The Scandal of Social Work Education

Barry Latzer

Download the PDF: The Scandal of Social Work Education

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The Problem

Are teaching and research in America's colleges and universities politicized? Many inside the academy stoutly deny it, accusing critics of exaggeration or even McCarthyite smears. The critics reply that leaders in higher education have put their heads in the sand about politicization or, worse, are complicit in covering it up and even encouraging it.

The position of the National Association of Scholars on these matters is well known. We believe politicization not only to be a very serious problem, but one that undercuts the intellectual foundations on which the modern university is based -- the honest, rigorous, and, to the extent possible, open-minded search for truth. For the academy's unwillingness to address the increasing erosion of these foundations we offer no simple answer. Some of it surely reflects the distraction of senior leadership, too stretched by its many burdens to think about baseline issues, some a timorous reluctance to challenge entrenched ideological interests, and some, indeed perhaps much, is attributable to the self-conscious embrace of a social change mandate that views politicization as the moral completion of the university's transformation from modern to postmodern.

Because, by and large, the public continues to believe that universities should be open and fair-minded marketplaces for ideas, some effort is generally made, even by the most politically correct academics, to keep the more egregious forms of politicization out of sight, or at least veiled in code words and references that require for their comprehension an insider's ability to read between the lines. But as the proponents of the university's new moral mission become increasingly self-confident, avowals of doctrinaire ideological commitments, polemics in place of teaching, and outright political activism, are given ever more explicit display. The National Association of Scholars has directed a good deal of its research efforts to documenting this unsettling trend.

Evidence for it can certainly be found in many fields in the humanities and social sciences. One only needs to leaf through university webpages to assemble a very sizeable body. Where found, this evidence not only indicates professional misfeasance on the part of individual faculty members and programs, but a far greater abdication of responsibility by the university's fiduciaries, its senior administration, its trustees, and even -- in the case of public institutions -- legislators. It is they, after all, who have the ultimate responsibility for holding the academy to its highest principles.

On the basis of an increasing number of anecdotes, both published and privately circulated, we became aware that social work education, even within the ideologically colored environment of the contemporary university, might constitute an especially advanced case of politicization, in which dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity had become absolutely integral to the definition of the field. We also learned that the discipline's accrediting body, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), had in its protocols language about affirming "social justice ideals," which seemed to us to raise serious First Amendment issues when applied to programs at public universities. We had heard as well of several horror stories concerning students in social work programs who had had their consciences unconscionably coerced. (We've raised these issues with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which uses CSWE accreditation as a hiring standard for social workers, and intend to bring them before state and local governments as well.)

It also became apparent to us that the profession for which university social work education was meant to prepare had developed clear ideological allegiances. Although the roots of social work practice drew sustenance from a variety of religious, ethical, and political dispositions, by the 1960s the profession's most important organization, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was, according to the Encyclopedia of Social Work, becoming increasingly involved in issues such as civil rights, a guaranteed income, birth control, and welfare rights. This trend was accentuated during the 1970s when, in response to perceived threats to social welfare programs from the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations, the NASW stepped up its efforts to influence legislation through analysis and testimony. The election of Ronald Reagan gave the process a further boost, leading to the NASW's creation in 1984 of a "national peace and disarmament network."

In 1960, the NASW adopted its first code of ethics. A series of revisions and amendments followed during subsequent decades. In 1997 an entirely new code was adopted with a preamble that, for the first time, laid out a vision of social work's mission and core values. This highlighted the NASW's growing commitment to social justice and social change. Standard 6.01 of the new code of ethics made it clear that social workers were now obligated to promote social justice "from local to global levels," very much including political action.

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. ("Economic justice" is even a stronger term, largely confined to populist and radical rhetoric.)

Here's how one social work textbook, Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skills (now in its seventh edition) lays out in vivid detail what its authors believe pursuing social and economic justice means in the context of contemporary social work and American politics:

The objective of promoting social and economic justice merits a renewed commitment by social workers given the conservative trends of the past three decades. Providers of social services and their clientele have suffered major setbacks in recent years, as the United States has sought to cope with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the movement from a strong to a declining economy, the shift from budget surpluses to budget deficits, tax cuts geared toward the upper income tiers, and losses of domestic jobs to overseas workers. In an even earlier era, the radical restructuring of the government's approaches to poverty of women and children in the form of pub. L. No. 104-193, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, "ended welfare as we know it'. Specifically, work requirements for women were increased even though no guarantee of child care support was provided. In addition, educational assistance was decreased. In another blow, the specific circumstances of women who tend to work in the part-time, low-wage, low benefits services sector were not addressed. In essence, the law increased the accountability demanded from recipients of aid without requiring comparable accountability from state and federal governments regarding the types of employment attained and income levels of those women. Recognizing these discrepancies, social workers need to advocate for the welfare of low income families and children and monitor whether services and supports are actually sufficient to reduce poverty and improve the welfare of children.

