – indeed their own survival.

On the surface there’s nothing wrong with this. From the perspective of those in charge of these institutions, the administrators and governors, it makes good business sense. They would be justly charged with negligence for not seizing this main chance.

But below the surface, on the fundamental level involving the consideration of civic values and the overall public good, these native studies departments make little or no academic sense and have an overall negative social purpose and effect.

Further, they erode the fundamental purpose and sully the image of institutions of higher learning as places of truth-seeking and intellectual integrity.

One example of this is Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University, which offered a science course for Indians which, according to the University,5 “…has a fifty per cent balance, and uses Native science [sic] as a comparison against the European approach….”(!)

Another, more wide-ranging example was seen on the website of Laurentian University’s Department of Native Studies, which website content (2010) is fairly typical of all college and university native studies departments across the country. There, the whole panoply of new age, standard-free, academically fraudulent mumbo-jumbo was set out.

The would-be students for whom the website was designed were assured right at the outset that if they enrolled in this program, they wouldn’t have to worry too much about trivial things like facts, serious study or learning, because “…the entire program is grounded in the “spirit of things,” as opposed to empirical or entrepreneurial approaches….”

What followed was a long list of bird courses that emphasized subjectivity, aspects of the allegedly different world view and “experience” of aboriginal people compared to the rest of humanity-“seeing with a native eye,” the “aboriginal holistic notion of health”- shallow, one-dimensional, grievance-oriented history courses, and time-wasting forays into the outer margins of dying or dead Indian languages (for example, Intermediate Nishnaabemwin A (Ojibwe), where, amongst other things “the students will learn how to compose questions and answers that have subjects only, no objects.” (!)

Thus the approach of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein is eschewed in favour of an approach that would countenance such an intellectual fraud as “native science,” and in favour of an approach grounded in the “spirit of things,” that is, in favour of the irrational and the superstitious.

The authors Widdowson and Howard, in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, describe this approach as one that encourages the study of “junk science”, in relation to which they write as follows:

Junk science is generally used in support of a political or legislative agenda, which is driven by parties who have an interest in suppressing reliable scientific evidence. It is just such an agenda, in fact, that is causing the exaggerated claims about the importance of traditional knowledge….

They further write:

Of all the obfuscation going on in the promotion of traditional knowledge, the most destructive effect has been the rejection of science itself. Saying that there are other “ways of knowing” is an encouragement to forego the intellectual development that comes with the understanding of scientific methods and their application. Rejection of science indicates an inability to distinguish between scientific method and the various political and economic interests that have oppressed aboriginal people historically. It is not understood that science is a methodology that can enable all cultures, including aboriginal peoples, to understand the material world, and that isolation from it results in ignorance and confusion. Aboriginal peoples’ opposition to science, in fact, leaves them open to manipulation from the very interests that are benefitting from their current vulnerability.

Unfortunately this frightening, irrational, anti-Enlightenment, intellectual nihilism comes not just from academia, but from government as well. For example, the federal government is making it mandatory, as part of the environmental review process for any major resource project, “to consider indigenous traditional knowledge alongside science.”(!) Seemingly equally alongside science!(A criticism of this by a Quebec government official was shockingly and ignorantly described by a University of Ottawa Law Professor as “reductionist…offensive…and containing the stench of racism.”(!)6

The curricula of native studies departments constitute another manifestation of the Walt Disney view of Indian culture, past and present, that is so intellectually shoddy and academically and socially harmful. They represent the same anti-intellectual mindset as that embraced by so-called “Christian” colleges in the United States- the kind that preach false pride and division, the kind that teach, for example, the theory of creationism, the kind that Jesus Christ himself would flunk out of- or the Muslim “teaching  centres” that infuse all course content with the eighth century, literally-taken, dictates of Allah.

