Congress 2015: The humanities go deep, while Wente plays in the shallow end

The annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brought academics from across the country together in Ottawa this past week. As if on cue, the Globe and Mail published a column by Margaret Wente that took potshots at humanities and social science scholarship. While there are few in attendance at Congress who take this particular columnist seriously (there was an audible collective groan let out when her column was mentioned in one session), the column invites scrutiny and suggests a frame for thinking about the proceedings of this year’s meeting of Canada’s learned societies..

Beyond her general objection that social science and humanities research is essentially bad (irrelevant, shallow, and self-indulgent – worthy of the scorn and derision of regular folks), Wente’s critique of a tiny selection of panel titles from this year’s Congress program also objects to the fact that too much of the research being undertaken and presented focuses on themes of “victimization and oppression” (along gender and racial lines) and “the virtue of everything indigenous.”

But is this assessment accurate? Is there really a disproportionate scholarly focus on gender or Aboriginal peoples? And if there is, is it something to be concerned about? The intuitive response to these questions is, of course, “probably not” – the column is intentionally polemical and based on a shallow reading of session titles rather than participation in or attendance at any Congress events or sessions. Thus a review of the actual content of Congress panels can provide some insight and nuance into why scholars might be interested in issues around gender and Indigenous peoples.

One might take as evidence in support of the claim that scholars focus too much on questions of gender the fact that the theme of this year’s meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) is “Challenges and Opportunities: How has Gender and Diversity Scholarship affected Political Science?” But panels on the media coverage of women in Canadian political life or feminist institutionalism, for example, took an approach that could hardly be described as focusing on victimhood or oppression as Wente’s column accuses. Indeed, researchers on these panels presented women in politics as a worthy object of study and used gender as an insightful interpretive frame. And In her presidential address, CPSA President Jill Vickers offered a perspective that challenges the assumption that questions of gender dominate social science research. This long-time feminist scholar of Canadian political science observed the study of politics in Canada has in fact failed to incorporate feminist perspectives into the mainstream study of the discipline. She called for greater inclusion of gendered perspectives in the study of politics in Canada. This focus is not about dominance, but balance. The presence (or even prominence) of gender on the Congress programs, therefore, certainly does not warrant the critique levelled by Wente’s column.

Objecting to the valorization of all things indigenous rings insensitive at best when, just down the road from Congress, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was presented to parliamentarians and the public. This year’s Congress did indeed pay heed to the concerns of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and in doing so was attuned to the social and political events that provided the backdrop for the conference – an attentiveness that is precisely what we should expect from social science and humanities scholarship. A keynote session presented by the CPSA provided participants with the opportunity to hear from Ovide Mercredi, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Mercredi offered reflections on his experience as an Aboriginal leader during the Charlottetown constitutional negotiations and the lost opportunities that the failure of the proposed 1992 constitutional amendments represented for the current state of First Nations/Canada relations. Congress’s “Big Ideas” speaker series kicked off with reflections from the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the legacy of residential schools in Canada and the need for action on reconciliation. The series wrapped up with a presentation from Jean Leclair, a scholar of constitutional law, who proposed a new conception of federalism as a stepping stone on the path toward improving relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada. A conference of this nature and in this context that ignored Aboriginal peoples would be much greater cause for concern than the tone-deaf, half-witted objections raised by Wente.

As far as the claim that humanities and social science scholarship is ultimately irrelevant, Azar Nafisi (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination) made a passionate case for the importance of humanities scholarship for the maintenance of a healthy democracy. Again, as part of Congress’s “Big Ideas” speaker series, Nafisi argued that a society that doesn’t understand itself, and the history and culture of other societies will be incapable of sustaining a thriving democracy. Education – and in particular the study of humanities and social sciences –, is crucial to our collective ability to resist the forces of oppression and injustice. While it may indeed be the case that only the privileged few have access to humanities and social science scholarship, Nafisi reminded conference participants that this represents a significant loss that can only be remedied by the preservation of a strong and thriving public education system. Moreover, in light of this week’s TRC release, the call to self-reflection and self-critique is especially compelling, and reminds us just how relevant scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is to a free and open democratic society.

Humanities and social science research and education will always come under attack. But as Nafisi reminded a packed room in Ottawa this week, this scholarship matters because it helps us to understand what it means to be human.