The Study

Given these facts we decided that the subject of social work education's politicization was worthy of more comprehensive and detailed review. We particularly wished to know if the general political allegiances of the profession had given the teaching of social work at the university level a dogmatic character, blurred the line between academic practice and political activism, or had become the occasion for coercing the opinions of students about the issues and problems with which social workers grapple. To the extent these phenomena were in evidence, fundamental academic norms would have been breached.

To be sure, social work education is considered by some to be among the university's poorer academic cousins -- a cash cow, perhaps, but one possessing only very modest intellectual cachet. But even if such a verdict is deemed valid, the social work profession's pervasive influence in the larger world, both in the counseling of clients and the formulation of policy, would make the politicization of social work education a phenomenon of significant and worrisome consequence. Moreover, as a university program, social work education represents a test case in what the larger academic community is willing to tolerate, and hence a telling indicator of the academy's de facto fidelity to its principles. With these considerations in mind, we decided to conduct a study of possible politicization in social work education programs that examined the detailed accreditation standards to which these programs conformed, the professional standards they expected of their students, the way they defined themselves and their programmatic objectives in their mission statements, and how their course listings described course content.

In order not to be accused of either "cherry picking" the programs we studied or of selecting unimportant programs, we reviewed the webpages of social work education programs at public universities ranked according to those universities' overall enrollment. Beginning with the public universities that had the largest enrollments and working downward in size, we chose the first ten programs we came across that, during the spring semester of 2007, had posted on their webpages all the information we required, that is to say, accreditation information, standards used in student assessment, mission statements, and course descriptions. The social work education programs thus chosen were those at Arizona State University/ Tempe, University of California/Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Central Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota/Twin Cities, the University of Texas/Austin, the University of Washington, and Wayne State University.

The Findings

Reckoned against traditional academic ideals of open-inquiry, partisan disengagement, and intellectual pluralism, the results are scandalous:

All ten programs reviewed accepted accreditation from a body -- the CSWE -- that requires programs to embrace and/or prepare students to advocate for social and economic goals described by decidedly liberal/left formulations as "social and economic justice," "distributive justice," and "nondiscriminatory social and economic systems," as well as to have students understand something referred to as "the global interconnections of oppression." 

Nine of the ten programs require students to conform to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which enjoins social workers, using similar egalitarian and relativistic rhetoric, among other things, to "engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to resources, employment, services and opportunities to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully," "advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions to meet basic human needs and promote social justice," "promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally," and "promote policies and practice that demonstrate respect for difference…". 

The mission statements of the programs reviewed are replete with similar ideologically fraught statements ranging from the voicing of respect and appreciation for "cultural diversity," "multiculturalism," and "inclusion" through the avowal of commitments to "social justice" and the "empowerment of oppressed people," to an emphasis on understanding "the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination that lead to poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism" as a means of advocacy "for social and economic justice." These thematic preoccupations receive further reinforcement in several official student handbooks. 

Course descriptions, while various, were also found sometimes to contain highly politicized content, ideologically charged language, and question-begging concepts such as "heterosexism" and "ableism." For example, "Organizing for Social and Political Action" at the University of Michigan is described as preparing students to use "political advocacy as a form of mobilization" with special emphasis "placed on organizing communities of color, women, LGBT populations, and underrepresented groups in U.S. society," while "Muslim Families" at the University of Washington assumes the existence and discusses "the effect and interaction of cultural imperialism on Muslim communities, both in the United States and abroad," 


To put an end to such academically scandalous behavior, America's schools of social work need to reexamine their self-concepts and missions. It is understandable that the social work profession empathizes with its clientele, who are disadvantaged in many ways. But empathy is one thing, and orthodoxy and politicization in university programming are something else. We rightly expect all professions that deal with the human condition to be grounded in genuine sympathy. But we also rightly expect those professions to recognize and teach the importance of the continuing search for the truth, the need to listen to alternative views, and the need to seek objective bases for best practice. This is true of the training of physicians, psychiatrists, lawyers, law enforcement agents, and every other profession that works, just as does social work, directly with the human subject.

