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Thirty years ago, when I had the opportunity to co-teach a teacher seminar at Yale on “The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery” with David Brion Davis, Stanley Engerman, Orlando Patterson and other leading scholars, one of the teachers signed a thank you note “Educate to Liberate.”

That notion—derived in part from Paulo Freire’s concept of critical pedagogy—sees learning not merely as the acquisition of knowledge but as a transformative process aimed at empowering individuals and communities to challenge and change oppressive structures and conditions. It’s rooted in the belief that education should go beyond traditional academic pursuits to foster critical thinking, social awareness and active citizenship, enabling students to become agents of change in their own lives and in society at large.

Critical pedagogy and scholarship have become much more common in the years since. Today, a growing number of academics consider themselves scholar activists. For them, scholarship has a social mission, and exists in the service of social justice. The goal is to empower—to disrupt the discourse, cultivate critical minds and activist hearts, promote social change, illuminate injustice, and advance equity.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the emergence of a growing number of new academic fields, including Critical Race Studies, Disability Studies, Environmental Justice Studies, Indigenous Studies, Intersectionality Studies, Postcolonial Studies and Queer Studies, which critically examine various aspects of identity, culture and society, challenge traditional narratives, advocate for equity and inclusion, and meld academic inquiry with social justice activism.

These emerging fields represent a significant shift in the nature and purpose of academic disciplines by embracing more inclusive, critical and justice-oriented approaches to research, teaching and scholarship. These disciplines stress the importance of challenging normative structures and narratives, understanding the complexities of identity and oppression through an intersectional lens, and committing to social activism as an integral part of academic endeavors.

The goal is not simply to understand the world but to change it. By critiquing patriarchal norms and structures, deconstructing narratives of Western superiority, and exposing racial hierarchies and inequalities embedded in legal systems and societal structures, these fields show how socially constructed categories create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage.

  • Critical Gender Studies emphasizes the importance of gender diverse experiences and voices, incorporates an intersectional approach to understand how gender intersects with race, class, sexuality and other identity markers; and advocates for the dismantling of gender-based oppression.
  • Disability Studies distinguishes between physical or mental impairments and disability as created by the social and institutional barriers that restrict people with impairments. This model shifts the focus from medical or biological aspects of disability to societal attitudes and structures that marginalize disabled people. This field critically examines the societal norms that define what’s normal and abnormal and deconstructs stereotypes and stigmas. It also emphasizes the lived experiences of disabled individuals, and argues that their voices should be central to public and academic discourse, advocates for the rights of disabled individuals, and challenges the medical model of disability, which views disability primarily in terms of pathology and treatment.
  • Environmental Justice Studies critiques the normativity of unsustainable environmental practices, and shows how environmental issues intersect with race, class and gender, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.
  • Indigenous Studies challenges colonial narratives and normative assumptions about history and culture, emphasizing Indigenous knowledge systems, languages, and practices, and works toward the recognition of Indigenous rights and sovereignty and the protection of sacred lands and Indigenous cultural practices.
  • Postcolonial studies examines the lasting legacies of colonial rule and slavery and the resistance and resilience of colonized peoples, while decolonizing knowledge, addressing the inequalities rooted in colonial histories, and advancing restitution and reparations for historic wrongs.
  • Queer Studies challenges the norms that dictate sexual behavior and identity, seeks to destabilize fixed identities and categories, and advocates for a more inclusive, fluid understanding of human identity. In addition to critiquing essentialist views that link sexual orientation or gender identity to biological or natural traits, it emphasizes the role of social and cultural forces in shaping identities and behaviors, argues that gender identity is constituted through the performance of gendered behaviors and actions, and views queer identities and experiences as forms of resistance against normative structures.

The roots of the rise of activist academic fields of study lie in several intersecting developments. There are the social movements that have sought to address inequalities, injustices and marginalized experiences, including LGBTQ+ and disability rights movements. There’s also a significant shift in academic thought, particularly the move toward postmodernism and critical theory. These intellectual frameworks question universal truths and master narratives, emphasize the social construction of knowledge, and critically examine society’s power dynamics.

Globalization and mass migration have also had an impact by bringing attention to transnational issues, cultural exchanges and the impacts of global inequalities.

Of course, the most important contributions have come from students and faculty themselves, many of whom seek an education that engages with real-world issues and that not only produces knowledge but contributes to social change.

Above all, these fields are byproducts of an evolving understanding of identity, power and justice.

We’re all familiar with the arguments for and against these fields of study. There can be no doubt that these emerging disciplines address issues and perspectives that have historically been marginalized or overlooked in traditional fields. They also foster a deeper understanding of social dynamics, including the role of social and cultural norms in perpetuating inequality and injustice. Then, there’s the commonly voiced criticisms: that these disciplines prioritize a particular political agenda and set of theoretical conceptions over academic neutrality.

I write today not to join that debate, but, rather, to suggest that we consider this development from various alternate angles.

The first is to place the development of activist academic disciplines in historical perspective.  

