Over the past decade or so, independent private schools have increasingly adopted the teaching of social justice into their mission statements. One strives to “bring an anti-racist, intersectional social justice lens to every aspect of our school community.” Another has established a social justice “Institute.”
Trustees at my school called for “a new cross-department faculty working group to focus on incorporating themes of race, equity and justice into the curriculum of each department.”
An article on the NAIS website acknowledges that elite private schools are “primary sites for the production and perpetuation of unequal social relations,” but says they nonetheless “can and should play a key role in social justice education” and train their students to be “agents” of “systemic change.”
Often, social justice at these schools seems to mean little more than recruiting a more diverse group of students and faculty and treating them fairly. (See, for example the blurb under this “Social Justice” heading on the Independent Schools of St. Louis website.)
But if schools do want to train students to become agents of systemic social change, they face a big problem.
We don’t all agree on what constitutes social justice or how to bring it about. “Conservatives Do Believe in Social Justice,” a Heritage fellow writes. It involves “fulfilling our duties” and “empower[ing] more people to engage themselves in the market and flourish.”
A conservative vision of social justice would not include things like redistribution of wealth, affirmative action, abortion rights, or other elements of one left version.
In fact, conservatives tend to avoid using the term because of its historic linkage to progressive causes going back to the early 1900s.
And when they hear it used to describe a curriculum, they assume it means the school intends to indoctrinate students into a liberal or even radical-left political program. They are not wrong. After all, 83 percent of campaign contributions from teachers go to Democrats. And even a self-described “left-wing New York City Democrat” describes the social justice curriculum at her son’s private school as “Maoist social reeducation.”
So, though everyone on some level might hope for more social justice, the term—especially when used by schools—has become a source of division, contributing to the polarization that makes it harder to achieve any kind of social reform at all.
I would like to suggest that schools can graduate students who will be agents of a more just society not by “teaching Social Justice,” but by cultivating an attitude toward fellow citizens that will facilitate democratic problem-solving.
More and more of us have come to see those who disagree with us as enemies, bent on destroying society and scheming to oppress political opponents. That attitude justifies preventing political rivals from voting, or cancelling and silencing them—and it erodes support for democracy itself. The number of voters who say it is essential to live in a democracy has declined significantly in recent years especially among younger people. Even before Donald Trump began running for president, an increasing share of Americans were saying that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing.
The loss of faith in democracy is understandable, given the inability of our governments to solve our most pressing problems. But to advance any version of social justice in a democracy (or republic, if that’s your preferred term), we need to be willing and able to deliberate, compromise and form coalitions with fellow citizens and that requires mutual respect even between rivals. The best contribution teachers can make to advancing social justice is to graduate citizens with that sort of democratic disposition.
These citizens must understand that everyone has a different idea about what “social justice” looks like but that we can still approach each other in the spirit of what Danielle Allen calls “political friendship,” a term she borrowed from Aristotle, and updated for our current predicament.
Allen holds that all citizens in a democratic polity have an overriding interest in resolving our differences peacefully. The alternative—unrestrained political rivalry—generates distrust, resentment, and enmity that is likely to result in breakdown of democracy and in extreme cases, civil war.
(Read an earlier post for a more complete explanation of “Political Friendship")
“Political friendship” lacks the partisan connotations of “Social Justice” and is inherently unifying rather than polarizing.
Teaching it in schools would do more to advance a liberal policy agenda than explicitly promoting a particular version of social justice. Attempts at indoctrination tend to backfire. If you’ve ever tried to tell a teenager what they should think, you know what I mean.
(Go to the notes, below, for some examples of liberal indoctrination backfiring)
And advancing the progressive vision of social justice, with its heavy emphasis on reforming social and economic systems, depends on positive legislation more than the conservative vision, which tends to favor the status quo.
(See my post on how capitalism leads to ever more inequality in the absence of countervailing legislation)
Polarization of the electorate feeds the gridlock that makes it so difficult to pass the legislation that might advance progressive causes.
Political friendship holds the promise of reducing polarization. It says that today’s rivals maybe tomorrow’s allies on a different issue, so it’s best to treat them like future allies rather than permanent, irredeemable enemies.
Allyship is a popular theme in the contemporary social justice movement. My school organizes “affinity groups”: one each for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians based on their race, and a fourth for “white allies,” based on support for an anti-racist, social justice agenda, in the apparent expectation that white people have no interests of their own and could be relied on to think only of the interests of people with different skin color.
