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Columns, Opinions

Bhaskar ’21: Contemplating the future of academic objectivity

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 9, 2021

Over the past two years, identity politics have trickled into the curricula of university settings worldwide. 

At face value, such movements appear well-intentioned. Expanding avenues of learning beyond the Western canon is an extremely important and necessary means to better appreciate and engage with alternate worldviews and cultural contexts. Likewise, finding tangible ways to make the University environment more welcoming and inclusive to students of diverse backgrounds is imperative for improving equity and student experiences at Brown. Representation matters ― but only insofar as it actually exposes students to alternate perspectives and experiences. Today, increasing cultural sensitivity has harmed academic experiences by placing too much of an emphasis on identity over the actual substance within academics.

The increasing infusion of identity politics within academia has sidelined existing academics to make space for postmodernist ideology. Knowledge is not a commodity that can be used to push ideological ends on either side of the spectrum. Curricula can, and will, evolve over time. But this does not mean that past modes of thoughts should be unduly replaced in favor of new ones. The preservation of past ideas is a crucial responsibility of our academic institutions. Knowledge is, in many ways, transcendent, and a misguided emphasis on identity politics can make people hesitant to explore valuable and meaningful forms of past thought.

Within a university setting, the identities of the academics and authors we read and quote should carry less weight than the thoughts and claims they make. The immense pressure placed on universities to diversify academic curricula nowadays could lead to the tokenized selection of readings and curricular content regardless of relevance. Pressuring professors to alter curricula to include authors and contributors for the sake of diversity and justice can limit our ability to select content on its own merits, for fear that they are inadvertently promoting “injustice.” 

The widespread infusion of identity politics in academia can also damage our ability to freely explore knowledge, by forcing us to tiptoe around certain topics. A particular example of this is found in modern-day reductivist movements to reshape the classics, such Dan-el Padilla Peralto’s efforts to dismantle the classics’ “complicity” in white supremacy. Although scholars like Peralto have much to offer by imbuing their own perspectives to the humanities, the moralistic tone and dogmatic language of his postmodernist takes can hinder nuanced reasoning. While modern philosophies, such as critical race theory, can be useful for critically reexamining the past, their position as the increasingly dominant lens through which to study it is concerning. I fear that they could deprive students of the chance to grapple with the complexities of the past in an unbiased manner. “Dismantling” the classics simply because they have historically been revered as a touchstone for whiteness prioritizes ideology to an extent that overshadows the study of the content in and of itself. Decolonizing academia should prevent reshaping past lines of thought and fields because they do not conform with the values we prioritize today. 

While globalizing educational curricula is worthwhile, placing an undue emphasis on identity  can limit nuance by reducing entire schools of thought into a handful of “-isms.” History is now all about imperialism, while social science is all about racism. But it should be possible to appreciate the merits of the classical knowledge of the past while also acknowledging its failures and working toward a more inclusive future — rather than universally condemning past modes of thought. But in today’s campus climate, perspectives that even remotely associate with past knowledge can be rejected as “imperialist” or “colonial,” framing academic subjects as uniformly unjust, instead of knowledge to be explored and interrogated. 

Teaching subjects within frameworks like critical race theory or diametric conceptions of the “oppressor” and “oppressed” could narrow opportunities for discourse. Assuming that most past contributions to the classical canon are part of the same colonial project is ludicrously ignorant. Individuals are more than simply the sum of the identities and experiences they hold. Knowledge is far more complex. But identity politics often overlooks this fact, instead preferring narratives that are far too focused on questions of justice. For example, Western and non-Western schools of thought are often presented as opposing forces nowadays, rather than mere cohabitants. But such a way of thinking is ultimately a zero-sum game, forcing us to “pick sides” and limiting the ability of well-intentioned people to disagree on how best to address pertinent social issues. Furthermore, such practices create pressure to conform to dominant lines of thought and rhetoric, such as those projected by decolonization movements which restrict meaningful discourse surrounding topics such as race and inequality. 

Likewise, assuming that all minorities will universally benefit from the foregrounding of identity in academia lumps us into a monolith. It is both infantilizing and harmful to project such generalizations; false presuppositions about the homogeneity of marginalized groups suggest that these groups are less resilient than their counterparts and disproportionally susceptible to troubling content. As a woman of color, feeling expected to subscribe to a particular left-leaning political orthodoxy is simply restrictive and uncomfortable. Such generalizations also serve as merely symbolic fixes, which do little materially improve the well-being of disadvantaged students and groups. 

As I come to the end of my four years at Brown and prepare to leave this institution, I have taken opportunities to reflect upon how this institution has prepared me for life outside these walls. Above everything, opportunities to freely discuss, counter-argue and seek the truth have provided the best experiences for academic growth. I fear that our modern emphasis on left-leaning identity politics can limit these meaningful experiences. Diversity and inclusion are valuable ends, but they should not require us to unnecessarily censor or restrict academic exploration. Universities must seek to globalize knowledge by cultivating nuance, preserving educational integrity and prioritizing factual analysis. 

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  1. Incoherent says:

    This is silly. The author talks about critical race theory, decolonization, and other important frameworks as narrowing academic thought. Are these not new forms of analysis?

    Pretending academia from before is better than academia now because we now have amplified analyses the author doesn’t like seems like a poor measure of “objectivity”

    • They are new, and the author doesn’t seem to be arguing against them. The problem is when these frameworks become the only mode of thought in the classroom as opposed to one of several (which can then be compared).

      In other words, the problem isn’t the new frameworks, it’s that old frameworks are being unconditionally thrown out and not used any more.

  2. Thomas Sowell says:

    As an alum of color, I have experienced the most hatred and racism for not conforming to the groupthink of the woke. Nidhi, are there still sane people like you at Brown? What we are witnessing is a Maoist cultural revolution across our institutions, who continue to lose their credibility with their grotesque fixation on identity and isms. The irony is that those who support the same tyrannical viewpoints as the tech monopolies, media, academia, big pharma, corporations, and administrative government somehow fashion themselves as “the resistance”.

  3. Evertrue c/o '97 says:

    Applause to the author on her sensible take on the current state of scholarship. As an educator, I wish for the students of the present and future to retain reason beyond the decolonization wave taking over higher education.

  4. As an alum who visits the BDH opinion page and often finds myself mystified and alarmed by the opinions expressed therein, it was really a pleasure to find this piece. Thank you Nidhi.

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