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What is Social Justice in Education?  

The phrase “social justice” has become more mainstream in recent times, but it’s existed for hundreds of years. As a concept, social justice gained more importance during the 19th century due to the Industrial Revolution and civil unrest in Europe. People started standing up to dangerous labor conditions, exploitation, and other unfair systems. At its core, social justice is about the fair distribution of opportunities and privileges as they apply to individuals within a society. While at first social justice centered mostly on wealth and property, it now encompasses more areas such as the environment, race, gender, and education.

Why social justice in education matters

Social justice in education takes two forms. The first is social justice in action and the level of equality within the actual education system. When factors like wealth, gender and/or race determine what kind of education an individual can receive, that’s an example of social injustice. Students not privileged enough to receive an education on par with more privileged students are given a poor foundation for the rest of their lives. Their ability to earn a certain income can suffer, which in turn affects access to healthcare, good housing, and safety. When the education system isn’t committed to providing equal opportunities and privileges, it negatively impacts a society both culturally and economically.

The second form of social justice in education is how social justice is taught within the school system. In a social justice framework, curriculum is specifically chosen to broaden students’ worldviews through incorporating different ideas and challenging opinions. Instead of ignoring very real-world issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and more, a social justice education framework addresses it and encourages students to exercise analytical thinking. Schools committed to social justice in education pay close attention to their choice of curriculum and how it can be used to expand their students’ minds.

Criticisms of teaching social justice

Many believe schools should take a fairly passive stance when it comes to more political issues, but according to educators like Zachary Wright (a national finalist for the United States Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship), the education system has always been political. In a system that punishes poor schools with a lack of funding, outdated books, and decaying buildings while rewarding the wealthy, it’s impossible for education to be a politically-neutral environment. Within this system, choices about curriculum, school fees, and sources of funding are all political choices.

Another common criticism is that teaching social justice in education is a form of indoctrination. J. Martin Rochester, a professor of political science, wrote in a commentary piece for the Fordham Institute that social justice educators “seem to promote only a politically correct, left-leaning perspective.” There are many who feel that a social justice framework is too blatantly one-sided. However, in his rebuttal to Rochester, Zachary Wright explains that in his classes, he always gives students both sides of an issue. Social justice in education done right doesn’t force kids to believe in something specific, but rather to think for themselves and nurture their analytical skills.

How to promote social justice in education systemically

Since social justice in education takes two forms – within educational structure and within the classroom – there are two ways to promote it. The first is to build a school system that promotes equality. This can be done using methods such as better tracking to find out what the economic makeup of students is. When schools collect more knowledge of the inequalities within their system, they’re better equipped to deal with it. Tracking is also important when it comes to identifying struggling students at risk of dropping out. Resources for these students should be a priority, while tracking can help inform schools of how practices are helping or hindering.

Resources for parents can also help implement social justice within the educational system. Programs like after-school homework clubs and extracurriculars can help parents who work long days or speak different languages. Programs also help students who simply lack good home support. Educational systems can also strongly-consider scholarships and financial aid, so income doesn’t become a barrier when accessing certain schools.

How to promote social justice in education within the classroom

As for adopting a social justice framework within the classroom, the responsibility falls on the administration and the teachers. Schools that commit to social justice must also commit to frequent self-reflection. This can include regular workshops and conferences, but there should also be an understanding that there is no finish line. It’s a continuous process.

Teachers can promote social justice in a variety of ways, such as making sure to provide students with multiple perspectives and encouraging them to think beyond themselves. Bringing in current event stories and making history relevant to the present are both great ways for students to exercise their analytical thinking skills and expand their minds. Teachers should be cognizant of their own bias and be sure that the materials allow students to develop their own opinions. Outside the classroom, teachers should also commit to continuously researching and studying the best ways to incorporate social justice.

Benefits of social justice in education

The goals of social justice in education include more empathy, more justice, and more equality. Students taught with this framework will ideally have a stronger sense of what’s just and fair, and choose careers and lifestyles that support their communities. Since social justice in education is relatively new, there isn’t a lot of research into the benefits, but what there is is very promising.

A recent Pennsylvania State University study examined transformative social-justice education looked at the long-term impact that a social justice course had on black adolescents. The study revealed that even after many years post-graduation, former students expressed that the class changed their sense of justice and even their own identity. 11 out of the 13 said that as a result, they began exploring careers that would help their community. While the sample size was small, it’s compelling evidence in support of the benefits of social justice in education.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.