Social Justice and Democratic Engagement

William H. Young

Should the prime mission of the American academy be educating students, especially in the liberal arts, or should it prioritize democratic engagement in the polity seeking social justice? Should the liberal arts or social justice be the soul of the academy?

Last week, in Social Justice and the Academy, I illustrated how an egalitarian, redistributionist “social justice” now pervades much of American higher education. As we saw, Georgetown professor of government James V. Schall, SJ argued for the traditional view of justice within a liberal education. He explained that

Social justice… inhabits no soul….It seeks to remove justice from the soul and relocate it to relationships that constitute the polity…Thus, “social justice” and “democracy” are linked.

But David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation as well as president emeritus of the University of Alabama, has a contrary vision of social justice and the soul:

My hope is that colleges and universities will remember that they are more than what they do in teaching, research, and service….They are embodiments of the great causes they have served, and the democratic values implicit in those causes. They have souls, not just buildings and Internet connections. At its best, American higher education has, itself, been a movement. (Kettering Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, December 2012)

Mathews explains that Kettering’s 2012 research, in the context of failings of our polity, was focused on higher education’s role in our democracy.

Higher education has been an essential part of the great causes in our nation’s history. So the question now, given the growing list of concerns about our political system, is how higher education will respond.

Mathews adds, in Deliberation & the Work of Higher Education (2008), that Kettering research finds that

Colleges and universities are emphasizing moral education…There is a tendency to equate democracy with moral precepts….On many campuses, moral education translates into advocacy for social justice.

Through its National Issues Forums, Kettering is organizing public discussions in the campaign “Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?” that I examined last November in Democratic Engagement and Governance: Part II. Mathews adds:

The potential in this undertaking goes well beyond the issue of mission. Colleges and universities could use public deliberations to address other town-gown issues: if that were to happen, it would be a new way for academic institutions to relate to “the public and its problems” (borrowing John Dewey’s phrase)….

The “Shaping Our Future” campaign  takes its cue from the report A Crucible Moment, which I analyzed in Civic Education. Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president of the American Association of Colleges & Universities, summarized that report’s agenda (“Reconfiguring Civic Engagement on Campus,” Diversity & Democracy, Fall 2011): 

Flowing from democracy are the twin terms “social responsibility” and “social justice,” which…suggest both agency and public policy action.

The academy’s new social justice mission was detailed by Larry A. Braskamp (“Higher Education for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement,” Diversity & Democracy, Fall 2011):

Civic learning and democratic engagement should address visionary goals like reducing poverty and violence; increasing inclusion for people who have historically been marginalized; honoring and respecting different values, lifestyles, and cultural and faith traditions; and enhancing personal and community well-being…yielding structural changes toward the common good.

What does Braskamp mean by the common good? Its foundational principles hold that:

All members of society are responsible for contributing to their multiple communities, extending around the entire globe. All people, regardless of social status, ethnicity, lifestyle, and faith tradition, deserve respect and the freedom to contribute to bettering others’ circumstances while fostering their own development as human beings.

He concludes that:

Colleges need to focus on sustained civic and community development, on building lasting infrastructure that addresses structural inequality while fostering habits of the head and heart….pursuing ends that are more expansive than promoting private gain.

Kettering has also identified the democratic basis for its public forums, which I delineated in Democratic Engagement and Governance: Part I:

No government can define the public’s interest, decree the purposes that reflect those interests, or set the direction for the country. Only the public can do those things. And the public does that by making choices—issue by issue.

In my earlier article Democracy, I showed how academic “democratic engagement” would implement Herbert Croly’s ultimate progressive objective of “full realization of the democratic ideal.” Croly’s objectives were:

The American nation is…to receive its instruction as the result of…collective action and…realize…by virtue of the active exercise of popular political authority its’ ideal of social justice….The first thing which must be set aside is the method of representation…

Ironically, the Kettering forums seem likely to enable not only the academic social justice activism of A Crucible Moment, but also the aim of collective decision making outside representative government.

In all discussion of academic democratic engagement, the fact that America was deliberately founded as a republic rather than a direct democracy is never acknowledged. Nor is the hierarchical concept of deliberation by representatives chosen to act for the people, with rule by a moderate central majority. The civic virtue of university civic learning is social justice, inimical to the founding concept of civic virtue—the common or public good of the republic.

Peter Wood correctly argues in Better Citizens that this latest diversion of higher education is “promoting a progressive ideology.” Academic democratic engagement reflects transnational progressivism: the democratic socialism of progressivism combined with the global, oppressed-group ideology of postmodern multiculturalism. But rather than progressive political activism seeking “social justice,” a liberal education including the traditional liberal arts of Western civilization, as NAS has long sought, should be central to the mission of the academy.

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the “liberal arts.” Artes means skills and liberales refers to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. Renaissance thinkers emphasized the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science, humanistic studies, and religion, which provide the objective, subjective, and transcendent worldviews.

However, our universities have embraced an orthodoxy that dismisses, as “white male” ideology, the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge to become a well-informed leader in public life. The liberal arts have largely been replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism, with their enthronement of diversity and social justice—and now political activism by students and faculty, which Mathews advocates in Higher Education Exchange (2012):

Still another on-campus challenge—and opportunity—is in the way students come to see themselves as political actors. Strategically, students are critical for a source of energy for civic engagement, particularly when their idealism is joined by engaged faculty members. On some campuses, faculty and students have come together in classes where the faculty introduce students to a deliberative politics they can practice every day—a politics of shared decision making and action. Many of these courses use National Issues Forums guides for deliberative decision making.

Could it be long before there might be a confluence of such activism with Organizing for Action, the unprecedented transformation of President Obama’s campaign organization into a force to help him create a collective democratic will of the people on issues of social justice? (“Organizing For Action: Obama Campaign Relaunches As Issue-Based Nonprofit,” The Huffington Post, January 18, 2013)

Social justice and democratic engagement threaten the integrity of both our republic and higher education and should not become the new soul of the academy.  Instead, the traditional Western liberal arts education should be restored as its soul.

Next week’s article will examine the concept of social justice as fairness.


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).


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