Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Understanding Education for Social Justice

Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Understanding Education for Social Justice

Article excerpt

What does it mean to foreground social justice in our thinking about education? It has become increasingly common for education scholars to claim a social justice orientation in their work (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997; Ayers, Hunt, & Quinn, 1998; Darling-Hammond, French, & Garcia-Lopez, 2002; Marshall & Oliva, 2006; Michelli & Keiser, 2005). At the same time, education programs seem to be adding statements about the importance of social justice to their mission, and a growing number of teacher education programs are fundamentally oriented around a vision of social justice (see, for example, Darling-Hammond, French, & Garcia-Lopez, 2002; McDonald, 2005; Zollers, Albert, & Cochran-Smith, 2000). Murphy (1999) names social justice as one of "three powerful synthesizing paradigms" (p. 54) in educational leadership while Zeichner (2003) offers it as one of three major approaches to teacher education reform. The phrase social justice is used in school mission statements, job announcements, and educational reform proposals, though sometimes widely disparate ones, from creating a vision of culturally responsive schools to leaving no child behind.

Despite all the talk about social justice of late, it is often unclear in any practical terms what we mean when we invoke a vision of social justice or how this influences such issues as program development, curricula, practicum opportunities, educational philosophy, social vision, and activist work. In the abstract, it is an idea that it hard to be against. After all, we learn to pledge allegiance to a country that supposedly stands for "liberty and justice for all." Yet the more we see people invoking the idea of social justice, the less clear it becomes what people mean, and if it is meaningful at all. When an idea can refer to almost anything, it loses its critical purchase, especially an idea that clearly has such significant political dimensions. In fact, at the same time that we are seeing this term in so many places, we are also seeing a backlash against it; for example, just recently the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education removed social justice language from its accrediting standards because of its controversial, ambiguous, and ideologically weighted nature (Wasley, 2006). Among the critiques, education that is grounded on a commitment to justice and the cultivation of democratic citizenship "is increasingly seen as superfluous, complicating, and even threatening by some policy makers and pressure groups who increasingly see any curriculum not tied to basic literacy or numeracy as disposable and inappropriate" (Michelli & Keiser, 2005, p. xix).

Despite some of the current confusion and tensions, there is a long history in the United States of educators who foreground social justice issues in their work and who argue passionately for their centrality to schooling in a democratic society. We see this in a variety of places, for example in Counts' (1932) call for teachers to build a new social order, in Dewey's work on grounding education in a rich and participatory vision of democracy, and in the work of critical pedagogues and multicultural scholars to create educational environments that empower historically marginalized people, that challenge inequitable social arrangements and institutions, and that offer strategies and visions for creating a more just world. Describing education for social justice, Bell (1997) characterizes it as "both a process and a goal" with the ultimate aim being "full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs" (p. 3). Hackman (2005) writes that "social justice education encourages students to take an active role in their own education and supports teachers in creating empowering, democratic, and critical educational environments" (p. 103). Murrell (2006) argues that social justice involves "a disposition toward recognizing and eradicating all forms of oppression and differential treatment extant in the practices and policies of institutions, as well as a fealty to participatory democracy as the means of this action" (p. …

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