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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2010

Politicizing epistemology

Questions of epistemology (“Trent Leads in Recognition of Indigenous Knowledge,” CAUT Bulletin, June 2010) should not be decided politically or by university administrations (whose judgement is suspect in so many areas), but rather by academics properly trained in academic disciplines that concern themselves with the nature of knowledge.

In presuming that the ethnocentric ways of knowing of a particular group (i.e., Aboriginals) are somehow more valid than ways of knowing embraced by other non-academic groups (e.g., Christians, Muslims, farmers, mechanics…), CAUT has betrayed not only any semblance of commitment to reason and science, but also the many colleagues who believe that academic ways of knowing enjoy a special status that is well earned given how much they have demonstrably advanced human understanding and wellbeing around the globe.

Consider the unbelievably broad scope of indigenous knowledge. According to the article, it encompasses “theories of the universe and how it works; the nature of human beings and others; the nature of society and political order; the nature of the world and how to live within it, and human motivation, among many other aspects of life.”

Proponents of indigenous ways of knowing essentially lay claim to all domains that academics have worked so hard to understand in ways that transcend ethnocentric views: biology, psychology, sociology, ethics, and so on.

Epistemology aside, anyone concerned with university teaching should be dismayed that CAUT would throw out centuries of academic tradition and culture instead of promoting their value to all people, including indigenous groups around the world. Understanding indigenous theories of how the universe works (which theories?), for example, will not help indigenous students become doctors or engineers — indeed ethnocentric beliefs will become yet another systematic and perhaps insurmountable barrier to such careers.

Lest my concerns be dismissed as the ranting of a White Male, let me quote Meera Nanda (1998), a female scholar from India, who urged rejection of the ethnoscience promoted by misguided Western liberals because it “…dehumanizes us by denying us the capacity for a reasoned modification of our beliefs in the light of better evidence made available by the methods of modern science … enjoins us to stop struggling against the limits that our cultural heritage imposes on our knowledge and our freedoms and … limits people’s science movements in non-Western societies that strive to challenge the claims of local standards of truth and morality.”

Simply put, it is not the place of university administrations or faculty or­ganizations to decide complex issues about the nature of knowledge and its acquisition. CAUT’s politicizing of epistemology betrays the very essence of what universities stand for (despite much contemporary pressure to betray traditional academic values) and greatly diminishes CAUT’s credibility with many academics and thoughtful laypeople alike.

Jim Clark
University of Winnipeg

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