Social Work’s Sins Against Conscience

Steve Balch

University social work programs rarely attract outside attention. They subsist deep down in the bowels of their host institutions, generating a decent cash flow but little in the way of intellectual excitement. They do, however, have one dubious distinction. Like no other academic program, they are politicized throughout their warp and woof. Sociology, anthropology, even education could, if fully liberated from tendentiousness, still survive as fields. It’s questionable whether this is true of social work. Launched in the spirit of progressivism, its doxology has by now absorbed almost every mental reflex of the left.

Social work programs are unique in the boldness with which they shout out their ideological commitments. Here are a few examples taken from the public institutions of just one state – Pennsylvania, and cited in a 2005 National Association of Scholars report. At the University of Pennsylvania, the social work mission statement proclaimed the program to be “committed to promoting the values of social and economic justice”; at Bloomsburg State University it declared that “an emphasis is placed on an appreciation for human diversity and a strong commitment to social and economic justice”; at Temple University it announced “a dedication to societal transformations to eliminate social, political, and economic injustices for poor and oppressed populations”; and at Edinboro State University it pledged itself to preparing social workers to “internalize and to actualize the concept of social concern, to internalize and actualize belief in the innate value of humankind, to service those in need, and to act with convicti
n in advancing the principle of social justice and human rights.” What’s surprising here is less the failure of social work faculties to see any conflict between such pronouncements and the ideal of disinterested inquiry - perhaps in their parochial fastnesses they’re simply unaware of how contentious some of these concepts and characterizations are – but the failure of senior university authorities to point this unawareness out to them. But then again, perhaps that’s not so surprising either.

Social work programs are accredited by an outfit called Council on Social Work Education, whose own “Educational Policy and Accrediting Standards” are themselves a politicized wonder to behold. Take, for example, this matchless beaut of ideological boilerplate in which the CSWE charges social work programs with integrating “social and economic content grounded in an understanding of distributive justice, human and civil rights, and the global interconnectedness of oppression. Programs provide content related to implemented strategies to combat discrimination, oppression, and economic justice. Programs prepare students to advocate for non-discriminatory social and economic systems.”

It’s likely that if the CSWE were to disappear tomorrow, social work programs would not greatly change. Most, after all, are happy with their creeds. But CSWE still does its share of damage, legitimizing the corruption of academic practice, and affording an easy excuse for social work programs that, with increasing frequency, are being called to public account for coercions of conscience

If CSWE were a U.S. Department of Education recognized accreditor, its critics would have a ready line of attack, as the department has shown some willingness to pressure accrediting bodies careless of constitutional rights. Unfortunately, it’s not. It does, however, have a privileged relationship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Services Commissioned Corps, which only hires social workers who hold a Masters in Social Work from CSWE accredited programs. Since the application of some of the CSWE’s standards are likely to prevent students with traditional moral values and/or conservative views from completing social work degrees, this federal involvement raises serious First Amendment issues.

The National Association of Scholars, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, have fired an opening shot against CSWE, and politicized social work instruction, by urging the Public Health Services Commissioned Corps to cease using the CSWE as a gatekeeper. Letters from each of these organizations, first sent in October to the John Agwunobi, Assistant Secretary for Health, elicited an unresponsive reply. All three organizations have just sent a collectively signed second letter reiterating their concerns and offering to meet with departmental officials. An effective ban on hiring religious persons with traditional moral views should, presumably, be of some political interest. If the Corps can’t see what is at stake, the path of protest will lead inevitably upward.

The CSWE is a private organization, albeit one with a variety of government ties. Social work programs at public institutions are very different animals. When they compel students to “internalize and actualize” contestable beliefs, rather than simply to absorb skills and knowledge, they run headlong at the First Amendment. Freedom-of-Conscience law suits have already been filed, and there are more likely to come.

Perhaps social work programs can reform themselves and become intellectually open transmitters of knowledge and skills. Perhaps they can’t and need their educational functions assumed by something else. What’s clear is that they’ve chosen a course for themselves incompatible with what should be the ideals of the modern university.

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