December 15, 2005

Social justice, redux

Now that NCATE has responded to criticisms of its demand that institutions assess dispositions of future teachers—more specifically, the allegation (with some considerable documentation) that several of its accredited institutions have been using the dispositions as an excuse for ideological screening—by explaining that dispositions are to be assessed through observable behavior, KC Johnson asks, Will NCATE enforce this new guideline? This isn't a new guideline, since I've seen the term "observable behavior" for a few years, something that seemed mundane to me and made me very curious about the institutions trying to use NCATE as an excuse for their own behavior. I read it more as a you can't use us as an excuse for your behavior warning.

But with at least some clarity in common expectations (outside colleges who think that dispositions should be assessed through political statements), I want to turn to the second issue that got people up in arms about this, the term social justice...


In much of the criticism of colleges of education has been one common thread: ridicule of some colleges for stating that part of their aim is promoting social justice. Our own college nixed the inclusion of that term in the statement of our basic operating principles, but I'm glad for that decision for reasons other than the term itself. Public institutions should not imply that the faculty as a whole are committed either to rampant status quo-ism or some vague transformational ethic. That's to protect the academic freedom of faculty as well as any impropriety of attaching specific ideological content to an institution.

Then there's a more philosophical question of whether trying to institutionalize social justice as a term doesn't emasculate the concept.

How do you stop a violist from playing?
Put music on the stand. (Yes, I'm a violist.)
How do you kill an incisive new social idea?
Put it in a university mission statement.

The temptation to institutionalize a relatively new concept is poor intellectual practice. Why would one ever want to reify a term that's still under debate? No one can agree what such terms as cultural competence or social justice mean, and as intellectuals we're supposed to be inviting debate, not closing it off by putting it into some institutional document.

But there's a bit of a problem with academics engaged in research about human beings have when we say, "Hold on! Social justice doesn't belong in any mission statement or university guideline for a public institution!" And here's the problem: the 1979 Belmont Report's justice principle for research involving human participants. Out of the Tuskegee Syphylis Study came a firm commitment by the commission writing the Belmont Report to include broad principles in its description of ethical guidelines, and every time I write a new IRB protocol, I have to answer questions that come directly from those guidelines.

And while ethics are not a cut and dried matter, we have to face the fact that we've lived with the institutionalization of justice in the very workings of research for more than a quarter-century—not only with little evidence of harm from the institutionalization of the term but with some pretty good effects, I think, in terms of research ethics. So if the Belmont Report could structure justice into research ethics, can I argue that forcefully against the inclusion of social justice into teacher-education guidelines?

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Posted in Education policy on December 15, 2005 9:39 AM |