Social Justice and the Curriculum: American Higher Education Dives In

Peter Wood

Peter Wood gave the following address at The Philadelphia Society's conference held on April 5-7, 2013 in Indianapolis, IN. The event brought together Society members and affiliates to discuss what social justice (as distinct from mere justice) means in the context of American political thought, higher education curricula, and civil society. Dr. Wood spoke specifically about the growing focus on social justice in American colleges and universities. 

I’m a part time Vermonter, living not far from where Calvin Coolidge grew up at his farm, and there is a story about a neighbor of Calvin’s, a man who was like many Vermonters, curt and laconic, who had the opportunity to take a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. He made his trip and turned home, and one of his neighbors asked him, “Well, what is the ocean like?” He paused for a moment, looked at him and said, “Big, wet.”

Well, that strikes me as the substance of most of what I have to say about social justice. While that lacks the eloquence of Hayek, the perspicacity of Nozick, perhaps the seductive dance with Rawls’ dance of a thousand veils of ignorance, what it lacks in intellectual subtlety it makes up in concision. So my first task today, I guess, is to add a little bit of detail to that, to the crashing waves, the roll of the deck, the dark swell, the keening gulls, the dead albatross hanging around the… well, never mind.

Let me start with a mermaid, Barbara Applebaum. She is a teacher of education who a few years ago in Teachers College Record wrote a short article on this, “Is Teaching Social Justice a ‘Liberal Bias’?” Her answer: Yes. Yes it is. But “under certain conditions of systemic injustice,” she wrote, such bias is necessary and fair. “Making social justice education a requirement of higher education is both evenhanded and, although a type of ideology, it promotes rather than impedes criticality. Educational researchers are exhorted to be less concerned about bias and ideology in regard to social justice education and to turn their attention to how privileged students can be educated without re-centering their privilege in ways that sacrifice the education of the marginalized.”

Okay. In other words, quit worrying about the rationale and just get on with it. Now Applebaum need not worry. Higher education is indeed getting on with it. Today happens to be the last day of Social Justice Week. I don’t know if that was the plan of this event. I take it we’re celebrants at this table. Social Justice Week is an event that is taking place this week in numerous colleges and universities around the country.

One of them is the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, which chose as this year’s theme, “Social and Economic Inequality.” Now that was severely limiting to what they wanted to talk about, no doubt. It narrowed their options a little. This is the fifth annual Social Justice Week at Oshkosh. It has gone from six events to twenty-three. It is honored this year by having one of the giants of social justice advocacy, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown sociologist, introduced as “one more tremendous, nationally-recognized Social Justice Week speaker in a growing list of thought-leaders on equality, sustainability, LGBTQ issues and other key social justice topics.” That’s from the director of their Office of Equity and Affirmative Action.

Now, one might wonder how one makes a career specializing as a Social Justice Week speaker. How could this be? But, the answer is that Social Justice Week is a floating holiday. It is always Social Justice Week somewhere.

But let’s stay a little bit longer in Oshkosh. How did this week’s events promote the Applebaumian goals of evenhandedness and promoting criticality, unprivileging the privileged, and restoring the marginalized? Well, the week started with Zombie Criminology: The Mass Incarceration and the Social Restructuring of America: “a multimedia presentation of excerpts from classic horror films’ vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Using backtrack interspersed as social and economic data, vampires represent the ruling elite (we’re probably on par) werewolves, professional class, (we may have some werewolves here, too) and zombies, the problematic disposable poor.”

Tuesday brought a seminar on men in nursing: “understanding the challenges men face working in this predominately female profession.” Wednesday brought Professor Dyson’s lectures; Thursday, “No Wrong Way to Have a Body: Why Fatness is a Social Justice Issue” (“A stigma based on weight is as prevalent as racial and gender stigma, as a peer sex and class pressure”). Culminating in the student-led, “This is Me…Respect Me for Who I am Campaign.”

Is this too much detail?

I could be accused at this point by defenders of social justice advocacy of trivializing what’s going on, by going too far down into local detail. I think I also could be suspected by some in this room as losing the intellectual forest for the sub-sub-sub intellectual trees. But—again to follow this kind of revel in details—this is big. It’s wet. And you need to know how big. We don’t get to that by necessarily emulating Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse punctiliousness of every bubble in the froth. Hopefully a little bit of that. The details often tell the story better than what’s perfectly framed abstraction. So I’m going to stick with the details for a while.

