The conservative Manhattan Institute recently published a report that argues that the promotion of social justice ideology in K-12 schools and colleges is having a measurable impact on students’ political views and partisan leanings. The report claims that 93 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds have been exposed to various “critical justice ideology” concepts at school, including “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “patriarchy” and the idea that the United States was founded on stolen land and that gender is a choice unrelated to biological sex—and that the more that students are exposed to these ideas, the more likely they are to lean Democratic and support affirmative action and other progressive causes.
The report’s authors are, of course, intentionally confusing exposure to important ideas and concepts with indoctrination, propagandizing and brainwashing. Except in a few isolated classrooms, that’s certainly not what’s taking place. Nor do the authors acknowledge that aggressive proselytizing of liberal and progressive pieties can sometimes push students to the right.
What we are witnessing instead is a culturewide shift in discourse. New ideas and terminology are clearly in the air, much as a very different set of ideas and vocabulary (largely from the Frankfurt School and scholars including Erik Erikson, Clifford Geertz and Erving Goffman) was circulating when I attended college decades ago. As the Manhattan Institute report suggests, these concepts are no more inescapable, at least on a college campus, than terms like “culture” or “total institutions” or “identity crisis” were during my undergraduate days.
I think it is fair to say that we are in the midst of a historic paradigm shift within the humanities and the interpretive social sciences. Often described in pejorative terms—as an embrace of wokeness or critical race theory or social justice ideology—I think it is better understood as a shift in focus and language. The shift is most apparent in various studies programs—American studies, animal studies, Black studies, cultural studies (and critical cultural studies and comparative cultural studies), disability studies, gender and sexuality studies, Latino/a studies, postcolonial studies, and women’s studies—but it is leaving an imprint on older departments as well, most obviously in English but also in anthropology, art history, ethnohistory, history, philosophy and religion.
This paradigm shift did not take place overnight. It is in part an outgrowth of the cultural, linguistic and affective turns that began to take root in the later 1970s, nearly half a century ago, when many of the concepts that roil today’s culture wars, including intersectionality and critical race theory, arose.
What has changed over the past decade is that:
- Partly as a result of generational and demographic shifts within universities, concepts and perspectives that existed at the academy’s margins moved increasingly to the center of campus conversations.
- A growing body of highly influential scholarship embodied and disseminated the new perspectives.
- Ideas and language previously confined to campuses started to percolate into the broader culture.
- Social movements that invoked these ideas and terminology gained in visibility and influence.