Forging Vertical Linkages in the Public Sphere: School-Church Engagement for Social Justice

By Miller, Peter M.; Engel, Max T. | Educational Foundations, Winter-Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Forging Vertical Linkages in the Public Sphere: School-Church Engagement for Social Justice


Miller, Peter M., Engel, Max T., Educational Foundations


Introduction

Within the broad discussion of social justice in education, multiple conceptualizations of the term have been posited. Although there is no uniform notion of social justice here, most would concur that, "Social justice, broadly defined, refers to a condition whereby all people are afforded fair opportunities to enjoy the benefits of society" (Miller, 2008, p. 821). Scholars and practitioners commonly write about and seek social justice as it relates to issues of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. These discussions are manifested in school-based areas of curriculum, student achievement, funding, pedagogy, and leadership--among many others.

In this article, we posit that for conditions of social justice to be expanded (in the aforementioned contexts as well as others) several fundamental connections must be made in the broader society where schooling is situated. Framed within democracy theory's description of the public sphere (1) (Habermas, 1996; Kemmis & McTaggert, 2001; Wood, 1994; 1997; 2002), we examine the "bringing about of social justice" through two broad propositions. We assert that: (1) The structural linkage of the public sphere maximizes opportunities for social justice; and (2) The structural linkage of the public sphere occurs best through institutional means. To concretize our discussion, we comprehensively interrogate the viability of churches as institutional partners for public school-based social justice movements.

Social Justice in the Public Sphere

Democracy theory's conceptualization of the public sphere offers meaningful insights into our discussion of social justice. Wood (2002) describes the public sphere as being "made up of all those arenas of social life in which members of a community reflect upon, argue about, and make decisions regarding the problems they face and the rules under which they live" (p. 126). (2) Each of these arenas is typically affiliated with one of three broad areas of the public sphere: the state, political society, or civil society. The state, according to Wood (1994; 2002) includes government agencies, offices, and settings where elected representatives make rules by which the wider society abides. Notably in our context, the state includes official public school bodies that consider and implement policies that directly affect students and families. Political society, the next level of the public sphere, is composed of arenas that are outside of government but loosely linked to it and influential upon it (Wood & Warren, 2002). These include political parties, lobbyist groups, unions, think tanks, and topical interest groups. In education, examples of the political society include school choice groups/lobbyists and teacher unions. The third level of the public sphere, civil society, is composed of "all those organizational settings that are not part of political society or government and in which members of a society reflect upon and form values and attitudes regarding their life together, social problems, and the future of society" (Wood, 2002, p. 127). Civil society is situated, conversed, and created in myriad places, including civic groups, ethnic societies, and--particularly in poor urban neighborhoods--churches.

Wood (2003) summarizes this conceptualization of the public sphere as a bedrock of American democracy--but one that is currently broken down:

   So the public realm can be understood analytically as constituted
   at three levels of societal life: the state, political society, and
   civil society. The linking of these three levels and their
   reciprocal influence on each other are central to a thriving
   democratic direction to society and legitimacy to government. The
   anemia of American democracy can be seen in the breakdown of this
   ideal ...Thus, the process of democratic deliberation through the
   three levels of the public realm has broken down. … 

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