Postcolonial Educational Practices
and the Problem of Epistemic Authority


Charles William Miller

University of North Dakota, Grand Forks ND

Copyright © 2001 by Charles William Miller, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Cathryn McConaghy. Rethinking Indigenous Education: Culturalism, Colonialism and the Politics of Knowing. Flaxton: Post Pressed, 2000.

  1. If there is anything that postmodernism and postcolonialism have taught us, it is to be suspicious of claims to an objective perspective or assertions of disinterested conduct. All viewpoints must be decentered and all actions problematized. Gaze and act originate in a specific historical and ideological context. That is as true of reviews we write (or read), as it is of the books we read (or write). My context is important to the way I read and understand Cathryn McConaghy's Rethinking Indigenous Education: Culturalism, Colonialism and the Politics of Knowing and certainly influences the present review that I am writing. I find myself teaching at a university that prides itself on its educational programs for Native Americans (Indigenous education?). The school has over twenty different programs now and is considering expanding these as well as adding even more programs for Native Americans here at the university. Everyone applauds these efforts and believes that they should be continued. There is, however, an element of irony in all of this. The sports teams at the university are known as the 'Fighting Sioux' and they use a geometric Indian head logo as a symbol of this name. Beginning next year this geometric logo will give way to a human caricature, fleshed out with long hair, feathers, and 'war' paint. All of the tribal councils that are historically associated with the Sioux - as well as most of the other First Nations groups scattered throughout the three state area - have asked the university to discontinue the use of this name and of this logo. They strongly argue that the usage of the name and logo shows disrespect to First Nations people and to their culture. The university has refused to listen and does not intend to change the name or the logo. At the root of the problem is an alumnus and his gift to the university of a new 100 million dollar hockey arena. He likes the name and the new logo. He believes the university should keep them regardless of what the Native Americans think. In fact, he and the other supporters of the name and logo claim that the use of them do indeed honor the Native Americans. The implication is that the Native Americans do not know what is good for them, but white folk do. White folk will continue to define what is in the best interests of Native Americans and act accordingly - regardless of what Native Americans themselves say or do. Here in North Dakota, colonialism, especially as it relates to the First Nations, continues to thrive and it is this background that provides the context for my reading of McConaghy's important book.

  2. The importance of McConaghy's book does not reside only in its critique of the indigenous educational experience in the life of Australia, which is certainly at the basis of much of her discussion. Nor does it rely solely on her revamping of the critical discourse that focuses on the development and reconstitution of the field of indigenous education in general, although she does make a major contribution to this important discipline. In both cases, if this were all the book offered, it would limit the usefulness of the book for those who are neither interested in Australia and its colonial history, nor involved in teaching or theorizing about indigenous education. The significance of this book lies instead in McConaghy's ability to show that the problem of epistemic authority in education, which she insists must be understood within the context of a particular localized and/or historical colonialist setting, should be viewed as the central issue of all theorizing about post-colonial educational practices. In other words, its not just about the treatment and education of Indigenous peoples in Australia, North Dakota, or anywhere else. It is ultimately about all colonialist teaching practices regardless of the time, place, or group.

  3. McConaghy raises important questions at the beginning of her book that transcend issues of education and focus on basic issues of epistemology: "How is it that certain claims to knowledge are able to secure epistemic authority at particular times, in particular ways and for particular purposes? What are the processes by which old knowledge-claims are rejected and new gain legitimacy? How do elements of the old persist in the new?" (p. 1). She begins sketching answers to these questions by investigating Indigenous adult educational practices within the Australian colonial context. After a preliminary chapter ("Knowing Indigenous Education") that offers an introduction to and overview of the book as a whole, McConaghy introduces concepts that are theoretically basic to her work in the second chapter ("Colonial Legitimacy and Disciplinary Knowledges"): Orientalism, Aboriginalism, and racialisation. The focus of her discussion of these concepts is on their contribution to the problems of the representation of the other, especially in regard to social difference, and the legitimation of knowledge in Indigenous education. The basis of all three of these concepts is a set of epistemic assumptions that McConaghy terms Culturalism, by which she means "the perception of subjectivity as primarily 'cultural'" (p. 43). These perceptions are grounded in the basic binary of 'Indigenous'/'western', but incorporate a whole range of binary oppositions (for example, traditional/non-traditional and authentic/inauthentic), each of which "privilege a particular form of oppression and ignore others" (p. 43). McConaghy offers an alternative analytical tool, "post-culturalism," which "seeks to return issues of social difference to their embeddedness in specific political and historical moments" and, furthermore, "seeks to disrupt the legitimacy of certain claims for cultural authority which are housed in specific culturalist representations" (p.44).

