The Marginalization of Critical Perspectives in Public Criminal Justice Core Curricula

Article excerpt

Abstract: Although critical perspective courses in criminal justice programs have grown considerably since the 1960s, the failure of contemporary public criminal justice programs to require critical perspectives in their undergraduate core curricula threatens to leave students without a framework for discussion of these issues within the greater context of their degree programs. Students must thus look to the other social sciences to further their knowledge in these areas, thereby perpetuating the neglect of criminal justice departments to present these views. Within most academic criminal justice programs, preference is given to the administrative facets of the criminal justice system and the theories and methods of social scientific research; for this reason, even general discussions of critical topics are limited. Furthermore, because many elective courses also focus on various aspects of the administration of justice, critical perspectives are conspicuously absent overall. This paper reveals the extent to which core, cognate, and other required critical perspective courses are marginalized within public criminal justice programs, and how, on average, private institutions require more of these courses.

Keywords: critical perspectives, criminal justice pedagogy, general education, liberal education

INTRODUCTION

Within the core curricula of most academic criminal justice programs, there is a preference for courses that examine the administrative facets of the criminal justice system, as well as the theories and methods associated with mainstream criminological research. Unfortunately, this predilection for "cops, courts, and corrections" (also known as the "Three C's") leaves little room for the addition of core courses devoted to other topics or theoretical perspectives, especially those which might be critical of the criminal justice system's handling of issues related to race, class, gender or culture. The present study thus sought to determine if core, cognate, and prerequisite criminal justice coursework at public institutions has evolved to include these critical perspectives at a lesser degree than at private institutions, which are largely autonomous from state control.

In his treatise on class conflict and law, Karl Marx asserted that, "the State will never look for the cause of social imperfections in the State and social institutions themselves" (Bottomore 1956:124). Those who subscribe to a Marxist perspective, then, might expect public institutions of higher learning to be unlikely places to look for solutions to the State's shortcomings, especially where issues of inequality are concerned. Indeed, because compulsory education was originally meant to preserve the values of bourgeois society, it was believed that institutions that taught students to be critical thinkers would potentially contribute to the development of "problem populations" (Spitzer 1975:644). This viewpoint is bolstered by Mills, who described public education as a politically and economically tasked "mass medium" that fails to impart knowledge, "directly relevant to the human need of the troubled person...or to the social practices of the citizen" (1956:319). According to Mills, the task of public education is to create workers, not thinkers; instead of promoting individual struggle and transcendence, it encourages the "happy acceptance" of the status quo (1956:319).

Though a criminal justice education is certainly not compulsory, the core curriculum for the baccalaureate degree consists of required courses designed to lay the foundation for further study in the discipline; in addition to these requirements, students must also complete courses in other disciplines. For public institutions, these courses make up what is commonly referred to as a general education-distinct from the major-whereby the student freely chooses a minimum number of courses within specified disciplines. On the contrary, private institutions tend to emphasize a liberal education-one that integrates the core requirements of the major with specific courses in other disciplines (Flanagan 2006). …