Caught in a World We Never Made:
The Academy Through Indian Eyes
WILLIAM BRAY

 

 

 

   
 

 

Some years ago, as I was thumbing through magazines in a used bookstore, I came across a comic book that I found especially intriguing. On the cover was a picture of a duck, vaguely of the Disney variety, with a sour expression on his face. He was smoking a cigar. The title of the sardonic comic was Howard the Duck, with the subtitle, "trapped in a world he never made." I found the subtitle and the character of the cigar-chomping duck so ludicrous, but also so strangely resonant, that I have carried the image with me and pondered it occasionally in the intervening years. Especially since I entered Stanford University, the relevance of Howard the Duck and his lament have magnified. Each day, I realize at a deeper and more significant level how completely Stanford and academia in general are "a world I never made," or had any real part in making. I am not alone. For virtually all of my Indian colleagues, this issue is at the heart.


 

The university is undeniably a world that Indians have had very little voice in shaping and molding. It is not an indigenous creation. In North America, the university has no significant historical reality. It calls its roots European, and its fundamental goals and structures are imports. One of the most pervasive of these goals is the idea of "progress." An example of just how pervasive this idea can be came to me in a discussion with one of my colleagues. This exchange revolved around the idea of moral responsibility in academic work. My colleague, a professor of educational philosophy, who relies on positivist/objectivist modes of understanding the world, held the position that we could not spend too much time worrying about the unintended negative effects of our work. Using the example of cars and the fact that they kill a great many people each year, my colleague argued that had car-makers stopped to worry about the thousands of people killed in traffic accidents each year, we might never have had automobiles, and "progress" would have been stymied. My response to this involved a discussion of the fact that Native Americans, as a people, have been culturally "run over" by the car of progress, and that after five hundred years of lost lands, lost health, lost independence, lost population, and lost languages, I had no faith in "progress." The result was silence, and a swift change to another topic. Because I had no faith in progress, I was not at home in the academic structure. I had become a "problem" to be ignored.


 

For the Indian academic, the problem of locating "home" within the academic structure is serious. More than any people in North America, we can point to the piece of the world where home lies, and often even trace it back to specific rocks, trees, and animals. The university is not where we point. We cannot adopt academia in the way in which the white academician can. Having no idea of links that may not be broken, white academicians can "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and plant themselves firmly in the academic community. This is a community historically conceived to take care of them. Aside from a few minor scrapes and disharmonies, most white people fit in academia like a hand sliding into a custom-tailored glove. What, however, can an Indian do? What can Indians do when the glove was tailored to the white hand, and the white hand is already comfortably inside it?

One of the things that an Indian can do is leave, and we do so in droves. Indians have the highest university dropout rate of any group in the United States, on the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels. This is not surprising. It is not surprising to either the academic world or the Indian world. The academic world can settle back into its easy-chair and theorize about cultural conflict or dissonance or relative deprivations or any of the thousand reasons postulated to explain our leaving. This fits into the academic framework very well. It also provides grounds for further research, to see why Indians drop out. Contradiction is minimized. Everyone is doing what they are supposed to do. Everyone is recognizable. But what of the Indian who stays within the academy? What of the Indian who sees a use for this structure?

 
   

 

Forward to Bray, continued
 
     
 

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