In these sorts of programs, white allies are asked to “check their privilege” and commit themselves to fight racism, calling out or cancelling other white people who show signs of bigotry.
This strategy relies solely on the altruism of white descendants of Europeans, who are simultaneously condemned as the historical perpetrators of racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
It is a doomed strategy, because it misunderstands the basic nature of political alliances.
In a 1967 essay defining “Black power,” Martin Luther King explains, “Our victories in the past decade were won with a broad coalition of organizations representing a wide variety of interests,”
A true alliance is based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. For an alliance to have permanence and loyal commitment from its various elements, each of them must have a goal from which it benefits.To wait passively for “allies” with nothing to gain for themselves to be “somehow infused” with the “blessings of good will,” would be the “height of naiveté,” he wrote. See below for more on King's essay.
Alliances get things done and they require bargaining and compromise, tolerance of differences, and some common interest.
The future electorate will be made up of our current students. Given the divided nature of US government, an electorate that is steeped in the concept of political friendship and a more realistic understanding of political alliances would seem better prepared to build the coalitions and work out the compromises necessary to get any legislation passed to engage in collective problem-solving and advance social justice.
Notes and further thoughts and readings on teaching social justice
The private school paradox.
According to the NEA website:
Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably. … Sadly, a look at schools across the nation makes it clear that fair distribution of resources and equitable treatment don’t always happen. Students in poorly-funded schools don’t have the technology, new books, or art and music programs that create a well-rounded education, while students in affluent areas have the latest academic resources, school counselors, librarians, and more to help them succeed.As this Times piece indicates, private schools have seemed more enthusiastic than public schools in promoting social justice. But it seems fairly obvious that in spite of their well-crafted statements on social justice and whatever social justice lessons they are teaching their highly privileged students, those schools, by their very existence, do much more to exacerbate the problem of educational inequality, which is one of the worst examples for liberals of social injustice.
As a student at one private school put it:
Students who choose to attend private schools deplete public funding for public schools, divert private funding and weaken public classroom environments. If these students are to serve as advocates for social justice, they must first condemn how their choice to attend private school contributed to socioeconomic inequality.Backfire
In an Atlantic piece, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right” (Nov. 18, 2021), David Brooks suggest that trying to teach social justice in schools may backfire. He points to younger conservatives he met at the National Conservatism Conference, held in Orlando in Nov. 2021, who are coming to dominate the movement. Speaking about liberals, one said: “What they want is to destroy us.” These conservatives, Brooks adds, “went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction.” Brooks thinks he would have done the same if he had attended college in that environment.
The LA Times tells the story of how this happened to Stephen Miller, who rebelled against what he saw as a “campus indoctrination machine” at Samohi High School in “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” It's where he mastered the tactics of lib-baiting that catapulted him to prominence as a Trump troll and White House aide.
And of course conservatives, make up for their weak policy agenda, by using indoctrination in schools to stoke the culture war. At times they seem obsessed with educational institutions, teachers, professors, and administrators. For example, this website tracks everything elite educational institutions (including Phillips Exeter) do under the banner of DEI, critical race theory and social justice education.
Even many liberals are opposed to what they see as political indoctrination in their children’s schools. “Most of the teachers and parents I talk with just want school to be school—not some kind of Maoist social reeducation,” writes the parent of a fifth grader at an independent private school, who describes herself as a left-wing New York City Democrat. Issues associated with social justice and characterized by the right as “wokeness” and cancel culture, tend to unite Republicans and divide Democrats, according to the data analysts at Five-Thirty-Eight.
Conservatives and Social justice
The Heritage fellow’s Conservative vision of social justice can be found here.
A conservative critique of teaching “social justice” in schools is J. Martin Rochester, "Social justice miseducation in our schools," Nov. 1, 2017, Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative education think tank).
Educators for Social Justice talk a lot about diversity, but do they promote the most important type of diversity—diversity of ideas? Contrary to their claim that they celebrate “disagreement,” they seem to promote only a politically correct, left-leaning perspective.
King on alliances
The quote above is from King, “Martin Luther King Defines Black Power,” New York Times, June 11, 1967. I first heard this quote in an interview with Jared Clemons on The Dig podcast, June 24, 2022. Clemons adds that for King,
See Clemons’ essay, “From ‘Freedom Now!’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’: Retrieving King and Randolph to Theorize Contemporary White Antiracism,” Perspectives on Politics, Cambridge University Press, June 8, 2022. Go back up to essay.