Social Justice Week is not just at Oshkosh. It was also at the University of Wyoming this week. The seventeenth in Wyoming, Seventeenth Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, sponsored by the Social Justice Research Center there kicked off on Monday with the release of their new logo, which is a big red box with rounded corners and a white circle off-center on one side. I searched in vain for three and a half hours to try to come up with what this new logo means and why they devoted a half hour to this roll out.

But I come back—the keynote address was by the members of GLARE, which is gay-lesbian alliance for something or other. In “the battle for gender equity,” (which is another piece of jargon I don’t understand) “gender equity fit, disabilities and how do Native ‘Americans’ fall into this discussion around equal treatment on soil that was originally their ancestors? (The grammar is a bit wobbly.) “Each movement is shrouded in inherent differences though unquestionably similar in their end goals.” That’s simply the description that Wyoming provides of what this is all about.

We then plunge into a program that is rich in variety, if nothing else. “Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Living in the World That’s Set up to Accommodate Autistic Children.” I am surprised by that. I didn’t realize our world was set up to accommodate autistic children. But it doesn’t explain why.

We move from autism to “Perceptions of Drag: Social Activism and Changing Views in the Drag Community.” That’s not referring to racing.

“Multiculturalism in the Classroom” (that seems bland enough): “Overcoming ignorance is critical to full inclusion and giving everyone the chance to participate, feel valued, and be heard.”

There’s “Reworking Motherhood.” There’s “Seneca Falls Selma Stonewall: So long as society privileges as ‘normal’ those who determine the safety and well-being of those labeled as ‘abnormal’ or ‘queer’—there is no democracy!”

“Native American Youth” and “African American Pop Culture: Countering the Master Narrative of the West.”

“Unsustainable Impacts of High Speed Rail on Nearby Communities in Suburban Shanghai.” The people in Wyoming this week will learn about the dangers of high speed rail.

“Atheists in Academe: A Secular Student Alliance.” There’s “Preschool Children’s Learning,” “Rethinking Aid in Haiti,” “Caring for LGBT Older Adults,” a seminar on “Bullying,” “Lessons on How to Scream,” which is “using your voice during times of personal devastation.”

“Hate Crime Law: What’s Next?” “The Marginalization of People Who Are Proactive About Social Justice.” Now you wouldn’t judge from this list that they are any particularly marginalized. So they just felt it worth exploring. By the way, that is nicely subtitled, “A Monologue.” Then wraps up the day with a pro-gay marriage ball titled “Bow Tie the Knot.” Party tonight, you’re all invited.

Well, enough of this. Social Justice Week is just an exuberant display of the spiritedness of a movement. And that is to say, it is far from marginalized. This sea is really big. And it’s everywhere. The existence of a Social Justice Week seems to be a kind of redundancy given that we also have social justice curricula.

I tried when I began working on this topic to come up with a list of different ways in which social justice has substantiated itself in universities. Among those are mandates from specialized accreditors. The Council on Social Work Education, for example, considers that all social work programs must “incorporate social justice practices.” The students case who fall afoul of this rule have been kicked out of their programs for unwillingness to go along with some of the entailments of social justice, such as being ordered to advocate for homosexual adoption, gay marriage, abortion, and that sort of thing mostly; religious objections to apparently any of these things are now no longer in line with the standards of the profession and those who voice them are not even suitable to be educated as social workers.

This rush of social justice into the world of accreditation is one of those things that is largely invisible to the public, but it’s not just social work. It’s in fields where one might not expect it such as occupational therapy, music education. Social justice is now on the rise as something that is so intrinsic to being professionally qualified in a field that it’s mandated as a part of any educational program. There are academic departments that make social justice, even without pressure of the accreditor on them, an intrinsic part of their programs.

For example, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, again a Ph.D. program, says it is particularly committed to the school’s mission to enhance social and economic justice. It has a capstone course which has a specific grading criteria to each comprehensive exam; it is that the student “demonstrate sensitivity to social work principles including the goal of promoting social justice.”

The green programs in social justice, apart from green programs in other areas where social justice itself is the degree, Arizona State has a master’s (we found twenty-three of these on our look so far). But there are master’s programs, there are B.A.s, there are majors, there are minors, there are programs that are not yet beyond the level of concentrations. There are colloquia, there are certificate programs. There are doctoral programs, at least one in Social Justice Education at U. Mass. Amherst.

I suspect if I were able to poll the people in this room, I’d be able to add to that list. There is another version of social justice that enters the picture in the form of a college mission or college-wide emphasis on social justice. This is Roosevelt University, “deeply rooted in practical scholarship and principles of social justice expressed as ethical awareness, leadership development, economic progress and civic engagement.” Roosevelt University is in Chicago. It “encourages community partnerships and prepares its diverse students for responsible citizenship and global society.” They have it all there.