  4. The historical development of culturalism within early colonial Australia is the topic of McConaghy explores next. The primary focus of this chapter ("Early Culturalism: Institutionalising in Colonial Ambivalence") is on Australian social policy as it related to Indigenous adult education. She places her discussion within the framework of five historical methods of delineating the other: naturalism, imperialism, patriarchy, nationalism, and transnational capitalism. The ultimate effect of early culturalism was the establishment and maintenance of a cultural narrative that proclaimed "white people are naturally superior to black, men are naturally superior to women and [white] men are naturally better suited to positions of power and governance" (p. 82). The truth claims of this narrative negatively impacted the construction of knowledge in various disciplines, including Indigenous education, the writing of Australian history, and the drafting of social policies related to Indigenous peoples. "Scientific Culturalism: Institutionising Colonial Value" is the title of the fourth chapter and in it McConaghy explores the ways a rigorous scientific method, especially in the context of anthropological definitions of culture, come together "to constitute a powerful regime by which Indigenous people are othered" (p.126). She goes on to argue that there are important consequences to an acceptance of scientific culturalism: colonial values are legitimated, colonial control is authorized, adversarial social identities are created, and epistemic violence is empowered.

  5. In four subsequent chapters, McConaghy expands her investigation of scientific culturalism by examining the educational traditions that grow out of this belief. In chapter five ("Pastoral Welfarism: Institutionalising Indigenous Incapacity"), the focus is on the ways Indigenous education becomes a means of doing for and speaking for Indigenous people. From this tradition comes a "pastoral welfarism" where Indigenous people are thought to be incapable of acting or speaking on their own behalf. They, instead, become objects to be "done to, talked about, and lifted up by the efforts of those white people who are capable and who know" (p. 148). Since education is often based on the idea that the student lacks something (information) that only the teacher can provide, this tradition becomes especially insidious and pervasive in indigenous education. Another educational tradition is that which attempts to remake Indigenous persons in the image of white folk. This is the subject of chapter six ("Assimilation: Institutionalising Colonial Mimicry"). The third tradition, which is addressed in chapter seven ("Cultural Relativism: Institutionalising Colonial Tolerance"), appears to be the polar opposite of the second, as it purports to be sensitive to the differences between the Indigenous and white people. The emphasis, however, continues to be on the white folk, who are seen as "doing for others, respecting, tolerating and ensuring fair treatment" of the Indigenous people (p. 190). A glaring problem with both of these approaches, according to McConaghy, is that they continue to view the Indigenous person as an objectified other and do nothing to address the hierarchical social structures that continue to operate in the colonial setting. "Radicalism: Institutionalising Colonial Inversions" is the title of chapter eight, which focuses on the fourth educational tradition associated with scientific culturalism. Of the four, McConaghy believes this is the best, as it attempts to invert colonial power relationships. Nonetheless, she sees the gains as short-term, because radicalism does not disrupt the colonial binaries, it merely overturns them. This means that they probably will not "lead to effective and sustained de-colonisation in Indigenous education" (p. 250).

  6. In the end, McConaghy does not claim to offer the final word, but argues that there needs to be ongoing studies of Indigenous education that "emerge from the theoretical field in which postcolonial theories meet poststructuralism and feminist critiques" (p.265). This is especially significant in regard to the analysis of the production of disciplinary knowledges and of the location of epistemic authority. She calls for movement away from those studies that attempt to legitimate colonial structures, that assist "the cultural requirements of global capitalism," and that support the "new 'methods' of the privileged in the west" (p. 269). Those studies based in broadly conceived theoretical ideals are also called into question. The need, according to McConaghy, is to understand "how particular textual strategies and particular portrayals of Indigenous subjectivity are used to legitimate certain interests and to achieve particular social formations (p. 266; emphasis added). For those interested in the colonial history of Australia, or in the field of Indigenous education, this is an important and ground breaking book. For those who are attentive to the issues surrounding colonialist teaching practices, as well as the problem of the production and legitimation of knowledge within educational institutions, this book is highly recommended.

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