Academic Social Science and Social Justice

William H. Young

For more than a century, American academic social science has advocated the ideal of “social justice,” supplanting the founding ideal of justice as equality of opportunity. While often an amorphous term, “social justice” has evolved to generally mean state redistribution of advantages and resources to disadvantaged groups to satisfy their rights to social and economic equality. Communal sharing by group has replaced individual responsibility and reciprocity as the ethos of social science. Ultimately, social justice can only be realized through a command economy and totalitarian state—which is envisioned by the sustainability ideology to impose economic and social “equity,” considered in the academy to be synonymous with “equality.”[1]

In the early twentieth century, the individual came to be defined by the Social Gospel and progressive movements as the innocent victim of an unjust capitalist and civil society rather than responsible for his or her well-being. From the mid-twentieth century, academic social science reimagined the goal of social justice as required to produce equality for historically oppressed groups of victims, reflecting cultural Marxism and multiculturalism. (See Academic Social Science and the Group.) In A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard philosopher John Rawls expanded social justice to include redress of undeserved “inequalities of birth and natural endowment.”[2]

In public education after the 1960s, the teaching of social justice replaced the teaching of knowledge. Education schools increasingly trained teachers to become “advocates of social justice and diversity.”[3] The adulteration of knowledge in the public schools led to the warning by A Nation at Risk, in April 1983, of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”[4]  That academic mediocrity has endured for more than three decades; social justice aiming for equality by group still prevails over intellectual development. In higher education, preferences for designated victim groups through affirmative action continue to prioritize social justice.

The turn to social justice by academic social science over the past century has weakened American institutions, especially public education; increased inequality rather than equality; and would ultimately replace individual freedom.

From Justice to Social Justice

Arguing for the Constitution, James Madison declared in The Federalist No. 51 that “justice is the end of government.”[5] The Founders did not make equality a provision of the Constitution; they left government “to establish as much equality as justice requires.”[6] Equality of opportunity, improved by public education, and freedom of enterprise for the individual in the economic and social order—with rewards based on reciprocity—was considered justice under governance and the rule of law. The Founders did not envision attempts to impose equality of condition, political or economic.[7]

But in the late nineteenth century, the concept of social justice began to replace the Founders’ intentions for justice as the basis for American academic social science and progressivism. Social science turned to the philosophy of Germany’s G. F. W. Hegel: Justice in the American sense, chiefly equal natural rights to share in the fruits of a bourgeois society, was not sufficient. Following Hegel, a new right to economic equality and to equal recognition of identity, now the goals of social justice provided by the state, became the aim of academic social science.[8]

The academic turn to social justice also reflected a reaction to social Darwinism, which supposedly bolstered rule by superior, privileged white male capitalists over socially oppressed groups during the Gilded Age. The Social Gospel movement introduced use of the European Roman Catholic term “social justice” in America and completed the foundation for the turn to making individuals the entirely innocent victims of capitalism and social corruption.[9] Poverty stemmed from a failure of society rather than the individual.

Reflecting academic concepts of progressivism, its guru, Herbert Croly, argued that “social justice” should be the product of a collective “will” of American democracy to achieve “a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.”[10] A new political science of progressive governance was created to overcome the limits of the founding order and impose social justice through the administrative power of the state.

Over the twentieth century, the concept of social justice through communal sharing displaced the founding idea of reciprocity. A 1961 monograph from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work, Public Welfare: Time for a Change, opposed any emphasis on personal responsibility for economic problems: there should be no penalty for able-bodied and mentally competent individuals who, for whatever reason, were unable “to hold a job, to spend their money sensibly…or otherwise rise to the challenges of social responsibility.” Personality flaws, the report suggested, had social origins, and in any event social justice required an end to scrutiny of behavior.[11]

Rawls’s Theory of Justice

In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls presented a new “conception of social justice…”:

The principles of social justice…provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation…

Social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society….

All social primary goods—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored…

Undeserved inequalities call for redress, and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for….In order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into less favorable social positions.[12]

Rawls’s moral philosophy of social justice became the intellectual justification for the progressive welfare state, which not only redistributes material resources to the disadvantaged to produce equality of result, but also seeks to construct equality of opportunity to enable equal prospects for success. Thus, in education, social justice as fairness required group preferences as mandated through affirmative action policies to produce genuine equality of opportunity.

