Teaching Social Justice in Higher Ed

Thomas R. Tritton considers how his students who aspire to become college administrators approach some of the key issues.

March 3, 2008

What does a college president do after leaving the high intensity rigors of the job? One likely calling is the classroom, whence many of us came in the first place. So after a decade as president of Haverford College, I returned to the classroom at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Professor Judy McLaughlin -- she one of the world’s experts on college presidents -- created the unique position at Harvard of “President-in-Residence”. Each year Judy invites one of the newly departed to join the faculty, participate in a seminar on the broad topic of higher education, and teach a course of one’s own design. The usual courses a former president might teach -- Theories of Leadership, Fundraising 101, Navigating Campus Politics -- seemed too easy and too obvious. I decided instead to angle a different approach, an idea which morphed into: A710f: Social Justice in the Undergraduate Experience. You’ll find it right there in the Harvard catalogue.

No respectable place allows a perfect stranger to just drop in and teach their students. Thus, I had to submit a proposal to a mysterious curriculum committee. I never did discover who was on it but luckily they did approve my proposal, albeit with many pertinent, and a few impertinent, suggestions for improvement.

My basic plan was to explore how colleges promote social justice issues to their students. Many American colleges and universities have explicit curricular requirements for social justice coursework while others have a campus culture that promotes such engagement outside the classroom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been little coordination or consensus among colleges pursuing social justice goals. Nor is there a well-developed base of scholarship on the definitions, objectives, and outcomes of such endeavors. Most social justice efforts probably have at least the implicit notion that making the world a fairer and more just place is a worthy goal, and that education may be the most effective way to promote it. Hard to argue with that, at least if you’re an educator.

Once the course was approved I began to wonder if anyone would take it. It was not a required course and grad students at Harvard have hundreds of exceedingly interesting choices for electives. One faculty colleague recommended setting an enrollment limit because great hordes of students would find “social justice” utterly irresistible. Another, perhaps less idealistic, mentor told me I’d be lucky to get 4 or 5.

Like many places, Harvard has a “shopping period” where students can explore lots of course options before committing themselves to sign up and do real work. I had two scheduled shopping sessions, fretted over whether anyone would come, and was relieved when about 20 students arrived. We dove into issues of justice straight away when I told the potentials that if more signed up than I wanted in the course, I would run a lottery to see who was selected. One student vigorously argued such a system wasn’t just because this course was exactly why she came to graduate school, and it simply wouldn’t be fair to deny her a place based on chance. She ended up not enrolling at all. Another wanted any over-enrollment to be sorted out by the students themselves, not the authoritarian professor. This took me back to my own college days in the 1960s when we didn’t trust anyone over 30.

In the end 12 students signed up. Ten were seeking masters degrees, the other two doctorates. With the consumerist shopping period behind us, and with no need for a lottery, we set to work.

The first reading assignment was Why Social Justice Matters, by Brian Barry, a professor of political philosophy at Columbia University. This is a scholarly book that examines the theory and scope of the term “social justice”. Of course, most people have their own view of what this subject encompasses, so I asked the class to try their hand at defining the field even before reading what the good professor had to say. They quickly came up with “elimination of bias” and “meeting basic human needs for all”. Warming to the topic, the students also included in their definition “awareness of society’s needs, not just our own” as well as the more confrontational “ability to question power”. Who says the spirit of rebellion is lacking in contemporary students?

Barry’s approach is one of distributive justice where fairness and equality are achieved in all aspects of society, not just in administration of the law. He covers the expected conglomeration of social challenges -- income, healthcare, housing, discrimination, jobs, education, environment, globalization. Students react well to such material, even when presented in an academic format, but they quickly realize there is no objective standard of what is just. Those of a more conservative persuasion believe social justice can be achieved through the logic of free markets. More liberal types think in the language of economic egalitarianism or of human rights. The former are more inclined to promote equality of opportunity while the latter seek income redistribution. As one might predict, scholarly writing is tilted towards the liberal and it is difficult to find serious work from rightward perspectives. This is a challenge, at least if you are trying to teach a university course that examines all points of view. Asking students to argue points of view opposite their own is one approach to the dilemma, although not always a successful one on subjects that ignite deep loyalties.

We turned next to bell hooks and her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. My students are in a School of Education, after all, so it seemed right to have a book about the subject. Professor hooks is hard to categorize, being one part educator, another part social gadfly, and yet another part reformer for justice. The students adored her, and relished the unconventional way she thinks about higher education as a combination of autobiography, history, and literary analysis. Discussing the book also revealed the stress marks that accompany any analysis of race and class. This came through, for example, in a mini-debate about whether a scholar -- purportedly developing an objective social analysis -- should reveal intimate personal details about close friends and family. Luckily, the multicultural makeup of the group allowed them to work with the stresses, which of course is exactly why we want our classrooms to be diverse.

The final reading assignment was one of the world’s leading intellectuals, Martha Nussbaum, and her work Frontiers of Justice. Not an easy book, as it deals with John Rawl’s seminal A Theory of Justice, as well as a historical account of social justice theories from Rousseau to Kant to Hume. But Nussbaum was willing to tread where none of these previous thinkers were able to make progress, namely to three heretofore unsolved aspects of justice: disability; non-human animals; and global justice. Although the reading was challenging at times, the students found Nussbaum opening their minds in ways they might have been resistant to beforehand. One of Nussbaum’s ideas that nudged the students thinking was her conferral of basic human rights upon animals. While some found this difficult, or even absurd, at first, the argument from a theoretical social justice perspective can be convincing even to the formerly skeptical. I think that’s what is supposed to happen in the classroom.

Once we finished the reading assignments, I did what any clever faculty member does with advanced students -- put them in charge of running the class. Well, not entirely, because it would have been a dereliction of duty to abandon my professorial role, but I did assemble them in groups of three and let each group select pertinent readings and lead a class session on a selected topic in social justice. I suggested they consider questions like: can colleges and universities make an impact in this area? If so, is it most effective with a research or a teaching focus? If the answer to the preceding question is teaching, is curricular or extra-curricular the most effective format? Who are likely partners outside the academy? Can such social justice concepts (as, for example, with ethics or writing) be taught across the curriculum, or are specific courses needed? What would a university curriculum look like on a particular aspect of social justice? How can you encourage more than one viewpoint be presented on inherently controversial issues? To what extent can or should academic critique influence the public/political agenda?

After suitable negotiation, the groups settled on four topics: healthcare and social justice; justice for non-human species; diversity and social justice; housing and social justice. They did a spectacular job of researching the topics, engaging the class in high intensity discussion, and then writing a research paper. So good, in fact, that I ended up succumbing to mass grade inflation, a malady I routinely bad-mouthed when in an administrative position.

So what did I learn? I reaffirmed my sense that students are idealistic (and keep their professors so). I appreciated that students will read hard and challenging material, especially if they can connect it to real situations. I learned that one can engage social justice concepts from nearly any disciplinary perspective, and thereby make almost any course better.

And I learned how much fun it is to teach, a lesson easy to forget when toiling as a college president.

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Thomas R. Tritton became president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2008. He thanks, Corinne, Danielle, Faith, Jess, Josh, Julie, Kris, Mikey, Molly, Nate, Paris, and Shelby, the 12 inspiring Harvard graduate students who bravely took his class.


Thomas R. Tritton

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