Thursday, July 7, 2016

Rafael F. Narváez - Humanities as a Lens on Power and Politics

Rafael F. Narváez is Associate Professor of Sociology at Winona State University. Recent projects include a National Endowment for the Humanities “Enduring Questions” grant.

Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, has noted that “[t]he humanities are facing serious challenges [as well as declines] in both developed and developing countries.” In various ways and degrees, these declines are the result of political and economic attacks, part of a larger effort characterized by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, as an “assault on reason.” Bear in mind that collective ways of reasoning are of course essential for political structures. Literacy in the humanities, in particular, often results in increased understanding of power structures. It can help the individual read the world, scrutinize inherited values, beliefs, and cultural narratives, and see that, at times, what passes off as “common sense” is in fact a haven for error and bigotry, an effective way of disenfranchising individuals, groups, and generations. (Slavery, for example, was once considered “commonsensical” in the U.S.; homosexuality was once a diagnosis of mental “pathology,” etc.)

Of course, some writers in the humanities have sought to legitimize the given order of things, the inherited social and political conventions and hierarchies. But humanistic disciplines have also had another important social function: helping societies scrutinize and check the operations of power. In light of this, it is not surprising that the humanities, along with the critical human sciences, often become political and economic targets, even in the context of advanced democracies.

We must be attentive to these attacks. Humanistic ideas and ideals are vital for modern democracies – systems that, by design, work well when citizens are able to understand the given social order and the narratives and values that support it. To be sure, when citizens cease tending to these responsibilities, some aspects of democratic life come to resemble life under dictatorial regimes. Regimes sustained by rigid, socially-unexamined ideas – systems that indeed must forestall the spread of critical and deep processing abilities and habits.

If effective, systemic attacks on the humanities will have historic consequences, particularly at the level of political representation. Democracies are, after all, representative systems that as such will reflect the accomplishments and failures of society’s educational structure. In the U.S., we are experiencing the effects of the attacks upon the humanities. Partly as a consequence of the resulting weakening of humanistic ideas and concerns, we are more likely to quietly accept the fact that, in general, our political class depends heavily on marketing rather than on discourse, on the voters’ emotions, rather than on higher faculties such as reflection and deliberation. In an era that, according to near-consensus in the sciences, is only two degrees away from runaway climate change, such shifts may, in the end, carry consequences not only for the political system but for the life-system itself.


  1. a wise and powerful lens in fact, that is esential for the continual work of cretaing and sustaining democracy. thank you professor Narvaez

  2. "Read, scrutinize, and see"--a succinct and precise account of what the humanities teach us to do. And these activities are practices; we have to keep at it. As Malcolm Gladwell has written, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. It's so easy to slip into habits, to assume that what we have "seen" already doesn't require further "reading" and "scrutinizing" and hence, often, revision. As James Russell Lowell wrote, "New occasions teach new duties."