Social Justice in the Academy

Ideas of social justice are particularly ascendant in sociology, which the following statement by a past president of the American Sociological Association illustrates:

As I see it, social justice requires resource equity, fairness, and respect for diversity, as well as the eradication of existing forms of social oppression. Social justice entails a redistribution of resources from those who have unjustly gained them to those who justly deserve them, and it also means creating and ensuring the processes of truly democratic participation in decision-making….It seems clear that only a decisive redistribution of resources and decision-making power can ensure social justice and authentic democracy.[13]

The American academy was also imbued with the social justice of cultural Marxism, introduced by Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci in the 1960s and 1970s. Their declared goal was to transfer power from the privileged to the marginalized; group rights and preferences and identity-group power became the way to social justice.

Social work education in the academy is founded on social justice. In The Scandal of Social Work Education, NAS noted that graduates are expected to demonstrate the ability to understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and apply strategies of advocacy and social change that advance social and economic justice.[14]

In 2012, the Obama administration and the Association of American Colleges and Universities assigned a new mission to higher education, defined in A Crucible Moment. In Civic Education and Democracy, I summarized some ways in which AAC&U would have higher education carry out that new mission through democratic engagement to achieve social justice. Academic social science would renew its efforts to implement Herbert Croly’s plan for achieving social justice.

Social Justice and the Economy

Within the ethos of social justice in the academy, certain mores and habits of mind have been imbued in students and elites, becoming the prism through which they view the self and society. From academic social science, most of today’s college graduates have no conception of just how contrary the underlying principles of social justice are to those of our founding order, as I explained in Academic Social Science and Our Capitalist Economy. Let’s directly contrast the distinctive academic tenets of social justice to those of capitalism, the economy, and our founding order.

Social justice is based on the following tenets:

  • Human nature is a blank slate; inequalities stem largely from the social order.
  • Individuals must be made equal by the social order to redress undeserved inequalities.
  • Individual freedom is created by the state through allocations of rights and resources to designated social groups.
  • Equality of opportunity is “socially constructed” by the state to achieve social diversity.
  • Individuals are evaluated as members of oppressed groups and by share of communal result.
  • Inequality of outcome is unfair; fairness is equal sharing of societal outcomes among groups.
  • Reward is based on rights to communal sharing, inspiring envy and inducing entitlement.
  • Recognition comes from preferences awarded to redress privilege and past oppression.
  • Equality as fairness overrides all other values, including productivity, and the common good of the organizational entity.
  • Hierarchy is based on diversity by group to overcome privilege.
  • Equality of condition is the goal.

Capitalism, the economy, and our founding order are based on very different tenets:

  • Human nature is inherent, with innate but unequal potentialities among individuals.
  • Individuals bring inequalities of abilities and interests, and a work ethic, to the social order.
  • Individual freedom derives from natural rights and emphasizes personal responsibility and opportunity.
  • Equality of opportunity is determined by diversity of learned capabilities and legal equality (prohibiting discrimination).
  • Individuals are evaluated as persons who perform and deserve unequally.
  • Inequality of outcome is fair; fairness is judged by differential achievement and contribution.
  • Reward is based on equity and reciprocity, incentivizing performance and inspiring cooperation.
  • Recognition comes from accomplishment in mutually beneficial exchange and fair competition.
  • Equality is subordinate to productivity to maximize the common good of the organizational entity.
  • Hierarchy is also fair, and is based on function and merit.
  • Excellence is the goal.

Most college graduates are wholly unable to appreciate how and why the axioms of capitalism and limited government led to our successful economic order, or how they personally can best relate to and succeed in that order, rather than being purveyors of social justice and its counterproductive tenets.

Public Education

Academic notions of social justice have been especially harmful in public education. John Dewey’s concepts of progressive education finally began to change primary schooling in the 1950s. Social justice as equality for oppressed groups advanced from the 1960s.

Dewey “taught that the school, which heretofore had been the locus of intergenerational transmission of received knowledge, learning, and wisdom, needed to become an agent of social betterment and change.” He proposed two fundamental changes: “child-centered rather than content-centered education” and a role for schools in constructing “a new social order…which would eventually bring into being a democratic socialist society.”[15]

Virginia professor emeritus of education and humanities, E. D. Hirsch Jr., explains, in City Journal of the Manhattan Institute, how progressive education dismissed academic knowledge as the basis for skills and achieved the dumbing down of American schoolbooks:

[Progressive education] included…a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning…. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for…the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in twelfth grade in the 1960s.[16]

In Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, educational historian Diane Ravitch notes the turn of schooling toward a new social order:

The 1960’s radical critique of the schools blossomed into a dynamic movement, founded on the proposition that the public school system was a vast machine of oppression, a tool of an unjust and corrupt society, and that new institutions would have to be created to liberate children from school and society.[17]

The prime purpose of colleges of education and the public schools thus became the radical transformation of American society. Teaching of social justice accordingly replaced the teaching of knowledge.

