Teachers College & social justice

Recently, Adam Kissel of FIRE (who I recently started following on Twitter) asked me: “What do you think about Teachers College’s idea that one isn’t qualified to be a teacher without believing in social justice?” I had previously seen FIRE’s roundup on free speech issues with TC, I think before I had even accepted my offer there. Their findings regarding TC’s guiding documents (“Conceptual Framework“) are somewhat disconcerting. A quick summary of the situation from FIRE:

Columbia University’s Teachers College requires students to demonstrate a “commitment to social justice” and  employs “dispositions,” which it defines as “observable behaviors that fall within the law and involve the use of certain skills,” to evaluate students. These dispositions, “expected of Teachers College candidates and graduates” and “assessed at each transition point,” include “Respect for Diversity and Commitment to Social Justice.”

Basically I agree with FIRE’s assessment of the situation. Teachers College would not necessarily be wrong to require students’ “commitment to social justice” *if* “social justice” were not an ideologically loaded term. I can at least imagine a community of inquiry approaching topics relating to social justice without any preconceived notions about what social justice requires. But that is surely not the case. Rather, “social justice” is often used as the not-so-secret term for a very liberal/progressive/redistributive/egalitarian-ish perspective on the role of the state. Since the TC documents do not go on to specify what the mysterious “social justice” requirement really consists in, we have to assume the worst – that it is indeed an ideological litmus test, or could function as one in the hands of the administration. And, this social justice requirement will have potentially pervasive effects because education policy is seen as one important way of furthering “social justice” so conceived (e.g., closing the achievement gap, equitably funding schools, providing social services to schoolchildren, discouraging or disallowing the privatization of education, etc).

So, there is reason to object to the document on principle. Free speech is of the utmost importance (don’t hold me to this, but I am even inclined towards a totally exceptionless reading of the first amendment). Institutions of higher education are supposed to serve as marketplaces for ideas. They should promote, not stifle, intellectual discourse – regarding what constitutes social justice in education, and anything else. Official positions on what academics can and cannot say have an undesirable chilling effect (academic social norms, such as “political correctness” for instance, restrain discourse enough as it is). Ideas should win intellectual wars by being good, not by being privileged within the academy. I agree with FIRE that it is objectionable for private universities to advertise themselves as being bastions of free thought while maintaining policies of this kind (see a relevant article from FIRE here). If colleges and universities would prefer to change their institutional objectives (e.g., towards ideological teacher training, towards fundamentalist religious education, or whatever), they should be upfront about this, and not keep talking the talk of intellectual activity for its own sake.

More importantly, though, I have prudential concerns about TC’s policy because (as Mr. Kissel probably saw) I am about to begin a PhD program there. Although I am something of a leftish libertarian, I have no doubt that my political views will differ radically from those of most of my classmates and professors. I knew that this was bound to be the case at almost any school of education that I chose to attend, and am prepared for the (hopefully minimal) conflicts that will ensue. However, there is a big difference between having one’s political beliefs scrutinized by one’s classmates and having them scrutinized by the administration. My classmates can’t keep me from graduating or from receiving awards and scholarships, while the administration definitely can. This extreme imbalance of power, combined with the Conceptual Framework tenets in question, is threatening.

I neither concealed nor advertised my political beliefs on my admissions application, but my writing sample was somewhat sympathetic to school choice. My future adviser knows that I have received a Humane Studies Fellowship from the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies; although he is supportive and pleased I am not sure whether everyone in a position of power at TC would feel the same way. In any case, there probably won’t be a whole lot of evidence in my academic work that I am committed to social justice in the way that the Conceptual Framework suggests that I ought to be. Although I remain cautiously optimistic that this will not become a problem during my time at TC (I haven’t heard of any attempts to enforce the requirements), it would of course be better if the suspect requirements were eliminated altogether.


  • A couple of thoughts. First, it seems that there is a mild form of FOX-esque suspicion of the notion of “social justice” at work here. Perhaps I’m just too far gone the liberal rabbit hole, but all the statements I saw seemed pretty ideologically innocuous. Further, while I only perused the FIRE material a bit, I didn’t see any reference to actual cases of discrimination. Of course, we want to prevent it before it happens, but the lack of any concrete problems with the policy is evidence in favor of the innocuous interpretation.

    Second, it seems like you’re making the assumption that being a good educator (presumably what the tests are testing) is itself ideologically neutral. It’s not obvious that it is. The same policy in question includes “respect for diversity” (so far as I can tell, this received no comment from the critics). Is a stand against racism an ethical/political position? Yes, probably. Is it possible to be a good teacher while being an explicit racist? I would argue: absolutely not. Just like my Ph.D. program wouldn’t pass a dissertation in the idiom of certain fashionable french philosophers for legitimate curricular reasons, I can see that an education school might reasonably require their students to not be advocates of racism. Why isn’t a general commitment to social justice, very generally construed, analogous? Certainly there have been prominent education theorists who have argued that education cannot be separated from moral and political functions, and so I don’t see why it is outside the curricular purview of such a school to adopt that approach.