How shocking that in this day and age, in which we are all more dependent than ever on science and technology, where our young peoples’ hopes for carving out a place for themselves in 21st century Canadian life are more dependent than ever on being able to find themselves a place in this science and technology-based world – which of course is entirely based on the empirical “approach” – that “native studies” should so avowedly declare its bias against secularism and rationalism,  the very intellectual basis of this economy.

The existence of native studies departments is another example of the betrayal of Indian young people by Canada’s governing classes and by Indian elites. Wasting their precious time and money on such academic tripe! Making them feel “welcome” by flattering them with intellectual lies and low standards.

Andrew Delbanco, in,Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality,7 a review of several recent books on higher education in America, writes:

In a widely noted 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa give a grim account of college as a place where students are held to low standards in an atmosphere of waste and frivolity. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, they stress that the likeliest victims of “late adolescent meandering” are students from low income backgrounds who come out of college aimless, demoralized, and with fewer chances than their more affluent peers to recoup lost opportunities. In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton speak of “an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.”

The immediately above has been the case for years with respect to Canadian liberal arts faculties, of which native studies departments have become an integral fiscal part. And it’s especially dangerous and unfair to Indian students, who have fewer chances than their non-Indian middle-class peers to recoup their lost opportunities elsewhere after graduation.

These low- even non-existent- standards, were never better epitomized than by the case of University of British Columbia “indigenous scholar” Lorna Jane McCue, who, in 2012, was (finally) fired by UBC for failing to publish, during the 11 year period of her “career” there, even a single peer-reviewed research paper, (the standard was to publish five such papers).8

Ms. McCue  won the right to a full hearing, before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, of her argument to the effect that she was the victim of racial discrimination because UBC was, according to her, wrongfully trying to force her, an indigenous scholar, “to compromise her research by forcing it into non-oral forms.”

McCue’s position is that she adheres to an indigenous oral tradition that requires “significant compromise” for her to meet UBC’s tenure and promotion standards.

Instead, she said, UBC should change their standards to account for “non-traditional scholarship” such as conference appearances, submission to UN bodies and chapters in non-peer  reviewed books.

(My original title for this chapter was The Academic Fraud of Native Studies. Responding to what I felt was some legitimate criticism, I changed it to the present title. But aspects of that old title certainly applied to Ms. McCue’s situation.)

All this constitutes academia treating  aboriginal students like children- misrepresenting the outside world to them- essentially cheating them of the experience of facing and overcoming challenges that are authentic and adult in nature. Cheating them, because, as Tony Judt wrote in Reappraisals,  “…when elders make no demands on the young they make it impossible for the young to grow up.”

It’s worse than that. Native studies departments teach young Indians that their life destinies lie in one of Amartya Sen’s “monocultures” or in Tony Judt’s  “…community of origin, the besetting sin of nationalism and multi-culturalism alike…” rather than to anywhere and with anyone fate might take them in the entire, boundless, cultural box-free, outside world.

Robert Hughes writes 9 of the individually and socially harmful reality of monoculture thinking in America: there, in relation to over-the-top Black activists. But his words apply full force to what is similarly happening in Canada:

In society as in farming, monoculture works poorly. It exhausts the soil. The social richness of America comes from the diversity of its tribes. Its capacity for cohesion, for some spirit of common agreement on what is to be done, comes from the willingness of those tribes not to elevate their cultural differences into impassable barriers and ramparts, not to fetishize their “African-ness”…which makes them distinct, at the expense of their Americanness, which gives them a vast common ground.

What native studies departments offer is mainly “identity studies”-which Robert Hughes refers to as “zones of cultural self-interest”- academic ghettos- and of which Tony Judt wrote in his posthumously-published series of essays, The Memory Chalet:

The shortcomings of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority: it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves – thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.  All too frequently such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays and so forth.

And Indians study only Indians.

And when they do this they learn to only think of themselves as individual human beings with reference to their own racial, ethnic religious group. And when they graduate from these courses, should they choose to become teachers at any level of the educational system, they will pass on their narrowness to the next generation.

