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Why Are So Many Humanities Students Activists?

14/03/2016 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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In the recent debates around the JNU students, one accusation has come up frequently: JNU is a hotbed of communists. So today I want to take up the question: why are so many students of humanities, called 'arts' in India, left-leaning? If you want to believe that it is because they are all brainwashed into it, you are welcome to do so, but then that invites the simplistic rebuttal that all those who believe in other ideologies are brainwashed too. You cannot have it both ways: those who think as I do are independent thinkers, and those who don't are all brainwashed.

Humanities students in India mainly study history, political science, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology and literature. If you think about it, what they study is the way in which the world came to be what it is today, and how it works. Directly in the case of most subjects, and indirectly in the case of literature. For example, the poster below shows the list of chapters of Sociology by Anthony Giddens and Philip W Sutton, a standard introductory textbook for undergraduate students.

2016-03-11-1457659116-6655269-TableofContents.jpg

Poster created by Shvetal Vyas Pare using Canva. Information courtesy Polity Books.

Literature students analyze books, but what are these books about? About people and situations. Often, literature students turn those tools of analysis towards films and TV shows, song lyrics, advertisements, public behaviour, private behaviour, celebrity behaviour and so on, which is why the term 'text' has evolved to mean anything that a student or researcher picks up to think, read and write about.

[A]s you study on, you realize how closely allied your class/caste/gender location (your identity), and your education and your career are.

Just as in any other discipline, certain terms and ideas come up again and again until they become a 'common sense' base for your further education. So it is with the humanities. When you study the way the world works, these are some of the issues that come up: some people are rich, and some are not. Some people have good lives, and some have not. Some people are more powerful than others. How do these things come into being? In this post, I want to focus on one idea that offers a way of understanding these anomalies in the world: the idea of privilege. A privilege is any advantage that you have because of your membership of any particular group.

There are multiple hierarchies at play in the world: men over women, higher castes over lower castes, the majority religion over the minority religion, rich over poor and White over Black and/or immigrant. There is a clear correlation between lack of access to resources and success in life. What sort of education you get, what sort of job opportunities are available to you, and what sort of networks you develop and draw on for resources depend on a variety of factors ranging from class to caste to gender to race.

[Y]ou begin to understand that the idea of meritocracy is a sham once you think about how privilege works.

This is not to say that there are no exceptions to the rule, but they are just that - exceptions. Yet people with privilege often fail to recognize the privilege that they have. All of us like to believe that whatever is good in our lives - the jobs or money that we have, the good things about our marriages, the successes of our children - are due to us, to some innate virtue or ability in us. Whereas those that fail do so because of some innate inability in them - they must not have tried hard enough. Meritocracy is a deeply seductive idea, especially when you are successful.

But as you study on, you realize how closely allied your class/caste/gender location (your identity), and your education and your career are. For example, you are where you are because of the schools your parents were able to send you to. Look at your school friends. Not everyone will be in the same class bracket, but it is likely that if you went to a good school, most of your classmates got jobs and are settled well, even as some did better than average and a few disappeared. When you read literature, you realize that things like love and marriage and raising successful children depend as much on chance as on anything you did or didn't do.

Privilege works emotionally too. The safety, security, time, attention and love provided by familial networks did wonders for your performance, and those who did not perform well may not have had similar benefits. Some differences are circumstantial, but quite a few are societal. A girl who does not get the permission to stay back for an after-school activity because it is not safe to go back home alone at night does not gain the confidence and exposure that the boy who stays does.

Discussions on privilege are met with moral lessons on the value of hard work... Never mind that you do not know the realities of everyone's life.

This is why you begin to understand that the idea of meritocracy is a sham once you think about how privilege works. To use an analogy, say you have a race. But this race is not among equals. There are some who are disabled. There are some who have had the opportunity to train and prepare, and some who have had to do this alongside shouldering other burdens and responsibilities. Different people have different starting points. Yet the one who reaches the finish line first will be the winner. Thankfully, life is not a race, though many people think it is. In life you still have the possibility to get at a place where you are happy without having to win.

Here are two videos on privilege:

A lot of people simply dismiss the notion of privilege. They categorize the complaints of those who are disadvantaged as 'whining'. Discussions on privilege are met with moral lessons on the value of hard work. For example, in the case of the JNU students, it is reiterated that if they would only work hard/get a job/become an engineer, then they wouldn't be poor/dissatisfied with the system. Never mind that you do not know the realities of everyone's life. When you dismiss someone for being 'only' a PhD student as opposed to an engineer, you do not realize that his entire village may be proud to have a person at the university, and just reaching there has been a long struggle and achievement for him.

At an academic level, study after study has shown the existence of privilege and its correlation with achievement. Even more studies have proven the correlation between any form of deprivation or marginalization and lack of achievement. Privilege is far subtler than people imagine. For example, being able to speak English is a significant privilege that most people do not see as one. If you are not comfortable speaking English, you may not do well at an entrance exam or an interview and lose out on opportunities even if you have the ability to perform. In theory, the language in which you convey your knowledge should not matter if the knowledge exists but it does. I have absolutely no problems with the removal of William Wordsworth from school English textbooks because knowing Wordsworth is neither essential to being a good human being nor a good citizen. I do have a problem, however, with the fact that numerous government and less expensive schools cannot match up to expensive private schools in English language instruction.

Once you begin to see the world in terms of systems of oppression, you cannot stop seeing it that way.

Most significantly, a lot of these problems are systemic, not individual. We cannot control the religions, castes or gender that people are born into. But access to quality education, to different sorts of opportunities, lack of discrimination when renting a house or applying for a job and freedom from persecution can go a long way towards mitigating the damages of privilege. Systemic problems call for systemic solutions. When you study society, you no longer see the problems faced by the young girls who are your classmates and those by the old woman who works as a maid in your house as individual problems but as problems of gender. When a person from a minority community cannot rent a house and a Dalit is stopped for sitting on a horse for his wedding, you do not see them as separate instances of prejudice on the part of one landlord and one community of upper-caste people but as emanating from a shared belief system where others of any sort are not to be trusted and are to be kept in their place. Once you begin to see the world in terms of systems of oppression, you cannot stop seeing it that way.

Everyone discusses social, political, cultural and other issues. But discussing issues and studying them are two different things. Students of humanities carry on questioning as part of developing their own theories, discussing them in seminars and writing their own papers and theses. Think of how much your profession is a part of you. When you spend five days a week over years (at the very minimum, most of us continue reading over the weekend because you can't really switch on-switch off like that), reading, writing and debating arguments, it is not surprising that you end up with more complex arguments about these things and a more nuanced understanding of oppression. A PhD student has around eight years of study behind them (three years of BA, two years of MA, three years of MPhil and then three to four years of a PhD). Over many years in your field, do you not have a base of knowledge and skills about what works and what doesn't, which practices of your profession you agree with and which you disagree with?

[N]ot all humanities students are communists. But most of them have the habit of questioning power structures. There is nothing anti-national about that...

And that is why while some PhD students of the humanities believe strongly in the solutions of Marxism and Communism, some are most comfortable with a liberal individualism, others work with ideas of 'intersectionality' (fighting different oppressions together rather than separately) and others yet end up with a general sense of activism rather than an allegiance to any specific ideology. For example, a liberal humanist, a communist and a Marxist can all support gay rights without necessarily agreeing on other things. Even among those who fall roughly within the same ideology are people with different opinions and different ideas of how the ideology is to be understood or where it is headed. Which is why I will say that not all humanities students are communists. But most of them have the habit of questioning power structures. There is nothing anti-national about that, though it can be the most dangerous thing in the world if it makes some things impossible to un-see.

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