The University of Social Justice: Beyond Community Service, Colleges Educate for Social Change

By Snarr, Melissa | Sojourners Magazine, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

The University of Social Justice: Beyond Community Service, Colleges Educate for Social Change


Snarr, Melissa, Sojourners Magazine


To borrow a term from social movement theory, universities can be "movement halfway houses" that educate leaders for social justice. Higher education institutions have trained and nurtured numerous social movements and activists that have changed our world. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a key role in the civil rights movement, came from a coalition of college students. Northern college students infused Freedom Summer's voter registration drives. More recently, student networks have rapidly expanded protests of corporate globalization and the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. Anti-sweatshop and living wage movements also are building momentum because of students.

These movements emerge, in part, because university faculty and staff are part of the conscientizing process of young people. Universities emphasize systemic analysis of social problems. They prize critical thinking skills. They encourage creative use of language and symbols. Combine these skills with higher education's focus on developing leaders, and we can see the potential of the universities to produce multiple generations of justice seekers.

We find the summons in our institutions' mission statements, the statements that no student, faculty,, or staff ever really reads. But it's there, the call to moral learning and social justice. At some schools, the commitment is explicit: "Loyola Marymount understands and declares its purpose to be: the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, the service of faith, and the promotion of justice." At others, the call is embedded in an understanding of the proper use of knowledge: "Emory's mission lies in two essential, interwoven purposes: through teaching, to help men and women fully develop their intellectual, aesthetic, and moral capacities; and, through the quest for new knowledge and public service, to improve human well-being."

Universities experience enormous pressure to deliver a marketable product. But higher education is called to be more than a conduit for career-making. Our students are more than clients. Classically, education was meant for the whole person--for "full human flourishing." As University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum notes, U.S. higher education has been devoted particularly to the "cultivation of the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life generally." At the core, universities are more than service providers with privileged clients. We are moral actors shaping the character and justice of society.

BUT EDUCATING change agents for social justice is not the same as encouraging increased volunteerism on campus, which is embraced much more easily by institutions and a broad political spectrum. As community service hours are required by many high schools for graduation, students arrive at college open to giving time to "those less fortunate." In fact, the Higher Education Research Center's most recent freshmen survey reported that 84 percent of students had volunteered in the last year.

At the same time, only 4 percent of college students have ever given time or money to a political organization. Less than 15 percent of voters under the age of 25 voted in the last election. The civic engagement of many young adults today is decidedly local, short-term, and apolitical (although the recent burst of antiwar organizing seems an important exception).

These statistics introduce a contrast between the approaches to "service" and "moral learning" that are embedded in our universities. As Keith Morton, director of the Feinstein Institute for Public Service at Providence College has noted, most of the service programs in our universities focus on "understanding the `other' and, in so doing, reshaping one's self identity." In order to sensitize students to difference and the need for social cooperation, short-term service programs often focus on what service means for the student and their character formation.

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The University of Social Justice: Beyond Community Service, Colleges Educate for Social Change
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