Marilynne Robinson, writes10 of this tragically limiting and harmful, too-common, group-think phenomenon as follows:

Identity seems now to imply membership in a group, through ethnicity or affinity or religion or otherwise. Rather than acknowledging the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being (and considering the overwhelming odds against anyone’s existence, the word “miraculous” is an appropriate superlative), it has reference now to knowing one’s place culturally and historically speaking. And this is taken to be a good thing.

Sir David Cannadine makes the same point in The Undivided Past, referring to faith-based schools in words that apply fully and equally to “Indians only” schools so fondly imagined by our Indian and many of our non-Indian elites. He writes:

…instead of encouraging young people to think about their many and varied identities, faith-based schools ghettoize them, so that the only contemporaries they are likely to encounter are also their coreligionists, the purpose of their education being in significant part to reinforce their sense not only of collective religious identity, but also of collective religious superiority. Thus can schooling fail at what must surely count as one of its essential purposes in a pluralistic world, namely to foster an understanding of who other people are, and of what one might oneself become.

Such identity-oriented “studies” cruelly and crushingly limit Indian students’ life outlook to merely the world from which they came and not to all the fantastic life and spirit-enhancing places, experiences and people in the world to which they rightfully should be pointed and helped towards i.e. to Tony Judt’s common, expansive  and multi-cultural “community of destiny.”

Again, the brilliant Robert Hughes on the benefits and virtues of multi-culturalism in America, with words that apply full force to the desperate need to academically (and all elsewhere) orient our young Canadian indigenous peoples in that direction:

Multiculturalism asserts that people with different roots can co-exist, that they can learn to read the image-banks of others, that they can and should look across the frontiers of race, language, gender and age without prejudice or illusion, and learn to think against the background of a hybridized society. It proposes-modestly enough-that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures. It wants to study border situations, not only because they are fascinating in themselves, but  because understanding them may bring with it a little hope for the world.

Much has been written about the alienation of Indians, and young Indians in particular, from the cultural and economic mainstream of Canada. Culturally “sensitive” education, with a focus on building “self-esteem”, one of the mainstays and rationales of native studies departments, further alienates young Indians in the even more fundamental sense that they further alienate young Indians even from themselves.

Indian youth are as bright and aware as anyone else. They know, as all young people do, when they are being lied to or patronized. They instinctively know, as all people do, that a sense of self-possession, self-worth and autonomy is something that is earned only as a result of effort and achievement.

They know, simply by reflecting on their own lives and observing the lives of others and the day to day world around them, that the constant barrage of magical thinking and Indian pride talk designed to restore their allegedly lost dignity, and the constant barrage of Indian “traditional values and culture” feel-good propaganda directed at them, given their technology, texting and television-dominated real lives, is insincere and untrue. They know and sense that it’s all at complete variance with almost every aspect of their everyday life experience.

Everyone feels insecure to some degree. Everyone feels that they have “deficiencies” (usually more imagined than not.) We all need to confront these feelings- to constructively deal with them in some way.

If these powerful, individual feelings are masked or disguised through or by way of an excessive emphasis on the more abstract and personally irrelevant group-oriented collective-that is racial or ethnic group self-esteem preoccupations- then this does little or nothing to ameliorate  the individual’s situation- little or nothing for his personal development. 11

This applies full force to aboriginal youth, whose greatest life need is to establish a sense of personal identity, not be allowed to submerge whatever budding, uncertain sense of personal identity they have in some mainly-mythical, amorphous, impersonal, racial  group  identity.

It’s alienating when what young people are told by their “betters” is just not what they experience, see and hear in their daily lives. Again, that disconnect referred to before occurs, and bad outcomes are perpetuated.

Indian youth, their whole tender lives up that point characterized by having one collective foot stuck in the past and the other stuck in a benignly-segregated, confusing present, are not being helped out of this unhealthy psychic state by being further subjected to even more of the same disconnected, segregationist, exceptionalist, overly sentimental drivel that contributed to their troubled state in the first place.