There are numerous academic courses that introduce the history of the concept and controversies surrounding it. I tried to create a two lists out of this, those in which from the curriculum if we can find it, or the syllabus, there was some effort to represent social justice as actually having a history in which there is a voice other than Rawls to be heard. And there are indeed a fair number of those courses where you can find Hayek or Nozick represented. One of the more interesting ones that my associate Ashley Thorne spotted the other day was a syllabus that two years ago, represented Rawls and Hayek and now has been revised to remove Hayek. That’s called progress.

We have many more courses that appear to be social justice straight up in its current form. There’s a disciplinary code at West Virginia University, where the Social Justice Office is responsible for handling, among other things, sexual harassment. So social justice now becomes a standard for the other kind of justice, the sort that merits punishments to malefactors. There is a student code of conduct at East Tennessee State University on which students actually have to sign a statement that says, “Social Justice: I will engage in activities and gain sensitivity to acknowledge all oppression and cultural ethnic diversity, and further become committed to promoting the achievement of individual and collective, and social economic justice.” Sign here.

We found fifteen places that offer scholarships to students in social justice. So you get cash for being a socially just person. There are some areas of the curriculum that are self-evidently more susceptible to this than others. Social justice has come up constantly in therapy, criminal justice, sociology, education especially, for some reason the allied health professions, lots of philosophy departments, many law schools. Jewish departments have social justice commitments as well. The result of this growing welter of departmental interests has been the rise of centers on campuses where they identify some kind of common ground among the diaspora of social justice missionaries. We’ve also compiled a fairly extensive list of these growing centers.

Well, so much for the sea. I would like to try and find some way to say how the National Association of Scholars has responded to this. And we have been writing about it for a while. But, before I do that, let me put in some reservations. Joseph Johnston said just an hour or so ago that social justice is “compassion for the poor” or “bogus philanthropy.” Well yeah, it is that. But that also doesn’t seem to be quite a broad enough definition to capture that wide spread of things that you saw in the topics I just covered by social justice.

Samuel Gregg last night pointed to social justice as something that has made parts of our universities factories of indoctrination. Well, yes, that too. Factories are there, but that also doesn’t seem to me to be quite adequate to the sheer variety of this. Compassion for the poor, it’s in there. What about the autistic? They’re not necessarily poor. Indoctrination? Students are flooded with this stuff. They love it. It’s willful indoctrination on the part of some of the professors, but it is candy to a lot of the students.

This I think takes us into the wet part of the ocean. It’s not just big. It’s wet. Or maybe it needs some other metaphors.

Social justice is the duct tape of contemporary ideas. Or perhaps the silly putty; that is, it can do anything. It can stretch in any shape. And it accomplishes all this with a delicious combination of daringness, moral self-approbation, intellectual self-congratulation, and communitas, solidarity with everybody (or at least all the good people).

I was taken by Anne Wortham’s quotation from President Obama naturally addressing the student body: “the individual salvation depends on collective salvation.” Yes, this is a salvation doctrine. This is very closely allied to what happens to religion in a secular age.

To be a little bit more of the anthropologist, social justice is a Total Social Fact. It fills up the whole of life with a sense of meaning with practical purposes, with sets of social interaction. Now the sail, that is to say, something that I think runs against the grain for most of us in the Philadelphia Society, is that you can’t defeat this sort of thing with a rational argument. No number of rational arguments will defeat it. We’ve got to realize we’re dealing with a world of moral views that are emotionally connected to these lives; you can’t really hope they just give them up because you trump them in syllogisms. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make those rational arguments. They are important and they need to be pressed. But don’t expect to win too many arguments that way.

A couple years ago, I was approached by a young faculty member who was quite concerned about the rise of a new social justice center on her campus. And she asked, “What is it that I can do about this?” And I didn’t really have a good answer, but I had some kind of answer. I said several things: Try to deny them the camouflage they use to sell this off campus. They will be using this one way for the students and quite a different way with donors and the alumni, and that’s something you can do. They will try to blur the lines between academic work and political advocacy. You don’t have to allow them to do that. Call them out on those efforts to try to pretend that promoting their favorite cause is a form of academic work. It’s not. Watch out for their opportunism. They’ll grab on to any popular cause on campus – call them out on that. Nobody likes opportunists. They will be pushing for common funds from your university. And even people who don’t like your political or ideological or personal views are going to be jealous over money. You can fight them on that score with some unexpected allies. They will be guilty of resource hoarding; you can get them on that as well.

