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.