Native studies departments, in fundamentally rejecting the Gambler’s “blades of grass” vision of unity and harmony amongst all Canadians, amongst all human beings, tend to deny Indian students their essential, individual humanity as young citizens of the world and thus limit and even decrease their chances of participating in the real worldin Tony Judt’s community of destiny.

A university or college should be a place devoted to fostering critical thought, the pre-emptive vaccine or antidote to all the destructive “isms” of the world, 12 instead of the lazy channelling and dissemination of decidedly uncritical, close-minded, inward-looking orthodoxy- instead of constraining academic and intellectual inquiry by “ideologically inspired authoritarianism” (Frances Widdowson, above).  It should be devoted to providing an experience of intellectual emancipation and growth, where old, parochial, racially or culturally-specific, self-limiting, mental chains are broken.

But alas:

The book of the world… is being closed by the “learned” who are raising walls of opinion to shut the world out. 13

Tragically, native studies departments, too-often run by ideologically incestuous faculty members, all wedded to the money and position-securing  orthodoxy and  disgracefully hostile to any ideas that don’t reflect it, tend to forge these old, rusty, self-limiting mental chains even stronger, representing as they do, with their ready-made, prepackaged “progressive”, faux-radical views, the antithesis of what a university should stand for- the antithesis of independent thinking-  and what a university should be trying to do for the young minds in its charge.

But it is only the manner that is radical. Few things can be safer, more success- assuring, than this non-threatening radicalism, dangerous to no one and relying, at bottom, on the stability of institutions. 14

Native studies departments send the unspoken message to young Indigenous students, under the guise of building their confidence with feel-good bromides focusing on “Indian pride,” that they should always be primarily self-identifying as “Indigenous”, or “Indian”, or “First Nations”, or “aboriginal”, or “indigenous”, or “Inuit” or “Metis”- that they can only find real meaning in life – that can only stay pure and authentic- by mentally inhabiting first and foremost their own allegedly culturally unique, local community of origin, surrounded as much as possible by people who look and think like them, and that participating as full human equals in the larger, outside world, and self-identifying primarily as “human being” or “citizen”, where, really, one’s race or ethnicity is essentially irrelevant, is not the ultimate goal they should be striving for.

A university or college should strive to make its’ students fit for the adult world – the whole world – not merely the small town or small reserve world each student comes from.

A blind obedience to or an obsessive focus on one’s “traditional” customs and culture can mark the mentality of a primitive people, and Indians, being no longer “primitive” in any way, should now be expressly rejecting these aspects of cultural primitivism that their elites are attempting to foist on and define them by, and thus retard their progress- hold them back!

The identities of individual Indian-Canadians, especially the majority of them who live off-reserve, now so profoundly affected by racially indifferent modernism, are just too fluid and multiple (characteristic of a vibrant, cosmopolitan society) to fit into old, primitive, outdated tribal or racial models.

Because again, as Mr. Judt wrote, and as Marilynne Robinson and Sir David Cannadine implythe intellectual emancipation of a person, or a people, requires the moving away from, or even the disintegration sometime, of that person’s, that people’s, culture of origin. This is how it must be. This is how it is in life. This is how we progress, as individuals, as a society, as a species. We progress by way of constant change, cultural adaptation and assimilation, shucking off old cultural skins and personas and growing new ones.

This moving away from tribal or racial, individual self-identification, and towards a more individually-empowering, culturally and racially box-free form of self-identification, is a healthy and inevitable consequence of modernism, and in particular the communications revolution. It will encourage aboriginal young people to “think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural and linguistic lines”,15thus improving their chances of meaningfully participating in the global economy.  It reduces the dangerous and nasty effects of all “isms” and contributes to national progress.

