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Sibling Rivalry – When (Not) to Mandate

indigenous studies

Spencer Morrison (1L)

 Rongulus: I think the University of Alberta should follow the University of Manitoba by mandating that all undergraduates take one indigenous studies course. Indigenous peoples have been historically marginalized, and we need to foster intellectual understanding and inclusivity.

A mandatory course is an ideal means to do this because it reaches all students, regardless of their prior interests or academic specialization. It introduces them, in a non-adversarial environment, to an important, yet too-often unfamiliar culture. Moreover, it would be a sign of respect and would promote reconciliation.

Realisticles: Good idea, but I think we should also advocate for a mandatory women’s studies course. Afterall, women were historically marginalized, and they comprise half the population. This course would help open student’s minds and inform them of criticisms levied against the overarching patriarchal narrative that’s so prevalent in society.

Rongulus: Very true, and now that I’m thinking about it, we should probably include a mandatory course on Ukrainian history too. Ukrainians make up a third of Alberta’s population and have been incredibly marginalized, even to the point of genocide, both in Europe and Canada.

Realisticles: Don’t forget the Scots and Irish. These two groups struggled against English colonialism and bigotry for nearly a millennium, but nevertheless indispensably contributed to Canada’s history. The same goes for the French, Dutch, Chinese, Africans… And what about Jewish history, need I remind you that Canada turned away thousands of Jewish refugees in 1939?

Rongulus: Fair enough, there are lots of critical options to choose from.

Realisticles: So many options it makes unbiased selection impossible. There is no objective, logically compelling reason to mandate indigenous studies over other categorically analogous courses. Why indigenous history, not women’s history; indigenous culture, not Ukrainian culture; indigenous religions, not Islam? All of these groups were, or are, marginalized Canadian peoples which would benefit from increased general understanding. The need for inclusivity is not exclusive.

The act of choosing is necessarily subjective, it’s a value judgement that implies indigenous studies is the first among equals. It’s a political choice.

Nevermind the fact that it’s impossible to understand the dominated without reference to the dominator. How could you learn indigenous history without knowing European history, or understand women without men? These intellectual divisions are meaningless.

 Rongulus: I’ll grant you that it’s politically motivated, but that doesn’t mean the principle is misguided. Perhaps what’s needed is a mandatory Canadian history course which would provide this remedial content while giving adequate context.

Realisticles: But then you run into the problem: why history? Given the dearth of informed young voters, political science would seem to offer the most immediate benefit, as politically engaged students will not only learn how our government works, but will imbibe the socio-political issues of our day. The same can be said of sociology, economics, or even environmental sciences.

At its heart, the university is a civic institution, and although students benefit, it’s primary role is to benefit society. To do this it must offer the best possible education in as many fields as possible: it benefits society more to train great doctors than merely good doctors with training in Welsh folk music. That’s just how the world works. I don’t talk to my accountant to learn about Serbian politics, and I don’t really care what my local petroleum engineer has to say about indigenous folk music: I want my accountant to know how to save me money and my petroleum engineer know how to make me money. That’s it.

A university’s success is judged not by the individual student, but by the student body. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By encouraging intellectual specialization society reaps the advantages of both deep and diverse expertise.

Rongulus: Sure, but If the university’s purpose is simply specialization then why bother with interdisciplinary studies at all? Why should engineers study english or historians study statistics? By your logic we should drop all mandatory courses which don’t fall within a field’s core competency. This would be a huge mistake.

Interdisciplinary knowledge yields unique advantages. For example, the best entrepreneurs often have diverse interests and expertise, they are not simply management experts; and the greatest scholars tend to approach stale problems from novel perspectives. Diverse thinking is at least as beneficial to society as specialization.

 Realisticles: A degree of interdisciplinary study is beneficial, I’m not denying that. I stated that courses should be mandated for academic reasons, and this includes relevant interdisciplinary studies. A psychologist should understand statistics, and a political scientist should know economics.

However, mandating an academically irrelevant course for ideological reasons is the real mistake. Currently, students freely choose their options, provided they meet general guidelines. It’s the best of both worlds: students take interdisciplinary courses, but they have some leeway to make sure they’re academically relevant.

Finally, we should consider the impact this policy would have on the university itself. Students have a finite number of electives. A mandatory indigenous studies course would fill one of these slots, and thus cannibalize whatever course the student would have otherwise taken. This hurts  other departments by decreasing enrollment, especially smaller departments that depend upon electives for funding (think art history). Indigenous studies is not objectively more valuable than theatre or classics, which would suffer under this regime. For these reasons, we should not mandate an indigenous studies course.