Expertise And Complaints Of Cultural Appropriation

September 2018

Martha Walls’ biography on Mount Saint Vincent University’s faculty page tells us she teaches “women’s, First Nations, and Canadian history” and has years of teaching experience,including the past five at the Mount. That she has considerable expertise in the area of residential schools indicates that Professor Walls is well qualified to teach “Selected Topics in North American History: Residential Schools”, acourse she designed.

A few activists criticized the Mount for assigning this course to Dr Walls for the 2018-2019 academic year. They complained that only a First Nations scholar should teach it. It is my contention, though, that the fact that Dr Walls is not First Nations has no relevance. Furthermore, students are best served when taught by those with the highest level of expertise.

The history department at the Mount assigned this course to Dr Walls in accordance with the collegial procedures all departments must follow. Implicit in these procedures is the reasonable assumption that the history department is best qualified to determine who teaches which history courses and which ones havemerit. Now if another scholar (First Nations or otherwise) more qualified than Dr Walls had been passed over to teach the course, then there would be reason to question the assignment. But no one else had asked to teach it.

The rage over “cultural appropriation”, culminating with a demand that a First Nations person teach Professor Walls’ course, shows a lack of foresight which can potentially pose future problems, creating a slippery slope which descends to the absurd.

For example, let’s suppose an Indo-Canadian with expertise in 19th century British Isles literature teaches that subject at his university. Is he guilty of cultural appropriation? Is he guilty of gender appropriation when he lectures and leads class discussions about Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? For that matter, he does not live in the 19th century. Must this prohibit him from discussing the goings on of that era given that he iscommitting era appropriation?

What about an Anglo-Canadian philosophy professor teaching a course on Plato? She is not Athenian or even Greek. Should this disqualify her? Besides, what right does she, a female, have to presume expertise about Plato, a male? And then there is her era appropriation. But are we to discard the Western canon and itsmasters, whose ideas contributed to the development of our civilization? Are we to jettison our history so that, over time, we forget it and, by extension, condemn ourselves to repeat its mistakes?

Of course, we are all individuals who are different from all others. Taking identity politics to this level, we are committing individual appropriation every time we express an opinion about someone else. Was the great Jewish British historian Martin Gilbert guilty of individual (and religious) appropriation when he wrote his biography of Sir Winston Churchill? Is it inappropriate, then, for psychologists and psychiatrists to assess a client?

Perhapswe should all stop communicating, given the scourge of inappropriate appropriations. Where will this lunacy end? Surely it is incumbent upon the identity politics crowd to make their case stating why some appropriations are okay, while others are not.

Then again, maybe, when all is said and done, we ought, in the absence of contrary evidence, to assume that someone with years of study or expertise in a given field knows what she is talking about and ought to freely teach it, so that others can benefit from her knowledge. Good bet Professor Walls knows considerably more about residential schools than just about anyone else, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. Those who object are always free not to take her course.