As Robert Kaplan, in In Europe’s Shadow, above, writes:

Progress occurs when history becomes less that of the state or nations and more that of individuals within, so that one grand narrative fragments into millions of parts, each with its own full-bodied story.

These natural, healthy, individual-oriented processes are all, tragically for Canada’s young Indians, being denigrated and hindered by their elites, by cultural chauvinism and cultural segregation in institutions of higher learning, which, at its most basic, is what Indian elites want more of, and which native studies departments  represent and deliver.

Native studies departments are merely another example of the Indian industry’s constant and further empire building, of its forever beavering away for its’ own perpetuation and aggrandizement, under the guise of carrying out beneficial work for its’ downtrodden client base.

Like every other undertaking of the Indian industry, the only beneficiaries of the native studies movement in Canadian academia are the teachers and administrators and other such insider functionaries who get and keep jobs out of it,  and the larger institutions themselves, which get huge funding for this politically-driven, academic thin gruel – funding so necessary in their eyes for their survival in these fragile economic times.

A classic statement in this regard is in writer/ long-tenured English Professor John Williams’ Stoner,16, a novel of American academia, where petty and cruel, sandbox academic politics crush the protagonist. One of his few colleague-friends, after a few drinks, cynically tells him:

“It’s for us that the university exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have no pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive- because we have to.”

Writer Susan Jacoby asks what was to stop academics from including these types of  studies, (black, women, native), into the general university core curricula, instead of ghettoizing them:

..(it) was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or literature or sociology as they had always taught it-from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberals on campus for the past thirty years has been that they (have) contempt for multiculturalism but (do) not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?”, resonates through academia today. 17

Indigenous students get little of lasting value out of all this thin gruel. On the contrary, they, the supposed object of the whole exercise, get deprived and cheated out of the kind of challenging and liberating post-secondary education and life experience they deserve and that universities and colleges properly owe them, thus assuring their continued marginalization in Canadian society for more generations to come.

  1. From Faust, Part 1 Penguin Classics, 2005.
  2. Extract from an essay on astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson (an African-American): Rebecca Mead,  Starman, The New Yorker, 17 February 2014.
  3. From Drawing Blood, by Adam Shatz, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015, a portrait of French-Syrian graphic novelist Riad Sattouf, (the quote paraphrasing Salman Rushdie). The offspring of a French mother and a Syrian father, he typifies the increasingly “mongrelized” and metisnature of urban humanity going forward into the twenty-first century. (70% of Canada’s Indians live off-reserve, in Canada’s large and small urban centres.)
  4. The co-author of Disrobing the Indian Industry(see Assimilation and Cultural Loss, above), in Universities lose way in quest for real truths, The Sudbury Star, November 30, 2016
  5. Northern Ontario Business, Summer 2010.
  6. Konrad Yakabuski, Ottawa Muddies the environmental waters, The Globe and Mail, March 29th, 2018
  7. New York Review of Books, July 9,2015
  8. See Tristin Hopper, Dismissed Scholar Wins Bid for Hearing, National Post, January 27, 2016
  9. In The Culture of Complaint, above
  10. From Imagination and Community, in When I Was a Child I Read Books, above. For her, community consists “very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly” -our fellow human beings, past and present, with whom we  imaginatively identify and with whom we feel a sense of shared humanity.
  11. The idea of masking individual deficiencies “through collective- that is racial or ethnic self-esteem”, comes from Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War,Vintage Books, New York, 2000.
  12. In the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosterscritical thought. (italics added)

-George Packer, Exporting Jihad, The New Yorker, March 28, 2016

  1. Saul Bellow, from his Forewardto Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American  Mind, above.
  2. Nobel Prize-winning American literary giant, Saul Bellow, from his essay Scepticism and the Depth of Life, contained inThere Is Simply Too Much to Think About– Collected Non-Fiction, Penguin Books, 2015
  3. Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint, above
  4. (New York Review Books Classics, 2006)
  5. From  The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, above.

By: Peter Best