Towards ethical social justice education

Last Tuesday’s election and its aftermath encouraged me to look into something that I had been considering for a while now: how do I ethically encourage students to act in a more socially just way?

There is a fair amount of literature on social justice education, and I present here my findings from an initial bit of research into this question.  First, it seems that a lot of social justice literature is focused on structural or systemic issues relating to making sure that all students have equitable and fair access to a high quality education.  Everson and Bussy succinctly describe the issue:

Lack of knowledge about social justice does not excuse leaders [or teachers] from responsibility for it. Leaders [or teachers] who are unaware or uninformed about equity and fairness issues, which they face every day, still live with the moral imperative that is embedded in their jobs. (p. 178)

To learn more about equity and fairness issues, and to improve my own understanding of marginalized groups, I have begun reading several books on these lists:

But what about my behavior in the classroom? What can I do in the classroom in order to encourage social justice and give my students an equitable, fair education that also teaches them to respect their fellow classmates for all their diversities?

I worry about these questions because I do not want to indoctrinate unquestioning students or be accused of presenting a liberal bias, and I do not want make students who may need to hear these messages shut down to this message or for the entire course.  A useful framework for thinking about social justice education is proposed by Kathy Hytten, improved by Rebecca Taylor, and summarized here.

Everything we do as teachers–the texts and assignments we assign, the lessons and activities we lead, the relationships we cultivate, the way we respond to student questions, the atmosphere in our classroom, and the messages we send implicitly and explicitly–send a message that either reinforces or undermines normative behavior.  Therefore, social justice educators consider all of these factors to promote socially just and democratic values: concern for the common good, for minority rights, and for minority dignity; responsibility towards others; faith in the ability to solve problems; and belief in the importance of critical reflection, open flow of ideas, and assessing information. To encourage these values, teachers ask students to analyze and take positions on issues, and they challenge racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, etc. While challenging students to consider important issues or reconsider their normative behavior, teachers make students uncomfortable.

In response to the discomfort, and even suffering, that some students (especially those from dominant cultural positions) experience in social justice classes, Boler (2004a) and Conklin (2008) argued that we need to replace their felt sense of loss with compassion and with critical hope. Here they are gesturing toward an ethics of social justice teaching, one that at least initially honors the perspectives, however flawed, that students bring to their own learning and that validates them as multidimensional, complex, unfinished, and potentially thoughtful people. Moreover, such an ethic entails pedagogical relationships and practices of openness, careful attention, observation, dialogue, caring, and humility. It requires that teachers provide alternative ways of seeing and being that students can productively adopt, without feeling mired in guilt and blame. There is no doubt that responding to the challenge of resistant students is an important part of an ethics for activist teaching, and that this is never an easy task. This is especially true when it consumes an inordinate amount of teacher emotional labor and when allowing significant space for resistant students can (however inadvertently) actively harm marginalized students who may be silenced in the very same classrooms where teachers are attending to these privileged students. However, there is more that social justice teachers need to think about in terms of teacher ethics than navigating discomfort and engaging resistance. (Hytten, p. 4)

Hytten and Taylor suggest that teachers consider and adopt certain virtues of socially just teachers:

  • Reflective humility. This trait requires us to critically self-reflect on our own experiences: when are we frustrated or defensive? Then examine these situations from multiple perspectives so that we can better understand what is happening and challenge our own convictions. A similar and related virtue is:
  • Open-mindedness. This is an attitude that requires us to listen to multiple perspectives, new facts, and new explanations. A key component of this virtue is the recognition that our own ideas and beliefs might be wrong, so we should be on the look-out for better beliefs and ideas. As an ethical social justice teacher, then, you would share that your beliefs may be wrong and you are examining your own practices along with the students, and you would make sure that you discuss a variety of perspectives, as well as their pros and their cons, in class.
  • Sympathetic attentiveness. A sympathetically attentive person tries to understand someone else’s ideas and where they come from, even/especially if we disagree with them. From there, we could offer compelling alternatives, how limited the ideas may be, or see how it is actually a better idea than our own.  If we try to understand our students, we are much more likely for them to be open to us and to new ideas.

Related to these is the virtue of empathy, which takes it beyond a purely academic mindset and into an emotional one too. Additional virtues may be general calmness (except when outrage needs to be expressed), patience, trustworthiness, integrity, sincerity, and self-knowledge. Taylor offers a useful way to determine if these virtues are actually beneficial virtues to exhibit as a social justice teacher and try to teach to our students:

  1. What is the virtue? Virtues are intellectual or moral, and they are something that is pursued because of their intrinsic value. In this system, it is important to understand what exactly a person who exhibits this virtue would do.
  2. How does it relate to the idea of social justice? Does it encourage social justice or not?
  3. What are the internal or external conditions for its success? She highlights the idea that virtues may have external barriers (i.e. school and systemic barriers) and internal barriers (i.e. within the teachers). For example, with open-mindedness, a teacher may be too arrogant and think that, because he reached a certain conclusion the first time he considered an issue, it must be true.  Alternatively, the teacher may be too cowardly and not want to examine his own assumptions so he avoids reconsidering them. Essentially, this step is asking you to continuously reconsider how to exhibit and practically teach this virtue, including overcoming internal obstacles to it.

Like with other ethical guidelines, these do not necessarily tell you how to behave in every situation, but they are ways to guide your thoughts about how to act. In a way, this lack of prescription is nice because ethics are something you need to think about deeply and develop for yourself, just like social justice teachers ask their students to do.

Works Cited


3 thoughts on “Towards ethical social justice education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s