Want to get a liberal education? Don’t major in identity studies


From the late historian Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet:

“Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: ‘gender studies,’ ‘women’s studies,’ ‘Asian-Pacific-American studies,’ and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves – thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine” (202).


Here Judt aptly expresses a sentiment I have had often: that such programs, whether in the classroom or outside it, are counterproductive to the goal of integrated diversity. Rather than integrating minorities into their surrounding community, they reinforce the “minority” status that is so often accompanied by a low-level but embittering sense of victimhood which keeps us from transcending racial and cultural lines. Judt is right in saying this is inimical to true liberal education, for liberal education, properly understood, expands one’s view to appreciate the world around them, which has a wonderful variety of human experience, transcending what often are self-imposed boundaries of race and culture.


  1. Crystel

    Hmm…Interesting post! But I don’t think I quite agree with you on this one–I think it may be too easy to come to a conclusion based on what makes sense (or what would seem to be a tendency, by speculating) rather than have some evidence for this (stats / anecdotal evidence / a conversation with a friend who has been in an identity studies program / data from the book)…So, I’d really like to understand where you’re coming from better but I’d also like you to back up your claim with some facts, if you’d be willing to do that?
    Also, I think you need to take into account that Identity studies are often minors, not majors, so the situation gets a little more complex. And finally, I’m not sure what you mean by “which keeps us from transcending racial and cultural lines.” Could you clarify that?

    • Javier

      Thanks for the comment, Crystel!
      I’m not sure what you’re objecting to here, or what you’re disagreeing with. This isn’t an argument based on statistics, but on the principle of focusing your studies on “identity” issues. The author, Tony Judt, takes issue with such a focus in one’s university studies, so it’s an objection of principle. So I don’t think stats have a place in this particular conversation.

      By the “transcending racial and cultural lines” I mean that often persons who are preoccupied with identity issues (and I am not saying that everyone who is interested in these is preoccupied with them, or are erring in taking such an interest) tend to demarcate society along those lines, for example, “whites and minorities” or “men and women.” It’s fine and often valuable, I think, to identify with certain groups (for example, I consider myself “Latino”), but I think it more important to be able to move beyond these to, most of all, our common interests as Americans and our common humanity as persons, who can share many things and affiliations, apart from said identities. I hope that’s helpful!

  2. aacomins

    Hi! I must agree with the author and host of this blog. I do not in any way discourage courses in these studies; as a professor, I strongly encourage them for what Javi refers to as “integrated diversity”–ie to encourage others to study their own and others’ cultures and to value them as legitimate academic subjects. On a much more basic level or “reality check” I know from my own experience the harm that can be done from a course of study that is perceived as “too narrow,” limiting, or even can pidgeon-hole a graduate. It also can also make your knowledge base too specialized and narrow. In today’s marketplace, one needs to be broad, diverse–yet with an area of concentration (such as a minor) to personalize your course of study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s