talking about “social justice” in education

In conversations about civic education, service-learning, and youth civic engagement, people often ask whether the purpose of what we’re doing is “social justice.” Lately I’ve been responding as follows:

1. The phrase social justice (which has roots in Catholic thought) has been claimed by the Left. In politics, phrases are often seized by one side or the other–occasionally, they even switch their valence over time. At the moment, “social justice” has a lefty ring. Therefore, there will be a predictable consequence if you say that your service-learning program or civics class “promotes social justice.” You will attract leftish students, and perhaps alienate conservatives. If you speak on behalf of a public school or state university, I think you should avoid that outcome. Individual adults who work with young people are free to promote ideologies; but state institutions should be leery of doing so.

2. Although the left has claimed the phrase “social justice,” true conservatives seek social justice. They just define it somewhat differently, they endorse alternative strategies for obtaining it, and they tend to call it by other names. It’s important that the students who sign up for service-learning be exposed to serious conservative arguments about justice. One of the risks of using the phrase “social justice” is to narrow the range of debate about justice by keeping conservatives out from the beginning.

I often hear a (probably apocryphal) story about a student who so enjoys volunteering in a soup kitchen that he blurts out, “I hope this place still exists when my kids come along, so that they can serve, too.” The standard rejoinder is that the student should investigate the “root causes” of hunger and advocate solutions.

True, but the root causes may not necessarily be capitalism or discrimination, and the best solutions may not include Food Stamps or a higher minimum wage. I’d like to see students grapple with root causes but be challenged to consider whether government intervention is the basic problem and freer markets could help. That’s not usually my own view, but it’s educational to consider it.

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