Lawrence Krauss: Concordia University ‘decolonizes’ engineering

Advanced in Tech & Business

Lawrence Krauss: Concordia University ‘decolonizes’ engineering

This will mark out the university as a place to avoid if you’re hoping for a serious education

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“This five-year strategic plan will put Concordia on the map. We’re telling the world this is what we’re doing, and this is how we’re doing it.”

This was part of a recent statement by Donna Kahérakwas Goodleaf, the Director of Decolonizing Curriculum and Pedagogy at Concordia University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. She was talking about the  university’s new five-year strategic plan to decolonize and indigenize its entire curriculum and pedagogy. The university’s provost, Anne Whitelaw, agreed: “This strategic plan … will change the ways in which we teach at Concordia.”

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Goodleaf and Whitelaw are correct. This initiative will put Concordia on the map and change teaching practices at the university — but not in a positive way. The probable effect will be that Concordia becomes known for leading the charge backwards, away from reality and towards something more irrational. If so, this will mark out the university as a place to avoid if you’re hoping for a serious education or training in the fundamental disciplines that comprise modern scholarship. Concordia graduates will then be stigmatized for the simple reason that the university has promoted ideology over reality.

According to Goodleaf, the new university plan draws upon the “principles embodied in the Two Row Wampum Belt … an ethical framework for how colonial-settler governments are to conduct themselves while living in the land of the Rotinonhsión:ni — more commonly known as the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy.”

Concordia may be located on land that was once the Six Nations Confederacy, but for better or worse, it is now part of Quebec, a province within a country called Canada, which was confederated in 1867 under laws that have governed society for the past 157 years. As much as one might bemoan the fate of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, universities like Concordia exist precisely because they embody educational structures created to encourage study, learning, and research aimed at unravelling the true nature of reality and using that knowledge to help guide our modern society. Imposing political criteria like decolonization and indigenization on curricula that include physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and so on is to shackle these fields to fantasies.

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Goodleaf is quite clear about the intent of the new curriculum. It “creates a path where everyone is equal and no worldview is superior.” But as nice as this claim sounds, it simply isn’t true. Not everyone is equal. Some people are more talented musicians than others. Some are more gifted athletes. Some have better mathematical skills. Some are taller. Of course, it is important to treat everyone with equal respect, in spite of the obvious physiological and intellectual inequities that exist between individual human beings. This is a wonderful tenet that stems from the Enlightenment. (I bet that the peoples of the Six Nations Confederacy also recognized that individuals differ in their skills and abilities and therefore probably did not consider everyone to be equal — especially people outside the Confederacy.) Indeed, the very notion Goodleaf espouses — that people should be considered equals, and their differing worldviews should all be granted equal consideration — is uniquely western. In fact, it could be seen as one of the western cultural norms that she is supposedly critiquing.

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And some worldviews are superior to others: especially those that conform to reality, rather than myth. Some people still believe that the Earth is flat, but that view is not consistent with building and launching of satellites that help us predict the weather, guide our travel, and save many lives. A worldview that helps create knowledge, including a better understanding of the realities of being human and of the laws that govern the cosmos, will help produce structures and technologies that improve our lives. A worldview based on myth and superstition, governed by ideological strictures that discourage or punish open questioning will diminish the quality of human existence. Human history has demonstrated this time and again.

Concordia’s Vice-Provost of Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Sandra Gabriele, offers the following explanation in defence of the new program: “To truly decolonize demands a willingness from all of our community members to think about how systems have been in place for centuries to support a particular worldview, and how those injustices and that discrimination became embedded in the ways we think and work.”

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The “particular worldview” she is describing here is probably that of the Western Enlightenment: a philosophy based on empiricism, which fosters a fascination with exploring new ideas and cultures and discovering nature’s secrets, and — most importantly — allows free and open questioning and discussion. These are the principles that led to the development of modern institutions of higher learning. This worldview has helped us combat myth, superstition, and ideologically based discrimination and injustice. To label support for that worldview as unjust and discriminatory is to misunderstand the importance of Enlightenment principles and the value of modern scholarship.

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The damage this initiative could cause to the global reputation of the university — and to the opportunities it offers its graduates — is exemplified by developments within the School of Engineering. If talk of a new initiative in engineering leads you to expect exciting new technological developments in robotics, material structures, aeronautical improvements, or computational tools, you will be sadly disappointed. Instead, this involves showcasing something called the “EDI Lab.” Led by an engineering faculty member who holds a “Concordia University Research Chair in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Science,” the project is not about studying engineering per se, but about studying Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in STEM disciplines. A serious research program that focused on these issues would surely be better suited to the social sciences than to the engineering curriculum.

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And this is not the only concern it raises. The program does not appear to be designed to promote open questioning and research into even these questions — research that might, for example, find that systemic racism is not endemic to engineering — but rather to promote standard postmodern critical race theory jargon and tropes. Consider the engineering course, ENCS691-G, in which,

“(S)tudents learn about the history of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the relation of social power and inequity, such as the marginalization of women, Black people, People of Color and Indigenous people in STEM. Students learn about intersectionality, gender and diversity in the context of STEM and you will acquire skills to identify and address inequity, marginalization and ‘othering’… Students get to know approaches to decolonize STEM.”

Whatever one’s views as to the scholarly validity of a course like this, it does not seem likely to provide students with skills that will be attractive on the job market. Will firms that hire electrical engineering graduates from Concordia be more inclined to select students who have spent time researching EDI, or will they prefer those who have concentrated on, say, advanced semiconductors or new battery technologies?

Concordia is indeed putting itself on the map with this new ideologically based imperative. But not in the way it may hope.

Quillette

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist & author, is President of the Origins Project Foundation & host of The Origins Podcast. His newest book, The Edge of Knowledge, is out now.

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