Social justice in the classroom

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I believe in social justice. I do not believe in privileged attempts to impose speech codes or deem clothing to be cultural appropriated or whatever that has come to be called ‘social justice’ in recent times. If anything, this is a merely symbolic form of social justice, designed to suit certain middle class pretensions and sensibilities. I believe in a more practical form of social justice. I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe in universal health care and a social safety net; a standard of living below which we ensure our fellow citizens must not fall. I am not sure how to achieve all of these things because some efforts backfire, but these are my aims.

I believe that education can play a part, particularly when it comes to equality of opportunity. Can it completely erase disparities of wealth, health and genetic influence? No. As a teacher, I am interested in the limited gains education can bring about and I am interested in our community gaining some control over this.

I really don’t understand those people who say that it is necessary to fix poverty before we can do anything in the education sector. As teachers, we can use our votes at election time, we can campaign, but the idea that we can fix poverty and that we should do this first, before we consider the role of our classrooms, is a counsel of hopelessness.

You have to wonder what people are worried about. If educators succeed in bringing a little more social justice to the world then that has to be a good thing, right? If they fail then nothing has been lost.

This argument usually divides along the traditionalist / progressivist axis and this is perhaps embodied by the recent career of Diane Ravitch. As she has made a significant turn towards progressivism, she has lost confidence in the idea of schools ameliorating the inequities of poverty through a knowledge-rich curriculum – an idea most closely associated with E D Hirsch and an idea she used to subscribe to.

Unfortunately, this important debate is currently fruitless because both sides talk past each other. Nobody seriously thinks that schools can fix poverty entirely. Yet this is the straw man that is often attacked by progressivists when they criticise the idea of the knowledge-rich curriculum.

It is also obviously the case that progressivists themselves must see some role for education in mitigating inequalities of opportunity. The point of Freire’s ‘problem posing’ education was to tackle illiteracy while also raising the consciousness of peasants so that they would be less accepting of their lot. Indeed, what is the wider progressivist philosophy, with its attendant methods, all about if it does not seek to improve students lives in some tangible way?

The debate as it plays out on social media is therefore false. We all want greater social justice and we all think our preferred methods will help in some small way to achieve this, that’s why we prefer them.

The focus should therefore be on who is right and who is wrong.


10 thoughts on “Social justice in the classroom

  1. Stan says:

    How to deal with poverty first
    – vote appropriately (not a huge time sink)
    – donate your money sufficiently and appropriately. (cf
    For most people the next requirement would be to maximize their earnings so they can donate more as that will make the largest difference to the most people.

    What exactly are these people proposing to do that stops them doing something in education as well or are they all like the tweet you linked to – just saying don’t do X because that won’t solve world hunger by the end of next week (I paraphrased.)

  2. I’ve personally never liked the term social justice because it’s an imprecise term wearing the mantle of precision, and is therefore wide-open to cynical manipulation. Justice implies recompense for specific wrongs, but the sorts of “wrongs” for which the advocates of social justice demand restitution are so diffuse and often so ancient that “righting” them can be interpreted basically in any way you like. In the case of universal health care and the state-funded relief of genuine hardship (which I also support, needless to say), I prefer simply to think in terms of decency and a sense of community.

  3. Joe says:

    While doing some research for my Communications Committee I came across something I knew to be true from reading some other blogs and research, but when I experienced it first hand it was laughable and quite disheartening. What I found out for myself after looking at the numbers is that the only factor that had a direct correlation to the schools test scores was the poverty rate at the school. I got pretty good at guessing what a school’s score would be once I knew the rate of poverty in their score. I could get plus or minus about 3 points on a 133 point scale for any school. That is why poverty is the most important issue to go after, because, for schools in America at least, the scores directly correlate to it. It doesn’t correlate to type of instruction, funding, race (though in America race pretty closely correlates to poverty in and around cities), or anything else measurable. Voting and donating small sums of money isn’t going to fix the poverty, just as buying a hybrid won’t slow global warming. It is a systematic issue that needs the system to be changed. The building I work in is falling apart and I wanted to plan to fight for a new school in the next decade but I realized even with a new school it won’t really help out my students because over 75% of them live in poverty. Helping create a system that keeps them out of poverty will be a far better help to their education than anything else, at least that is what the numbers tell me.

    • Stan says:

      How are your efforts at changing poverty stopping you from doing things about better educational approaches? Why do you see these as mutually exclusive.

      I completely agree that spending time to advocate for reduced poverty is worthwhile but if you are also spending many hours a day teaching wouldn’t it be worth attending to that too? That is while you are teaching you can’t do much about poverty advocacy but you can choose how best to teach.

  4. What I found out for myself after looking at the numbers is that the only factor that had a direct correlation to the schools test scores was the poverty rate at the school.

    This doesn’t surprise me, and I’m sure it’s much the same here in Australia. But poverty is a huge, multifactorial problem, and so many attempts to address it over the years have been counterproductive. With that in mind, to me it makes perfect sense to improve what we can as teachers, given that the path to educational improvement is so much clearer and less fraught with unintended consequences. What I mean by that is that the classroom (and beyond it, the school) is a relatively self-contained unit in which judicious alterations can be made without the complicated, unpredictable knock-on effects of social programs.

    • Luqman Michel says:

      “….the only factor that had a direct correlation to the schools test scores was the poverty rate at the school.”

      Here is something to ponder upon.

      I feel that we use poverty and parents lack of education as an excuse for poor achievements of some schools.
      Are there any schools in Australia or anywhere in the world that do not have remediation classes? If poverty is the cause of poor achievement there should be no kid in remediation classes in the rich suburbs.

  5. Tom Burkard says:

    I’ve never had any time for ‘social justice warriors’–despite having a middle-class upbringing, I spent most of my life on building sites until my own son was failed disastrously by self-righteous teachers who were outraged that a horny-handed son of toil had the temerity to complain about their supposedly humane constructivist, whole language teaching. Needless to say, in the building you find very little sympathy for people of this kind–you know that if you follow the money, and there’s this disturbing tendency for it to end up in the pockets of middle-class empire-builders in well-paid public sector jobs. We laughed when teachers complained about how badly they were paid–well, maybe compared to doctors and lawyers, but back then it only took two E’s to get on a BEd course. Otherwise, they didn’t know they were born.

    I just read an interesting review of ‘A Useable Past, Volume 2’ by Stephen Yeo. The subtitle is ‘The Religion of Socialism in Britain 1883-1896: Alternatives to State Socialism’. I once read one of the earlier volumes of Beatrice Webb’s diaries, so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the patronising voices of Fabians who despaired of the naievty of working-class socialists who believed that working class had to form its own institutions like co-ops, friendly societies and the Workers’ Education Association. But as Yeo argues, the Labour Party is now entirely middle-class. The review cautioned that Corbyn et al should learn from Yeo, who warns that “the state machine is not necessarily their machine” and “once in power statists can become very intolerant of politicians, even their own.”

    After reading the cant of the SJWs, I was ready to rush out and buy Yeo’s book–here’s a version of socialism I can buy. But then looked at the cover price: £75.00. Maybe it’s best to keep politics and ‘social justice’ out of the education altogether. In fact, that’s why I homeschooled my son after we taught him to read–and he’s now a builder himself. Having visited Michaela and seen how these erstwhile SJWs tried to lynch Katherine Birbalsingh by Twitter, I positively loathe them.

    • Genes influence lots of abilities and traits. We may give students equal opportunities to play basketball, for instance, but those who have genes associated with being tall will still be at an advantage.

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