Columbia Teachers College identifies its teacher education candidates as “advocates of social justice and diversity.”[18] The purpose of schools of education became to instill what Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald has called “anything but knowledge.”[19] George K. Cunningham of the Pope Center observes that education schools:

believe that a set of non-academic goals including diversity, self-esteem, “critical thinking,” and efforts at promoting social justice should take precedence. Education school faculty,…the major accrediting body for education schools, teacher education organizations, and most of the education staff at the state and district level agree with this position, rejecting academic achievement as the most important purpose for schools.[20]

In The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (2012), former Harvard education professor Sandra Stotsky describes how educational goals “became attitudinal rather than cognitive.” In the name of race, ethnicity, or gender identity, easier-to-read and often poorly written works…replaced many of the challenging works that had long been in the literature curriculum.”[21] Stotsky adds, in Losing Our Language (2002), that such texts are designed to imbue students with feelings about victimization rather than thinking and reasoning abilities and to exhibit politically correct “role models.”[22] Education schools introduced “critical pedagogy” or teaching for social justice. Such pedagogies, Stotsky notes, “inherently limit students’ intellectual growth.”[23]

Similar changes in mathematics education turned to social justice rather than academics. Stotsky describes that turn:

Educators…argued that the traditional curriculum needed to be more “engaging” and “relevant” to an increasingly alienated and unmotivated—or so it was claimed—student body. Some influential educators sought to dismiss the traditional curriculum altogether, viewing it as a white, Christian, heterosexual-male product that unjustly valorized rational, abstract, and categorical thinking over the associative, experience-based, and emotion-laden thinking supposedly more congenial to females and certain minorities.[24]

Around 1967, notes Hirsch, SAT and other test scores began to plummet, reaching their nadir around 1980, with the dilution of knowledge accounting for most of the test-score drop.[25] In April 1983, a National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a scathing report on the deterioration of public schools. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform warned that:

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.[26]

Public school performance has not improved in the more than three decades since A Nation at Risk—even though spending per pupil has doubled.[27] Why is that?

In The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (2003), former teacher and education official Cheri Pierson Yecke describes how the educational establishment responded to A Nation at Risk:

Rather than strengthen their commitment to higher academic standards, activist reformers…soon made it clear that the middle school was not just a new educational organization, but a means to… become the vehicle for implementing “social justice” by “making everyone equal.” The goal of producing mass equality is being pursued through policies and practices implemented in middle schools across the country. …The entire middle school curriculum has been dumbed down.[28]

The pursuit of social justice and equality in the public schools (with teaching additionally burdened by poor parenting) has perpetuated educational mediocrity at the lowest common denominator decried in A Nation at Risk despite thirty more years of national handwringing and ineffectual reform. Educating for social justice continues to produce students little improved in reading and mathematics and without the basic, knowledge-based skills required, in our information economy, to earn a wage sufficient to support a family, as I argued in Middle Class and Governance.


Social equity— fairness and social justice—is one of the three pillars of sustainability and sustainable development, described in an Australian environmental report.

Equity derives from a concept of social justice. It represents a belief that there are some things which people should have, and that there are basic needs that should be fulfilled, and that burdens and rewards should not be spread too divergently across the community, and that policy should be directed with impartiality, fairness and justice towards those ends.[29]

But as noted in a Wikipedia entry, “many colleges and universities consider the term social equity as synonymous with social equality,” or social justice.[30]

In its report,  Sustainability, NAS notes that “social justice finds justification for its communitarian fervor in sustainability’s calls for a new economic and social order.”[31]

To achieve social justice, the sustainability ideology must invoke a command economy and totalitarian state. Explaining that argument in The Politics of Bad Faith (1998), the reformed-Marxist author David Horowitz draws upon Friedrich Hayek’s Mirage of Social Justice (1978):

For two centuries, the Left has attempted to “complete” the French Revolution by extending political and civil freedom into the social realm in the form of redistributionist claims to economic wealth….The leftist revolution must crush freedom in order to achieve the “social justice” that it seeks….

That point of view is most succinctly summarized in Hayek’s observation that “the prevailing belief in ‘social justice’ is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.”…The reason is that the idea of social justice is a chimera and that it incorporates the totalitarian idea….

In other words, the only remedy for “social injustice” is for a state to abrogate individual freedoms, eliminate such choices, and organize the social order to correspond to its conception of what is morally right. The demand for “social justice” …is really the demand for a command economy organized by a totalitarian state.[32]


The turn by academic social science to “social justice” a century ago has had disastrous consequences for American institutions, especially public and higher education. Its end result is loss of individual freedom.

