A Degree in Agitprop

Peter Wood

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry offers courses in Defense against the Dark Arts. 


At Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, students can study the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. 

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst offers a degree program in social justice.

All three items have the piquant taste of satire, but unfortunately, the third one is real. UMass Amherst really does offer a degree—actually two degrees, a masters and a doctoral degree, in Social Justice Education, in its School of Education. According to the University’s website:

Social Justice Education provides graduate coursework and opportunities for reflective practice for students concerned with issues of equity, social justice, and the development of a liberated consciousness.  The Masters program of study focuses upon the reflective practice of social justice education; the Doctoral program of study focuses upon research that is informed by the reflective practice of social justice education.

J. K. Rowling’s magical Hogwarts Academy and H. P. 

Lovecraft’s eldritch Miskatonic University seem in some ways more down to earth than this. But UMass isn’t alone. At least 25 other colleges and universities offer “social justice” majors, minors, concentrations, or interdisciplinary studies. These programs appear in a variety of organizational settings—including education, anthropology, sociology, criminal justice, social work, film, and the performing arts

If we sound a little wonderstruck by this development, it is because just when we think higher education couldn’t sink any lower into the mire of politicization, we find someone has already plumbed a new depth.  Giving degrees in “social justice,” however, must surely be the Mariana’s Trench of academic irresponsibility. Presumably courses in basket weaving at least produce competent plaiters of seagrass, coilers of twine, and masters of twill technique. What exactly does someone learn in “social justice” education? Oh, we forgot. A “liberated consciousness.” 

It is tempting just to mock this nonsense. All in due time. First, let’s see if we can distinguish the “social justice” in these new academic programs from some other kinds of social justice. 


Social Justices, Past and Present

The term “social justice” has piled up a considerable collection of meanings from disparate sources. It has been used by the Catholic Church for over a century in reference to a body of social teachings. Among Protestants, “social justice” often refers to the obligation to offer charitable help to orphans, widows, the poor, and the homeless. Marxists appropriated the term as the goal of class struggle and as an explicit repudiation of the ideals of liberal society. Socialists more generally found in “social justice” a program for attacking private property in favor of redistribution of wealth.   As “A Guide to the Political Left” puts it: “The quest for social justice, or a just and equitable society, is perhaps the foremost stated objective of the modern Left.” 

The association of the term “social justice” with socialist policies grew so strong that the free-market economist Friedrich Hayek singled it out as a key element of modern totalitarianism. Pursuing “social justice,” according to Hayek, leads inevitably to a concentration of state power and oppression. Hayek’s attack on the concept extends over several of his books, culminating in The Mirage of Social Justice, 1976. 

But other philosophers, perhaps most notably John Rawls, have offered a view that any just society must aim at equal distribution of social goods, or in Rawls’ case “primary social goods,” which included liberty and opportunity, as well as income and wealth. 

“Social justice” is thus one of those phrases that, shorn of context, might mean almost anything. It might be the “social justice” of a frontier town hanging a rustler; the “social justice” of the Soviets detailed by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago; the social justice Pope Leo XIII envisioned in his 1891 encyclical of capital and labor, Rerum Novarum; or the social justice of Rawl’s rationalizations of the welfare state. 

Given all this, it isn’t hard to imagine that “social justice” would be a worthy object of academic study in a variety of disciplines. The mere task disentangling the competing concepts would be a plausible challenge. But judging from what we can learn of the curriculum at UMass Amherst and other contemporary university degree programs in social justice, making sense of the deeply problematic character of the concept of social justice isn’t on the menu.

Rather, these are programs in which the concept of “social justice” is a settled matter. The students aren’t there to come to grips with the conflicts among Marxist, Christian, free-market, and welfare-state versions of social justice. They are there to learn how to become more efficient operatives of the political Left. 

 So what exactly do they study in the graduate social justice programs at UMass? 

The UMass Social Justice Program in its Own Words

The UMass website for the social justice degree lists four “program highlights”:

1.      Leadership.  Program faculty are both leaders and pioneers in the field of Social Justice Education.  The School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst offers the only program exclusively devoted to Social Justice Education in the United States.

True, at the moment, U Mass Amherst is the sole provider of academic degree programs in social justice, but it will not be alone for long. Some of those 25 other colleges and universities that offer social justice majors, minors, concentrations, or interdisciplinary studies will hatch full-fledged degree programs, as surely as Cthulhu will one day rise from the sunken city of R’lyeh. Well maybe even more surely.  

The University of Delaware’s residence life program (which we have written about extensively) received the 2006 Commitment to Social Justice Education award from ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators.