Thus it is unacceptable when schools of social work define the substance of what they teach in terms of prescribed answers to important questions that are in fact unsettled. It is equally unacceptable for schools of social work to compel -- or even to encourage -- students to advocate for political causes that the social work profession, the school's faculty, or its administrators hold dear. And it is also unacceptable when schools of social work bypass the hard and necessary work of examining the historical and social contexts of human suffering in order to present doctrinaire diagnoses. Schools of social work have educational obligations to their students, as well as intellectual obligations to the university and society. Our report demonstrates that, in key areas schools of social work are betraying the pursuit of knowledge and systematically perverting the education of their students.

Reform must begin at the top, however difficult it may be for the profession's lead organizations to rethink and abandon the hardened errors of their ways. The Council on Social Work Education, the national accreditor of social work programs throughout the United States, must revise its Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards to eliminate ideological code words and the ideology that stands behind them. CSWE must positively forbid mandatory advocacy requirements and follow through to make sure that schools of social work don't just disguise such requirements under some new obfuscating terminology. The only standards that are academically legitimate are those that respect diverse viewpoints and omit political requirements.

Likewise, the National Association of Social Workers, the principal social work professional association, must cleanse its Code of Ethics of political/ideological mandates. Social workers have a professional obligation to carry out the policies of the organizations they serve and, within their ambit, work for the best interests of clients as they see them. But there is no ethical imperative for social workers to adopt a particular ideological viewpoint, and it is decidedly unethical to demand such of students as a condition for entry into the profession. Unless the CSWE and NASW make these reforms, their guidelines should have no role in the governance of social work education, or decisions of federal, state, and local government.

Because we know that asking these organizations to reform themselves is unlikely to work unless something practical is at stake, we call upon America's universities and colleges to review the status of the CSWE as an accreditor of their social work programs, and of the NASW as an arbiter of professional ethics for their social work students.

As we've already noted, social work education is hardly alone among university programs in having ideological proclivities and a strong penchant for advocacy. But its commitments in these respects are far more explicit and systematic than almost anywhere else. The failure of higher university authorities to challenge this vast misconstruction of mission represents a larger abandonment of the traditional principles of academic freedom and their corollary obligations. In order to defend academic freedom, higher education's senior authorities have to be clear to themselves and the public at large that they remain faithful to those norms of dispassionate, reasoned, rigorous truth-seeking that much of social work education now flauts. Only fidelity to these canons can justify the immunities from lay and legislative oversight that modern institutions of higher education universally claim. If universities are simply another venue for doing politics, or of settling disputes by reference to prescribed doctrine, they have no intellectually valid defense against external political actors who seek to force their opinions upon them. Politics is politics and doctrine, doctrine, wherever it is found.

We therefore call upon those American universities and colleges that have social work education programs to vindicate the academic freedom of their faculties and students by eliminating ideological tests and dogmatic commitments. We call on the American Association of University Professors and all other higher education organizations pledged to the defense of academic freedom to support this effort. We call upon public universities to prohibit their social work education programs from continuing to violate the First Amendment freedoms of their students and faculty by strong-arming conscience and speech. Failure to do so will surely expose them to more legal challenges.

We do not presume to prescribe an ideal curriculum for schools of social work, but we do, as supporters of liberal education, emphatically urge that universities also ensure that social work programs, and all other programs, pay attention to intellectual foundations. A social worker who is largely ignorant of American history faces an intellectually blinkered professional life in which there will be strong temptation to respond to problems according to the stereotypes and shibboleths of the moment. A social worker who is largely ignorant of political theory is unarmed against the appeals of demagogues who offer simplistic and sometimes unconstitutional remedies to complex problems. A social worker with no grounding in philosophy likewise is ill equipped to tell the difference between cogent reasoning and ideology, which superficially can look alike. A social worker not conversant with economics will be in a poor position to evaluate different approaches to the alleviation of poverty. We believe schools of social work should have entrance prerequisites in these areas, or at the very least, requirements for students who do not meet these prerequisites to make them up once enrolled.

Image: Public Domain

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