  • Maybe another way to put part of my worry is to dispute the following claim:

    “Since the TC doc­u­ments do not go on to spec­ify what the mys­te­ri­ous ‘social jus­tice’ require­ment really con­sists in, we have to assume the worst.”

  • Hi Matt. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Few things in reply:

    First of all, I definitely don’t want to come off as a Fox-esque conspiracy theorist, as I’m not one (promise). Second, I agree that the policy is ideologically innocuous, as written (that’s part of the problem, though). Third, I think you’re right that there are apparently no actual cases of discrimination, and I agree that that is relevant (more on this later).

    To your point that being a good educator in itself is not ideologically neutral: I can certainly agree, and the racism analogy is instructive. However, it’s clearer what constitutes racism than what constitutes social justice. This means that a mention in the Conceptual Framework about “respect for diversity” does not stand in need of further specification quite in the way the social justice bit does.

    I suppose I should have said more regarding what I think should be done about the social justice policy (aka “ideological litmus test,” according to FIRE). One option is remove it from the Conceptual Framework. But another viable option is to clarify the policy, by saying more about what constitutes “social justice” and what will count as evidence of a student’s commitment to it.

    Clarifying the policy could be really good for the TC community. First, instead of hiding behind the vagueness of “social justice,” TC could forthrightly say to FIRE and whoever else: “This is what we believe in here. If you don’t like it, please seek education elsewhere.” There is a certain admirability to this kind of response, as it displays a refusal to compromise deeply held moral ideals (of course, that in itself doesn’t make the moral ideals correct).

    Second, the act of clarifying the policy itself would be educational. Some collective deliberative process could be implemented, with input from students, professors, and administrators. The community would thus take ownership of the policy, rather than having it handed down from on high.

    This deliberative process might falter, if no meaningful consensus can be reached on what “social justice” means. This leads to the third way in which attempting to change the policy could be good for TC – it could reveal that TC is so ideologically diverse that “social justice” must be specified rather thinly. This would satisfy me, and maybe even FIRE. It would bring the social justice policy closer to the racism policy: almost all of us can agree that racism is bad, but we disagree as to whether the fact of racism makes affirmative action obligatory. So too, almost all of us can agree that social justice specified thinly is good, but we disagree as to whether it requires certain kinds of redistributive practices, or whatever.

    Finally, I actually think there’s something a little weird about this potentially controversial social justice thing being on the books but never having been enforced, so I was trying to think of some reasonable ways that it could actually be put to use. Maybe some kind of collaboratively designed social justice survey course for all first semester TC students? TC might also consider adding a short essay to the admissions application, asking applicants to discuss their views on diversity, social justice, etc. These measures would go a long way towards making the social justice statements look more like educational components of a forthright institutional commitment to certain philosophical positions and less like an “ideological litmus test.”

  • Pamela,

    That all sounds rather reasonable, actually, but pretty far removed from the level of opposition I read into the FIRE complaints, right?

    One problem may be that it was originally more clearly agreed upon what the terms meant, and now TC is afraid to clarify further for fear of more trenchant conservative criticism. That strikes me as cowardly, though.


  • Yeah, that takes us pretty far afield from the FIRE complaint. The FIRE crowd would probably prefer that the social justice stuff be removed altogether. However, FIRE does take a different approach to private universities than to public ones: in the case of the former, it is more that universities need to provide truth in advertising about their academic climates than protect absolute freedom of academic speech. So the real problem with the TC policy is that it is kind of hidden and mysterious, and might conflict with other statements in TC or Columbia documents about freedom of inquiry, etc.

    It does seem likely that it was originally more clearly agreed upon what the terms meant. I agree that TC’s failing to take a stand is somewhat cowardly. It is also kind of bad to refuse to revise the language if such revision is actually warranted, just for the sake of sticking to one’s guns.

  • Pam,

    I believe your suspicions are well founded. The first is that, as FIRE, NAS and other college watchdog groups routinely attest the notion of “social justice” is freighted with ideological baggage.

    No where is this pernicious agenda more strident than in the domain of education. Here we find all sorts of social engineering lurking mischievously behind an ideology.

    Furthermore, if you read any of the work coming out of the Manhattan Institute you will find documentation of just how soaked to the bone TC is in this working perspective.

    This is a perpetual problem we of differing, and sometimes somewhat radical, thinking face in the academy. How do we pursue ideas that counter the prevailing orthodoxy without offending “liberal” sensibilities?


  • […] like “Edu­cat­ing for Social Jus­tice,” so I was mod­er­ately con­cerned about poten­tial polit­i­cal issues. For­tu­nately, though, I didn’t really encounter any prob­lems in this regard, and actu­ally […]

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