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Students, we are often told, are fleeing humanities majors in droves because those disciplines are ideologically skewed, their courses and curricula excessively politicized, and their faculty much further to the left than elsewhere in the academy.

These fields, critics insist, have become bastions of “wokeness,” their hyperpoliticized classrooms ideological echo chambers.

Students who are politically moderate or conservative, it’s claimed, feel unwelcome in ideologically unbalanced fields. Classes that might attract them—for example, in military history—are notably absent.

Conservative critics dismiss humanities degrees not only as a waste of money but as a cultural “enemy within,” chipping away at patriotism, religion and morality while undercutting the kind of canonical education that promotes love of great literature and lifelong engagement with the arts.

It’s certainly the case that the humanities are much more explicitly political than when I was an undergraduate. The increasing politicization of the humanities disciplines can be observed in several ways:

  • In a growing emphasis on themes related to social justice, including identity, inequality and power, with a far greater emphasis on colonialism and decolonization.
  • In the blurring of the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences, with the humanities increasingly addressing topics and using concepts and terms previously reserved for the disciplines of anthropology, political science and sociology.
  • In a heightened stress on political analysis and cultural critique.
  • In the ongoing re-examination of historical narratives and cultural texts through a political lens, questioning previously accepted histories and literatures from the perspectives of gender, race and postcolonialism.
  • In the increasing engagement of humanities scholars and students in activism and advocacy, using their research and teaching to address contemporary highly charged political issues.
  • In the heightened internal debates within humanities about the desirability of objectivity and neutrality and the fundamental purposes of education.
  • In an increased emphasis on global and comparative perspectives and on power in its myriad forms: discursive and psychological, as well as economic and political.

It’s easy to condemn the politicization of the humanities. Doesn’t this trend lead these disciplines to become less critical, analytic, interpretive and value-neutral? Doesn’t it produce faculty members who advocate for particular political ideologies, policies and positions and pressure scholars and students who feel forced to align their thinking with certain dominant political narratives?

Worse yet, doesn’t an overemphasis on politics lead to the neglect of other valuable perspectives and areas of study that are not overtly political and alienate students and scholars who have differing viewpoints, creating an environment that is less inclusive of diverse opinions? Doesn’t the instrumentalization of the humanities for political ends detract from their broader educational and cultural value?

Perhaps. But in certain respects, the increasing politicization of the humanities can be a good thing. By engaging with current political and societal challenges, the humanities can remain pertinent and impactful and can speak to issues previously confined to the social sciences and STEM fields. The medical or health humanities, with their emphasis on the experience of pain and illness and medical ethics, offer a model that deserves to be emulated by business humanities and engineering and technology humanities.

Also, the critical examination of political and social issues within the humanities encourages critical thinking and the development of analytical skills and empowers students to engage critically with the world around them. In addition, a focus on issues like race, gender and colonialism can foster greater diversity and inclusivity within the curriculum, helping to acknowledge and address historical biases and underrepresentation.

For all the talk about the flight from the humanities, there can be no doubt that concepts and theories generated by the humanities and related disciplines exert enormous influence outside the academy. There’s the lexicon of social justice, which includes such terms as “allyship,” “colorism,” “code-switching,” “critical pedagogy,” “cultural appropriation,” “essentialism,” “gender policing,” “inclusion,” “intersectionality,” “marginalization,” “microaggression,” “othering,” “positionality,” “privilege,” “safe spaces” and “weathering,” that now transcend college campuses.

In a fascinating article on the rise, fall and rebirth of the concept of patriarchy, Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian’s chief culture writer, calls on the academy to distinguish between the use of concepts as political rallying cries and as rigorous analytical tools. I agree with her. The concepts and vocabulary of social justice can be valuable in the classroom, but only if we treat this terminology with a degree of rigor that too often lacking.

Let’s start with the word “colonialism.” As Nancy Shoemaker, a great historian of Indigenous North America, points out, it’s essential to disentangle the term’s various meanings. There’s:

  • Settler colonialism: The repopulation of land accompanied by removal of its original inhabitants.
  • Planter colonialism: An elite class instituting mass production of a single cash crop, such as sugar, coffee, cotton or rubber, often accompanied by the import of slave or indentured or other forms of coerced labor.
  • Extractive colonialism: Acquisition of raw material or resources, such as beaver fur, buffalo hides, gold, guano or sandalwood, often through collaboration with Indigenous leaders.
  • Trade colonialism: Mercantilist control over trading relationships through tariffs, policing of smuggling and war.
  • Transport colonialism: Forcing foreign territories to serve as supply depots to facilitate trade.
  • Imperial power colonialism: Annexation of foreign territory to enlarge a sphere of influence or stave off foreign territorial acquisitions.
  • Not-in-my-backyard colonialism: The use of a foreign society as a space where activities restricted at home—atomic tests or drug trials or penal colonies—can occur.
  • Legal colonialism: The imposition, through diplomacy or force, of foreign legal jurisdiction over a supposedly sovereign nation.
  • Rogue colonialism: Colonialism undertaken by filibusterers and private companies, not as a state-sanctioned enterprise.
  • Missionary colonialism: The evangelizing or imposition of a foreign religion by church groups.
  • Romantic colonialism: The exoticizing of colonies as environmentally and culturally pristine.
  • Postcolonial colonialism: Colonization’s legacies—cultural, economic, social and political—often including artificial national borders, a contentious multilingual and multiethnic population, economic dependency, and high degree of economic stratification.