It doesn’t seem that the UMass social justice faculty have brought home the ACPA gold just yet, but the claim that they are “leaders and pioneers in the field of Social Justice Education,” is easy to match against the list of “associated faculty.” The “program coordinator," Associate Professor Bailey W. Jackson, has a master’s degree (1972) and an E.D. (1976) from U Mass Amherst, and lists as professional interests: "Multicultural Organization Development; Social Justice Education; Psychological Education; Racial Identity Development; Social Oppression and Liberation; Managing Diversity in the Workplace; Human Service Program Development; and Large Systems Change.”

The other members of the faculty are: Maurianne Adams (Professor), Patricia S. Griffin (Professor), Barbara J. Love (Associate Professor), Ximena U. Zúñiga (Associate Professor). Mary Gannon (Visiting Lecturer), Katja Hahn (Visiting Lecturer), Susan Pliner (Visiting Lecturer). Doris Clemmons (Adjunct Lecturer), Diana Fordham (Adjunct Lecturer), Linda Marchesani (Adjunct Lecturer), Tom Schiff (Adjunct Lecturer). Since the site gives us information on Professors Adams, Love, and Zúñiga, we can fill in the picture a little:

Maurianne Adams has B.A., (1959) from Swarthmore and a Ph.D. (1967) from the University of Indiana.  Her professional interests are: Social Justice Education; Social Identity/Cognitive Development; Multicultural Learning Styles and Teaching Strategies; Multicultural Adult Development.

Barbara J. Love has a B.A. (1965), an M.A. (1967) from Arkansas State AM&N, and an Ed.D. from U Mass Amherst (1972). Her professional interests are: Social Justice Education; Multicultural Organizational Development and Transformation; Self-Awareness. 

Ximena U. Zúñiga has an M.E., (1979) from the Universidad Catolica de Chile, and an M.A. (1982) and Ph.D. (1992) from the University of Michigan. Her professional interests are: Social Justice Education; Student Development in Social Justice and Diversity Education; Multicultural Group Processes; Inter-Group Dialogue and Relations in College Campuses; and Action Research.

The UMass website does not provide anything else to substantiate the claim that the “Program faculty are both leaders and pioneers in the field of Social Justice Education,” but we will take in stride that Professors Jackson, Adams, Love, and Zúñiga represent the cutting edge of social justice education. Their range of interests—racial identity development, social oppression and liberation, multicultural learning styles, multicultural organization development, self-awareness, multicultural group processes, diversity education, etc.—however, enunciate their extraordinarily narrow focus on identity groups to the exclusion of every other aspect of “social justice.” 

UMass puts forward these individuals as exemplifying “leadership” in the field of social justice education. So how are these leaders leading?

2.      Scholarship.  Program faculty collaborate with each other to author leading texts on Social Justice Education (e.g., Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 2007).  For more than 25 years, program faculty have performed leadership roles in the successful publication of the social justice education journal Equity & Excellence in Education:  A University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education Journal.

Professor Maurianne Adams co-authored Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, and is the general editor of the quarterly journal Equity & Excellence in Education. The journal is described by its publisher as dealing with “equity, equality and social justice in K-12 or postsecondary schooling,” and focusing on “social justice issues in school systems.” Recent issues have included an examination of how universities can partner with public schools to “overcome the biases;” a retrospective on Brown v. the Board of Education; and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Issues in K-12 Schools.”

The textbook and the journal are the only items cited by UMass as evidence of this ‘social justice scholarship,” which makes it difficult to evaluate the general claim that this is a scholarly program. In any case, the work that UMass does cite seems to float in an ambiance where there is no distinction between scholarship and advocacy. The preposition in the title of Professor Adams’ textbook speaks clearly: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. That skips right past the profound issue of whether diversity and social justice should be taught. Recall that there are major thinkers such as Rawls who regard programs to implement social justice as leading inevitably to state despotism. And there are many social critics, left and right, who have argued that “diversity” is a flawed ideal (See Jim Sleeper, Liberal Racism; Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity; Peter Schmidt, Color and Money; Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.). Professor Adams simply brushes all this aside to get on with the business of advocating the ideas she favors. 

Is it fair to say that advocating a position in a manner that by-passes alternate and opposing views is what we mean by indoctrination?   

3.      Theory oriented.  Use and generate research and theory to understand the sociocultural and historical contexts for, and dynamics within and among the specific manifestations of oppression (e.g., anti-Semitism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, racism, and sexism) in all social systems.

