Schools: a new front for social justice?
For many years, the battle to be progressive in education inhered in the institution of the school itself and the knowledge it taught. Progressives were often those who saw that education for all should amount to more than job training for the masses and academic knowledge for the privileged few. It was simple to understand: do you want your school to be academic or vocational? Do you want to understand Plato’s thought about justice and Newton’s thought about matter? Or do you want to be trained up to ‘do the job’? Justice, for the student, was something they studied and read about in books, if they were lucky enough to have serious teachers. Otherwise, students learned on the job, or on the streets.
A subtle shift has taken place in the past few years, however, whereby a more purposeful idea has come to dominate the thinking of many educationalists: social justice. In its myriad guises over recent decades, the progressive case has shifted its gaze from academic knowledge for all to social inclusion, social mobility and now social justice as an educational aim in itself.
With such social – rather than educational – outcomes as the desired end game, we have witnessed remarkable shifts in the leading ideas in education. Educationalists and teachers now often talk about assessment, not examination; about outcomes, not knowledge; about disadvantage, not elitism; and about identity rather than achievement. In short, the need for students to feel equal is perceived to be more important in their education than the actual equality of opportunity and knowledge they acquire. In other words, they won’t so much learn about justice – whether via studying literature, sociology, politics, history – as be judged by whether they themselves have achieved social mobility or become ‘social justice warriors’.
Social justice has even acquired some useful sidekicks, such as social pedagogy, to ensure that the medium fits the message. To its supporters, social justice sounds like the last leg of an educational journey towards liberation. But is it so clear? Does social justice mean schools have finally shaken off the shackles of the old ‘dead white male’ curriculum? Does social justice mean that all pupils can really now be educated? Or is something else happening to the meaning of education when we justify it through the social justice lens? Should we apply social justice to education or read about it in books instead?