As Lachlan McNamee demonstrates, “Displacing and destroying peoples by colonisation is not just a historical Western evil but a global and contemporary one.” Among the many examples he cites are:

  • Japan’s resettlement of 270,000 Japanese in Manchukuo (Manchuria) during the 1930s.
  • Indonesia’s annexation of the western half of the island of New Guinea in the early 1960s and repopulation with 300,000 Indonesian farmers.
  • China’s settlement of millions of Han Chinese in Xinjiang and Tibet during the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Sri Lanka’s resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese to formerly Tamil areas in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Thailand moving more than 100,000 Buddhists to its southern Malay areas in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Bangladesh resettling 400,000 Bengalis in the Chittagong Hills area bordering India and Myanmar in the 1970s and 1980s and Buddhists in Muslim Rohingya beginning in 2018.
  • India’s encouragement of Hindu migration to Kashmir beginning in 2019.

McNamee’s conclusion: “Colonised peoples in the Global South have experienced a double erasure: by settlers and by settler colonial studies.”

Decolonization, in turn, refers to the process of challenging and dismantling colonial ideologies, structures and legacies.

In addition to colonialism, there are other academic concepts that have entered public discourse and could benefit from greater nuance in college classrooms.

  • Indigeneity: This concept refers to groups, including past and present pastoralists, nomads and hunter-gatherers, that suffer from marginalization and that struggle to sustain their cultural identity and land within societies and states that do not respect their sovereignty. However, the concept is often used loosely, excluding swaths of people who fit the definition and including others who, technically, do not.
  • Patriarchy: Patriarchy refers to a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In a patriarchal society, positions of authority in various spheres—political, social, legal and economic—are predominantly occupied by men, and cultural norms and values typically reinforce male dominance. It can refer to social and political structures that privilege men; ideologies that treat maleness as superior; modes of cultural expression that favor the male gaze; and family roles and interpersonal dynamics, including gender norms and sexual dynamics, that advantage men. In certain respects, patriarchy is transhistorical and transcultural. But it is also historically, culturally and class specific and is ever shifting and evolving in its nature. It needs to be understood in relationship with increases over time in gender and feminist consciousness and with shifts in law and public policy that challenge gendered inequalities.
  • Racialization: This term refers to the process of creating and assigning a racial identity to a group of people that contributes to inequality and exclusion. It imbues physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features and hair texture, with social meaning and significance and helps to explain, justify and maintain economic, political and social hierarchies. Racial categories and the meanings attached to them can become institutionalized in laws, policies and social norms, perpetuating systemic inequalities. Racialization affects how individuals perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others, influencing their sense of identity, belonging and experiences with discrimination or privilege. Groups subject to racialization may resist or reframe the meanings imposed on them, challenging stereotypes and reclaiming racial identities in empowering ways.
  • Social and cultural construction: This concept suggests that much of what we take for granted as “natural” or “normal” is actually a construct—a product of a framework of understanding that is rooted in particular cultural norms and historical context. Social categories like race, gender, class and age and social institutions like the family are societal creations and their meanings vary across different cultures and time periods. Language, symbols and a particular society’s professional classes and power dynamics play a crucial role in constructing social reality, shaping people’s perceptions and understandings. These social constructs, in turn, become institutionalized, embedded in patterns of socialization, education, legal codes, public policy and even religious tenets, making them seem objective and unchangeable.

However, these social categories and cultural norms can and do change as a result of demographic shifts, economic factors, environmental change, legal and institutional change, new forms of communication, political and social movements, technological innovation and individual and collective agency.

Especially important is the notion of individual and collective agency—the capacity of even the most marginalized groups, within contexts of power, hierarchy and domination, can take actions, make choices and decisions, navigate, influence and change their environment, sustain a distinctive culture and understand and critique their social conditions within the context of structural constraints.

Several themes underlie this new lexicon. These concepts:

  • Involve a broadening of the idea of power beyond its traditional association with economics and politics to encompass discourse and cultural categories and labels.
  • Reflect a heightened emphasis on social psychology, evident in the use of terms like microaggressions, trauma (including intergenerational trauma), triggering and weathering.
  • Treat culture as neither static nor monolithic, but is a dynamic, diachronic process that involves conflict, dissent, adaptation, accommodation and appropriation.

Like the Balkans, the humanities produce more history, turmoil and uproar than can be consumed locally. Since the 1970s, the humanities have been actively generating and shaping discourses and ideologies that resonate far outside their core disciplines. Whether one is thinks about critical race theory, the cultural and discursive turn, new ideas about gender and sexuality, or the emergence of postcolonial and postmodern theories, every educated person needs to achieve some level of fluency with these ideas.

There are several ways that humanists can address the charge that their disciplines are becoming excessively political and partisan. They can:

  • Teach students how to analyze and critique ideas from multiple perspectives, rather than promoting a single political viewpoint.
  • Actively include a wide range of perspectives in the curriculum, not just various political viewpoints but also diverse cultural, historical and philosophical perspectives, ensuring that the curriculum is not dominated by any single ideology.
  • Be transparent about the use of theory and methods, demonstrating that humanities research is grounded in rigorous scholarship rather than political bias.
  • Ensure that classrooms and academic forums are spaces for open dialogue and debate and encourage intellectual diversity and mutual understanding.
  • Reaffirm the fundamental objectives of the humanities: to foster empathy and cultural understanding and the complexity of human experience and to contextualize political issues within broader social, economic and cultural frameworks.

The humanities are in the midst of a paradigm shift that has aroused heated controversy and a powerful political backlash. The ideas that underlie this shift are too important to be treated simply as a call to arms. Let’s treat these new concepts with the nuance and complexity they deserve. These ideas can serve as powerful tools for understanding, analysis and cultural critique.

We need fewer slogans and battle cries and more of the insights that the humanities can offer.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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