The “theory” here is one in which certain conditions—such as that white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual human beings perpetrate continual oppression on others, who need a liberated consciousness—must be assumed.  Note various well-known forms of oppression that don’t appear on the list: speech codes; expropriation of private property by the state; radical devaluation of currencies; use of disruptive tactics to prevent freedom of assembly and freedom of speech; threats of lawsuits to shakedown companies that have broken no laws; libel tourism; organized voter fraud; “hate crime” legislation; usurpation of legislative authority by the judiciary; campaigns to vilify nominees for public appointments. The list goes on. U Mass’s social justice education program appears to be “theory oriented” primarily in the sense that it seeks rationalizations for focusing exclusively on the claims of oppression pronounced by the progressive Left.  

If we are going to teach “social justice” as an academic program, however, it is unacceptable to teach it in a manner that uncritically promotes one political view. “Oppression” is surely a worthy topic of investigation, but let’s have an even-handed approach that treats the full range of oppression, not just the Left’s favored complaints.

4.      Practice opportunities.  Social Justice Education students have several opportunities in their program of study to do dynamic practicum experiences in social justice education (e.g., intergroup dialogues, weekend seminars focusing on topics such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism, and undergraduate courses focusing on critical social justice issues).

The Intergroup Dialogue movement, as written about by NAS (Thomas Wood, “The Marriage of Affirmative Action and Transformative Education” March 27, 2008) and in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Peter Schmidt, “Intergroup Dialogue Promoted as Using Racial Tension to Teach” July 16, 2008), has sprung up at nine flagship and large public universities. Intergroup Dialogue is a program that gathers students of different social groups into discussions and exercises that aim to teach students “about the complexities of living in a multicultural society.” Professor Ximena Zuniga authored many publications on Intergroup Dialogue.

The Theory of Social Justice in Amherst

Let’s venture further into the Social Justice Education major at U Mass Amherst. On its homepage is the “SJE” logo, which is underlined by a color spectrum not unlike the gay rainbow flag. Below the dazzling logo we see that the SJE major is in the Department of Student Development and Pupil Personnel Services under the School of Education. There’s a link to an overview description of the program:

The approaches to theory and practice taken by Social Justice Education are rooted in the civil rights social movements of the past forty years, within which concepts such as social justice, oppression and liberation are central categories for analyzing, evaluating and transforming interlocking systems of discriminatory institutional structures and cultural practices.

Students in social justice education study the inequities that people experience on the basis of their social group memberships, through systems of constraint and advantage reproduced through the social processes of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (Young, 1990).

“Young, 1990” refers to Iris Marion Young’s “Justice and the Politics of Difference,” a chapter in the book Gender and Planning: A Reader. Young argues “for the assertion of a positive sense of difference by oppressed groups, and for a principle of special rights for those groups” (page 96). Being able to claim special “oppressed group” rights, she says, appeals to justice and transforms an “I want” into “I am entitled to.” Hence, we have the rationale for an urgent and moral imperative of social justice.

Let’s note that this “overview” confirms what we have already teased out of the “program highlights”—namely that “social justice” is being used by UMass to refer exclusively to claims of ill-treatment rooted in “social group membership.” This is a radical narrowing of the idea of “social justice,” that shunts aside the long tradition of “social justice” in the Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic, as well as classical Marxism, and the abundant literature of both liberal reformers and utopian idealists. 

Some of the courses listed are “Multicultural Group Processes,” “Self Awareness in Social Justice Education,” and “Alternative Research Paradigms in Education.”

Careers in Social Justice

What do students do with a degree in social justice education? According to the website, they:

o       Find university faculty or professional staff positions in teacher education and other education related fields, such as staff and faculty training and development.

o       Find positions in higher education in student affairs, residential life, and in administrative positions. SJE graduates serve as directors of disability services, LGBT resource centers, Hillel Centers, multicultural conflict resolution teams, diversity and multicultural affairs offices, and women's centers.

o       Are employed in local, state, and national advocacy or education programs, as well as in nonprofit organizations that focus on issues of diversity and social justice. 

In short, some graduates join advocacy groups, and some recycle the program and teach the next crop of social justice students.

o       Work with educational and private sector organizations as diversity and social justice specialists either as independent consultants or as full-time employees. 

For those who aren’t sure what a social justice specialist is, it is a person who likely reports to the dean of students and exhibits “a lifelong record of commitment to eradicating oppression on the basis of marginalized and/or underrepresented groups.”