From their inception, the modern academic disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, political science, and sociology debated whether these fields should strive for a detached, objective and value-neutral approach to the study of social phenomena or engage vigorously with social issues.

Indeed, it was disruptive social changes, including industrialization, colonial expansion, mass migration, the growth of central government authority, and shifts in social norms and structures, that motivated social science inquiry. From the late 19th century onward, these disciplines have been entangled in debates about the proper balance between striving for objectivity in research and engaging with social issues, raising broader questions about the purpose of the social sciences and their relationship to society.

The debates over objectivity and social engagement were rooted in philosophical discussions about positivism, a seemingly dispassionate, unbiased approach emphasizing observation and measurement, and interpretivism, an approach that emphasizes the meanings and implications of various developments.

Thus, anthropologists grappled with whether they should be impartial observers of cultures or actively engage in advocacy for indigenous rights and cultural preservation. Economists debated their role in addressing inequality, poverty and various economic externalities. Historians argued over whether to foreground their work’s present-day relevance. Similarly, political scientists and sociologists argued over the relative value of objective analysis and normative engagement.

Secondly, those inside and outside those fields must rigorously examine the core theories and concepts that underpin the new disciplines.

Here, let me simply refer to the work of Amy S.F. Lutz, a University of Pennsylvania historian and sociologist whose scholarship lies at the intersection of disability history and bioethics and focuses on the severely intellectually and developmentally disabled. Her research seeks to challenge the social model of disability that is currently ascendant in both Disabilities Studies and disabilities advocacy.

In her controversial yet richly researched, deeply felt study of autism, Chasing the Intact Mind, she challenges the idea that “inside every autistic child is an intelligent, typical child waiting to be liberated by the right diet, the right treatment intervention, the right combination of supports and accommodations.” She argues that the current approach to disabilities studies marginalizes the most severely disabled and has “contributed to widespread dismantling of services badly needed by severely disabled children and their families.”

This isn’t an abstract, academic debate.  As Professor Lutz shows, it lies at the core at current controversies over sheltered workshops, legal guardianship and conservatorship, subminimum wage employment, and facilitated communication.

My takeaway is that it is absolutely essential that the new disciplines welcome the kind of serious challenges to their theoretical assumptions exemplified by Professor Lutz’s scholarship. To that end, I’d urge you to read her brief piece “When Everything is Eugenics, Nothing Is,” which offers her assessment of the ongoing debates over disability prevention and neurodiversity.

Third, it is important to analyze the research methodologies and interpretive techniques used in the new disciplines. Many such fields adopt participatory, or community-engaged research methods that benefit from comparisons and contrasts with more traditional academic methodologies to better understand and assess their contributions to knowledge production.

Fourth, we might look at the relations between the newer and the older disciplines. There is a real danger that these fields are growing increasingly siloed, with their own journals, conferences, speakers’ series and very distinct student bodies. That’s certainly the case at my university.  We need to promote vibrant cross-disciplinary dialogue over the ways that the emergence of these fields can, at once, challenge and enrich established disciplines by introducing new perspectives, questions and methodologies.

Fifth, the new disciplines have tended to emphasize pedagogical innovation by incorporating experiential learning, community engagement, and critical pedagogy. Dialogue with many older departments might encourage their faculty to experiment with approaches that involve active engagement.

There can be no doubt that the new fields are already exerting an influence beyond the ivory tower. I suspect we’re all aware that the activist disciplines have a major impact on public discourse, partisan politics, policy formulation, social movements, and cultural narratives.  How this has happened is certainly a subject worthy of serious scholarly attention.

In red states like mine, there has been a lot of political pushback against the activist academic fields. I’m no better than anyone else in speculating about the future trajectory of these fields, but we should consider the challenges they face and their potential path forward as they continue to contribute to academic inquiry and social change.

The growing involvement of scholars in social activism, and the debates that this has ignited both within and outside academia, has generated a great deal of controversy about higher ed’s role in driving societal change.  Concerns about academic “warriors for justice” potentially indoctrinating students or compromising open debate and critical thinking point to broader questions about the role of higher education in society.

Here’s some advice about how campuses might respond to ensure that a liberal education and a more activist education aren’t at odds.

  • Emphasize the importance of critical thinking in all fields, encouraging students to analyze, question and challenge viewpoints of all kinds. That involves teaching students how to engage with arguments on their merits, assess evidence critically and develop well-reasoned positions.
  • Ensure that the curriculum includes a range of perspectives and that classrooms are spaces where diverse viewpoints can be expressed and debated. Diversity of thought is fundamental to the liberal education tradition.
  • Support open debate, free inquiry and the exploration of controversial topics in a scholarly context.

Activism and scholarship can inform and enrich each other, and students should engage in more applied learning. This will allow students to engage with real-world issues in a structured, reflective way that emphasizes learning and critical inquiry. This approach not only aligns with the best traditions of liberal education but also prepares students to be thoughtful, informed and engaged citizens capable of contributing to society in meaningful ways.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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