Those are just practical grievances you can expect at any of these institutions. Again, I don’t think that that’s the magic bullet in fighting them back, but we have to start somewhere and realize these are practical battles fought campus by campus. This is something. Somebody is paying for Social Justice Week at your university. They probably don’t know it. But it is coming out of student activity fees, maybe state tax payers are underwriting it. Would they be really happy about that if they knew it? Well, why don’t you make sure that they do know it?

This promise I put in a few minutes ago about “what is my organization doing about this?” The National Association of Scholars, if it plans to be national, ought to be doing something. We’ve been carrying off reports, one after the other, the most recent one about Bowdoin College in Maine. There is something to be said for simply documenting our times and trying to get down to the dimensions of this ocean that is out there. There’s also something to be said about fighting particular battles that can be fought.

About ten years ago, we took on a leading accreditor for schools of education, NCATE, which had established a social justice disposition as a requirement for people who wanted to become teachers, that is, schools of education have to not only determine that to teach the dispositions to students. And those lacking of this disposition couldn’t be teachers. We fought them on that, and they voluntarily withdrew their disposition requirement—a small victory.

A little bit after that we took on schools of social work. We produced a report titled The Scandal of Social Work Education. The Council on Social Work Education has, however, roundly rebuffed us. They have maintained their social justice standard to this day. So, we don’t win all of them, but I don’t regard that fight as over. I think there is something to be said that if we just keep the light of day on these things, there are going to be some victories.

I should say that right now we are at the beginning stages of about an 18-month project to study how social justice is rolling out over American higher education and what can be done about it. My colleague Ashley Thorne is leading that project, and the sorts of things I’ve been talking about are just material that we’ve been churning up as we get this thing underway. So more will be said about this from NAS in the near future.

Let me say a word about this term social justice. There have been people who are much more expert in deconstructing social justice before me, and I don’t intend to tread in their tracks. But, social is one of those words that has an almost Freudian quality of the oceanic about it. It gives you a feeling of total immersion without meaning anything in particular. Think of the phrase social media—what kind of media is not social? What kind of justice is not social?

Leaving aside the history, back to Aristotle—if we lived on our own planet, each our own king with no one else around us, there would be no need for justice. Justice arises relationally. It is how we learn to live in a world in which we have parents, in which we have siblings, in which we have playmates, classmates, teachers. From early on we live in a world in which justice becomes a matter of how we relate to other people. Putting that magic word “social” in front of it does come with a history. But its real significance, I would say, to most people who don’t know that history—who haven’t heard of Rawls, who don’t know anything about the Rerum Novarum and the Catholic social teaching, and all the sorts of things that could go into a robust understanding—social justice is just magic justice.  It is justice that has ceased to be a matter of how one feels for individual slights and plunges us instead to this realm of social categories. And when one can begin to think of the whole universe as being in some sense unjust because it has built into it social categories that don’t privilege me in every way I would like to be privileged (to use their own language), then we are stuck with something that I think we have to cope with, not as a rational argument but as a kind of pathology.

Social justice has become our rhetoric for social divisiveness, in that it elevates social divisiveness to a positive good. It rejects out of hand the concept that justice itself arises from our recognition of common and shared humanity. It turns instead to the insistence on priority and group affiliation. That’s a doctrine that cuts against the deepest values of the university, among other things. It rules out the emphasis on individual merit. It vitiates the notion of equal opportunity; it elevates instead the idea of equity; and it sweeps aside the idea of open inquiry to produce inclusion as some greater endeavor.

Now, it’s big. It’s wet. A few years ago, when I encountered at the University of Massachusetts a new degree in social justice, a master’s degree program, I was astonished. Just when we had thought we had exhausted the mire of frivolities that could be launched at the higher education level, someone has plunged to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. I suppose there is no bottom to this, and that higher education can proliferate new categories of people suffering new injustices as long as it exists. Now, maybe the dynamics of higher education and its finances are going to change in some serious way that will wash all of this away. But for the immediate future, we are dealing now with institutionalization of social justice, as not just one idea with its frivolities and vanities that have taken over our system of higher learning. That is the main idea. This is the encompassing, governing thought that you will find in college presidents extoling their commencement speeches, in their convocations; we’ll find it entering in, as happens more and more, to mission statements of colleges. It becomes the floor under which this entire enterprise is built. Now, that sounds like a terribly mean thing. But then again, it’s just big and wet.

Image: "Little Boat" by Jerry Bowley // CC BY-SA

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