Ideology, Not Education

The National Association of Scholars believes that programs in social justice education do not belong in the university. Let’s qualify that. We think it is conceivable that a university could come up with an academically sound program under the label “social justice.” Perhaps somewhere such a program exists and we simply haven’t yet come across it. But we think it is rather unlikely that any reputable program dealing with the philosophical, legal, economic, and other aspects of justice would at this moment in our history decide to label itself as a program in “social justice.”

That’s because the term has become too firmly associated with agitprop. Whatever “social justice” meant in the era of Rerum Novarum, Ernst Troeltsch, or H. Richard Niebuhr, it has now become in common use just a slogan tossed around in the pep rallies of the campus left. It presumably imparts a flavor of righteousness to the daily grievance mongering, but in character it is an anti-intellectual gesture. Many, perhaps most of the people mouthing it have no larger understanding of the nature of society or culture. They are content with a crude image of history as a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, and they take the task of education to be little more than working up ways to divert young people into the maelstrom of identity politics resentments.

The notion that education requires one first to step back from the fray to gain a dispassionate understanding of the facts and a capacity to reflect rationally on competing perspectives is wholly absent from this whirl of political enthusiasms. Thus our surprise to see the University of Massachusetts would put its imprimatur on such a program. In doing so, UMass is using public resources to foster a plainly partisan political program. Will UMass now start offering degrees in “The Republican Party Agenda”? “Barack Obamaism”? “Moveon.Org Studies”? Conceptually, there is little difference between such made-up degree programs and the ones UMass has actually created.

Packaging a political ideology as though it were a branch of intellectual study is, of course, not an entirely new game. Western Marxists for a long stretch tried to smuggle Marxism into the curriculum as a “science.” In the Soviet block, the state simply imposed such propaganda on everyone who attended the university. The temptations to politicize the university—right and left—never go away.

In this case, perhaps the most alarming consideration is that “social justice education” is presented in a school of education. The intent is to spread the ideology as much as possible to the public schools. Social justice programs do not belong in the university because they are engines of political propaganda with no redeeming intellectual value.

Shoggoth Studies

Will the UMass degree programs succeed in attracting students and resources? We hope not, but it is clear that the term “social justice” is gaining traction among those who are enthusiastic about using the university to promote their political causes. For example, the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics treats a commitment to “social justice” as an indispensible part of entering the profession.  We critiqued this part in our report, The Scandal of Social Work Education. We have also recently been examining the burgeoning interest on campus in “sustainability,” and this too turns out to have a “social justice” dimension. “There can be no sustainable communities and institutions without social justice” (John B. Cobb Jr., “Sustainability and the Liberal Arts” conference, 1998). Social justice is also an approach to teaching and learning, which, according to Sandra Stotsky, “assumes that motivation to learn is enhanced by developing students’ awareness of the historical and current grievances that social groups considered ‘oppressed’ should hold against those who are to be perceived as their ‘oppressors.’” And social justice is part of the curricular residence life model, which seeks to educate students about their civic responsibility to eliminate oppression and foster tolerance.

In all cases, social justice is a roomy term that encompasses a large set of political mantras about racism, sexism, and the rest. Since it invokes justice and a sense of right and wrong, the term is a call to battle against bias. But it is a movement with biases of its own and no capacity to step outside them. Rather, it exemplifies the classic closed circle of ideology: those who point out its inconsistencies, lapses, or contradictions are dismissed as apologists (or worse) for the manifestly unjust power structure. Critics are attacked for being speakers from “positions of privilege,” or worse—this being a movement with ready access to invective and terms of abuse.

Above all, “social justice” has become the rhetoric of social divisiveness. It rejects out of hand the concept that justice arises from our recognition of common and shared humanity and turns instead to insistence on the priority of group affiliation.   That’s a doctrine that cuts against the deepest values of the university. It rules out the emphasis on individual merit; it vitiates the notion of equal opportunity to elevate instead the idea of “equity;” and it sweeps aside the ideal of open inquiry as an obstacle to “inclusion.”

We think these are dire faults in any idea that asks for formal representation in the university curriculum, but we recognize that we have to argue our point rationally and with evidence. The advocates of “social justice” have generally skipped this step. We’d like to see them make their best case. In the case of UMass Amherst, we suspect the taxpayers of the Bay State would like some explanation too.

While we are waiting, it might not be a bad idea to enroll in one of the fine courses offers by Miskatonic University’s on-line extension program. We recommend a study of the Shoggoths as useful background. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” as they say.

The degree program for social justice education at U Mass Amherst was brought to our attention by Dean Chin, a member of the Massachusetts Association of Scholars board and an Argus volunteer.

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