Cultural Variance, Critical Thinking, and Indigenous Knowledges: Exploring a Both-Ways Approach

Sharon K. Chirgwin and Henk Huijser


Critical thinking is generally considered to be one of the most crucial attributes in the Western processes of knowledge assemblage and creation and is therefore carefully nurtured in traditional higher education institutions. In Western knowledge systems, critical thinking is considered to drive not only knowledge production but also innovation and development, while it is intimately linked to a colonial history in which "progress" has been the key focus and driving force. Not coincidentally then the university as a "research and development" institution has played a central role in this colonial history. From an Indigenous point of view, such "progress" has been viewed with ambivalent feelings at best, but more often with suspicion and skepticism for good reasons (Tuhiwai Smith 1999).

Colonialism has created an ambivalent relationship between Indigenous peoples and the university as an institution, and this ambivalence is ongoing and creates tension, especially for Indigenous students who may at times feel they are being co-opted into Western ways of thinking. The concept of critical thinking is central to this ambivalence because it is at the very heart of the university's modus operandi. This degree of ambivalence is of course different for different Indigenous students. Not only are there very different degrees to which Indigenous students have been exposed to, or immersed in, Western ways of thinking but more importantly different Indigenous cultures (both outside of and within Australia) have different culturally specific ways of developing knowledge as well as different ways of expressing and passing on knowledge. Cultural variance is an important and often ignored part of Indigenous engagement with the university. This chapter explores whether a both-ways approach can be applied to critical thinking and whether it can, in the process, overcome some of the potential for conflict and ambivalence.

If we accept that critical thinking is central to a Western approach to knowledge creation and development, then it should come as no surprise that the creation of new knowledge is an essential part of obtaining a masters degree or a doctorate. However this has the potential to create problems for Indigenous students because traditional Indigenous knowledge is produced, owned, and distributed quite differently from the way it is done in Western tradition. Knowledge in many Indigenous cultures is not "open" in the same way as it is in the Western context, but instead is guarded by particular individuals, and the handing over of such knowledge is often safeguarded by strict cultural protocol. This is quite different from the Western academic context, which is fundamentally characterized by the ideas of openness to scrutiny and knowledge as situated in the "public domain."

These differences and the link to colonial values raise the question of whether critical thinking in its Western conceptualization is either relevant or desirable in Indigenous contexts. Furthermore if it is deemed to be desirable, then what is an appropriate way to develop it? In attempting to answer such questions, it is important to reiterate that cultural variance means that there are many different degrees of "tradition," and exposure to a Western context for Indigenous students, despite what a "both ways" approach may imply, should not be seen as a strict binary between Indigenous and Western knowledge but rather as a continuum.

This chapter draws on our experiences in our work with Indigenous Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students who are studying at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. Batchelor Institute is a dual-sector tertiary education provider specifically established for Indigenous Australians. It has been forced to address these issues, particularly in the context of providing research training and support to those undertaking masters and doctoral degrees by research. Driven by the wishes of Indigenous community leaders, in 1999 the Batchelor Institute adopted the philosophy of "both ways," which in its earliest form represented the opportunity for simultaneous Aboriginal cultural sustainability and academic success (Harris 1990, xii), two key features that have been pivotal in Batchelor Institute's vision. For example in the most recent strategic plan the vision is that the institute should be "a site of national significance in Indigenous Education—strengthening identity, achieving success and transforming lives" (2012).

In its simplest representation, "both-ways" is a philosophy of education that "brings together Indigenous Australian traditions of knowledge and Western academic disciplinary positions and cultural contexts, and embraces values of respect, tolerance, and diversity (2012) (Batchelor Institute Strategic Plan 20122014 2012, 6). The "both-ways" philosophy is founded on the metaphor of Ganma used by Marika (1999), and based on Yolngu culture of North East

Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory. The Ganma process occurs in a space where fresh water (Yolngu knowledge) and salt water (non-Aboriginal knowledge) come together in a briny lagoon. This lagoon is a nutrient-rich environment in which some plant and animal life lives that is not found elsewhere. So too with both-ways—there is no need to compromise either epistemological position, but rather a new space can come into being that supports the creation of new understandings and knowledge (Bat, Kilgariff, and Doe 2014). Batchelor Institute acknowledges that this is the metaphor that has formed the basis of development of the both-ways philosophy (Ober and Bat 2007). It is also important to note at this point that Batchelor Institute has adopted the Australian Government approach to Indigenous identity. That is, it accepts all students who identify as being Indigenous Australians. While the title of the institution tends to attract interest from Indigenous peoples from other countries, and the institution has the ability to grant special permission for the enrolment of those who do not identify as Indigenous or are Indigenous but not Australian-born, most commonly the only group to take advantage of this is non-Indigenous staff members. While the institution has strong links to a range of remote Northern Territory communities that still have strong cultural traditions and beliefs, the higher education students tend to be a diverse group from all states of Australia. Many students started their tertiary education journey in other institutions and have been attracted to Batchelor Institute because it offers them the opportunity to explore their identity in a culturally safe and encouraging environment.

Cultural safety in this context means an explicit recognition of cultural variance within Indigenous identity, which actively works against the perpetuation of an Indigenous versus non-Indigenous binary. In order to describe the approach Batchelor Institute has taken to overcome what may seem a challenging divergence, we first explore the Western concept of critical thinking and some of the relevant characteristics of "both ways," including how it accommodates cultural variance. Further, some of the relevant features of Indigenous knowledges, Indigenous languages, and the nature of thinking within Indigenous knowledge systems need to be understood before the potential "incommensurability" between Western and Indigenous thinking (Moreton-Robinson 2003) can be analyzed and strategies proposed.

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