Social Justice and the Academy

William H. Young

In its report The Scandal of Social Work Education, NAS defined what “social justice” has come to mean in the American academy:

Use of the term “social justice” today generally equates with the advocacy of more egalitarian access to income through state-sponsored redistribution. The phrase is also frequently used to justify new entitlement rights for individuals and whole categories of people, i.e., legally enforceable claims of individuals or groups against the state itself.

The concept of social justice to meliorate the unequal outcomes of capitalism became the basis for twentieth-century American progressivism, which flowed from new academic social and political science based on social “constructionism,” which I discussed last week in Social Justice and Human Nature, and from Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909). The progressive state redistributes wealth and other resources to achieve economic and social justice for the disadvantaged.

The American academy was later also imbued with the social justice of cultural Marxism introduced by Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci in the 1960s and 1970s. Gramsci’s declared goal was to transfer power from the privileged to the marginalized groups and classes. In cultural Marxism, white males replace capitalists as the oppressors and minorities and women replace workers as the oppressed. Group rights and preferences and identity-group power are the way to social justice.

One of the most adverse effects of the academic ideology of social justice has been on public education. Columbia Teachers College identifies its teacher education candidates as “advocates of social justice and diversity.” (Academic Catalog: Teacher Education (2010)) They are the enablers of the Gramscian strategy to “capture the culture” through the education system. In Marxist Justice, I provided examples of how social justice is even incorporated in the teaching of skills in reading, mathematics, and science.

In another previous piece, Excellence, I cited The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (2003), in which Cheri Pierson Yecke describes how the educational establishment responded to the warnings of rising mediocrity in A Nation at Risk (1983):

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 an end—that end being the implementation of massive changes meant to produce social egalitarianism. The middle school was 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 pursuit of social justice and equality in the public schools (burdened additionally 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 mired in low rankings in comparisons with other industrialized nations. Worst of all, public schools are not broadly producing graduates with the basic skills required, in our information economy, to earn a wage sufficient to support a family, as I showed in Middle Class and Governance.

Ironically, social justice in public education has adulterated and enervated higher education’s scheme for social justice in the economy. Social justice in education has decreased rather than increased the equality of opportunity of Americans to achieve the middle-class standard of living they desire. Their low level of learned abilities makes them unequal in a technological age of global competition with nations having better educated citizens.

Social work education in the academy is also 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.

Ideas of social justice permeate many other academic disciplines and are also particularly prominent in sociology, which the following statement by a 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.

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

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. The academic left seeks to implement Herbert Croly’s plan for achieving progressive social justice, which he stated in Progressive Democracy (1915):

The American nation is no longer to be instructed as to its duty by the Law… It 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 people are made whole by virtue of the consecration of their collective efforts to the realization of an ideal of social justice.

Quite appropriately, in A Degree in Agitprop Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne declared that NAS:

Believes that programs in social justice education do not belong in the university…That’s because the term has become too firmly associated with agitprop....The term social justice is a roomy term that encompasses a large set of political mantras about racism, sexism, and the rest. Whatever the term social justice once meant, the term now…is linked to socialist ideals at worst and some kind of do-gooder, redistribution indoctrination at best.

Social justice in the academy purports to take from those who have “unjustly” gained to reward those who “justly” deserve. Social justice is equality, quite unlike Aristotle’s justice, which is giving people what they deserve—considering virtues of human nature that are worthy of reward.

Justice, not social justice, is the proper subject to be taught in higher education argues Georgetown government professor James V. Schall, SJ (“Liberal Education & Social Justice,” Liberal Education, AAC&U, Fall 2006).

A liberal education is not an education whose primary concern is to prepare its graduates to live in the actual city…Rather, the university is primarily an enclave wherein one is free to teach the truth…

One of the perplexing things philosophers study is justice…as a virtue of individuals, who, in their relations with one another, learn to render what is due and to tell the truth. What is now called “social justice,” however, can be studied, but it inhabits no soul. This latter is a theory of modernity, largely a product of Rousseau and Max Weber. It seeks to remove justice from the soul and relocate it in the relationships that constitute the polity….Thus, “social justice” and “democracy” are inexorably linked.

Schall notes that social justice produces happy rather than good human beings and concludes:

The essence of classical political thought was precisely to deliberate on what regime is most suited to these people in their particular polity. It was not to force all people into the same regime in order to make them happy….

Does justice, especially what is now called “social justice,” have any place in liberal education? The classical notion of justice is not the modern idea of “social justice.” Indeed, the latter may be inimical to the former.

Equally inimical to the Western concept of justice is that of social justice as “fairness,” a theme I will take up in the near future. 

Next week’s article will further examine the connection between social justice and the “democratic engagement” programs being widely implemented in the academy.


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).

  • Share

Most Commented

October 31, 2023


University of Washington Violated Non-Discrimination Policy, Internal Report Finds

A faculty hiring committee at the University of Washington “inappropriately considered candidates’ races when determining the order of offers,” provided “disparate op......

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

November 27, 2023


The Ohio State Reports: DEI Contributions in Practice

New documents from Ohio State University detail how "diversity" factored into the evaluation of candidates considered for various departments....

Most Read

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....

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...