Social justice in the academy purports to take from those who have “unjustly” gained to reward those who “justly” deserve. Social justice is equality imposed by the state, quite unlike Aristotle’s justice, which is giving people what they deserve—considering virtues of human nature (such as duty, integrity, self-reliance, empathy) that are worthy of reward. Justice as equal opportunity to seek such reward was our founding principle, to which we should return.

Ironically, social justice in public and higher education has enervated rather than enabled academic social science’s scheme for social justice in the economy. Teaching for social justice rather than knowledge in education has decreased rather than increased the equality of opportunity of many Americans to achieve the standard of living they desire. Their lack of knowledge-based abilities makes them unequal in a technological age of global competition, which I will examine in my next article.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Wikipedia


[1] Carl L. Bankston III, “Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Perspective and a Theory,” The Independent Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 2010). “Social equity,” Wikipedia,, 16 May 2015.

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 3–4.

[3] Columbia Teachers College, Academic Catalog: Teacher Education (2010).

[4] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983. E. D. Hirsch Jr., “A Wealth of Words,” City Journal, Winter 2013.

[5] James Madison, The Federalist, “Number 51,” in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 43 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 163–64.

[6] Mortimer J. Adler, We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (New York: Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987), 42–45.

[7] I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 128. Adler, We Hold These Truths, 42–45..

[8] William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 400–01.

[9] “Social justice,” Wikipedia,, 20 May 2015.

[10] Herbert D, Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1915). Herbert D. Croly, The Promise of American Life (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965) (First Published 1909.

[11]  Elizabeth Wickenden and Winifred Bell, Public Welfare: Time for a Change (New York: The Project on Public Services for Families and Children, New York School of Social Work of Columbia University, 1961), 25.

[12] Rawls, Theory of Justice, 1971), 3–4.

[13] Joe R. Feagin, “Social Justice and Sociology: Agendas for the Twenty-First Century,” Presidential Address, American Sociological Review, Vol. 66, No. 1 (February 2001).

[14] National Association of Scholars, The Scandal of Social Work Education, 2009.

[15] Robert Lerner, Althea K. Nagai, and Stanley Rothman, Molding the Good Citizen: The Politics of High School History Texts (Westport: Praeger, 1995), 22, 15, 19–20.

[16] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “A Wealth of Words,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Winter 2013.

[17] Diane Ravitch, Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 393–94. Heather Mac Donald, The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 96–97.

[18] Columbia Teachers College, Academic Catalog: Teacher Education (2010).

[19] Heather Mac Donald, “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Spring 1998.

[20] George K. Cunningham, University of North Carolina Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers? Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 2008, Executive Summary, 2‒3.

[21] Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 54, 60.

[22] Sandra Stotsky, Losing Our Language: How Multiculturalism Undermines Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason (New York: Encounter Books, 2002)

[23] Stotsky, Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, 106‒110.

[24] Sandra Stotsky, “Who Needs Mathematicians for Math, Anyway?” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, 13 November 2009.

[25] Hirsch, “A Wealth of Words.”

[26] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983.

[27] Robert Tomsho, “Few Gains Are Seen in High School Test,” The New York Times, 29 April 2009. Diane Ravitch, “Failing the Wrong Grades,” The New York Times, 15 March 2005. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch, “Basic Instincts,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 February 2006.

[28] Cheri Pierson Yecke, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2005), 25.

[29] Jim Falk et al., Social Equity and the Urban Environment, Report to the Commonwealth Environmental Protection Agency, AGPS, Canberra, 1993. 2.

[30] “Social equity,” Wikipedia,, 16 May 2015.

[31] National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, March 2015, 86.

[32] David Horowitz, The Politics of Bad Faith (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 184.

  • Share

Most Commented

June 13, 2022


Regime Change: Repelling the DEI Assault on Higher Education

The last few decades have seen a total transformation of higher education's mission in American society. What was once an institution that encouraged innovation, built character, and sou......

May 12, 2022


Mornin’ Ralph, Mornin’ Sam in Anthropology Today

Professor Lowrey recounts her latest encounter with academic cancel culture, this time with an acceptance-turned-rejection at Anthropology Today....

May 31, 2022


Can America’s Colleges and Universities Be Saved?

We urge American citizens and policymakers to reform our higher education system while there is still time....

Most Read

June 13, 2022


Regime Change: Repelling the DEI Assault on Higher Education

The last few decades have seen a total transformation of higher education's mission in American society. What was once an institution that encouraged innovation, built character, and sou......

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

June 21, 2022


Press Release: Confucius Institutes Rebrand to Circumvent U.S. Policy, Report Finds

A new report from the National Association of Scholars finds that colleges and universities continue to host Chinese-funded programs similar to Confucius Institutes under new names......