Education For Social Justice Essay

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Social justice is an overarching term used to examine the inequitable social arrangements found between individuals or groups of individuals, including (although not necessarily exclusive of) social class, race, gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. The concept of justice can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who considered the underpinning principles that would lead to a greater just society—that is, an ideal for a civilization based on the stability of its citizenry, and furthermore, the wellbeing and flourishing of its citizens. Two main considerations are often considered when trying to address social justice: the recognition that inequitable social arrangements exist that privilege certain individuals to the disadvantage or detriment of other individuals, and the redistribution of resources and conditions to rebalance the disadvantages accrued by some individuals to others.

Issues of social justice are of paramount importance in education. For instance, there is a strong correlation between a student’s achievement in education and his or her future opportunities and socioeconomic class. The positional advantages accrued to students who achieve high levels of excellence will usually lead to a virtuous cycle of employability, mobility, social status, and well-being. The corollary of this is that factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, and social class are strong indicators of whether a child will do well in school or not. These factors have led many educational researchers to attempt to reduce the inequitable conditions for children.

Although there is much agreement that gross inequities exist among children in education, there is little consensus as to the best approach educators should take to reduce these inequities. Given this complexity, it is not clear from individuals’ perspectives on social justice what the just outcome would be. Various considerations of social justice may pull in different and drastic directions. Similarly, numerous distinctions are commonly made in examining a specific aspect of social justice. For instance, both culture and color are often considered to be sources of racism.

Sociologists attempt to describe the educational circumstances of a particular phenomenon through empirical work and, in attempts to describe the situation, uncover the educational inequities that they may find. Within sociology, issues of social justice may be addressed more specifically within particular methodological and theoretical traditions. For example, the concept of social capital is one way to describe inequitable social arrangements found in educational settings. Feminists, broadly speaking, consider issues of gender and the role of self and agency, and (neo-) Marxists may consider the effects of social class.

Postmodernists, on the other hand, question the way in which knowledge and understanding have been presented both historically and contemporarily, and the concomitant repercussions that these forms of understanding privilege certain individuals and their viewpoints. Social justice, for them, is underpinned by the dominant discourses predominant in society that oppress and marginalize certain people.

Education policy analysts examine current policies in place and evaluate their effectiveness, and, in providing such information, suggest policies that may better redistribute resources to redress issues of inequity through administrative and legislative acts. Two main priorities are often considered in attempts to redistribute the inequitable social arrangements in education. First, education policy analysts may examine the political dynamics of what is feasible and the potential trade-offs that may be required to move policies into acts. Second, they will consider both the aims of a policy and how effective the implementation of a policy is in rectifying an inequitable arrangement. Again, the ways in which policy analysts consider how to rectify inequitable social arrangements differ drastically.

Philosophers of education generally attempt to do two things within the concept of social justice. The first consideration is to clarify and define what is meant by social justice. The ambiguity of the term and its wide and varied usage are problematic in defining social justice and, consequently, how best one should address issues of social justice. Second, and more important, philosophers often attempt to consider underpinning principles (or normative considerations) to guide individuals toward a closer ideal of social justice. How one redistributes resources that reduce inequitable arrangements is largely determined by the principles that philosophers put forth.

Practitioners grapple with teaching social justice to children. Pedagogic strategies that encourage listening, offer opportunities to provide narratives and share stories, learn to respect alternative perspectives, and reason among children are commonly cited precursors to developing social justice in children. Curriculum development is another way to introduce more diverse and rich histories into the lives of children, providing an acknowledgment and celebration of diversity. Finally, citizenship (or civics) education and moral education often are considered appropriate subject areas that will help to develop social activism in students.

The diversity and range of how educationalists address social justice are as divergent as the innumerable ways that education is examined more generally. Any inequitable arrangement found within educational settings is often cited as a matter of social justice (and perhaps with some justification). However, the broad use of the term social justice provides much ambiguity and lack of clarity to how social justice is conceptually conceived and used in education. A further problem is that there appears to be little collaboration between the education disciplines and, at times, an almost uncomfortable tension between the disciplines in addressing social justice in education.

It is nearly impossible to adequately account for all of the ways in which educationalists address social justice. However, four individuals/movements are worth mentioning that have arguably changed the ways in which educationalists conceive social justice. The brevity of each of these accounts does not do justice to their work, and in selecting these four accounts, other possible worthy social justice movements may have been unduly excluded in the process.

Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—revolutionary when it was first published in Portuguese in 1968—fundamentally challenged class distinctions in education. Freire’s experiences of seeing the underprivileged class of people in Brazil pushed him to envisage a transformative education for liberating the oppressed. Two components underpinned Freire’s vision. The first component was to make the oppressed conscious of the social, political, and economic dynamics that held them in the particular oppressive environment. The second component was to work with the oppressed individuals in developing a transformative education that would liberate them from their present state. It is through the struggle with and by oppressed individuals that they could resolve the oppressor/oppressed contradiction. Freire’s educational projects were largely successful in helping to empower the working illiterate peasants in Brazil to collectively rise and challenge the existing status quo. His work grew in stature, gaining influence throughout Latin America, and later North America and worldwide, and became a pillar in educational thought on social justice.

The notion of power and identity became increasingly prominent in considerations of social justice, growing partially from the work by individuals such as Paolo Freire, but also growing out of a large group of French and German continental philosophers who wished to challenge the existing modernist society that they argued privileged certain individuals. Critical educational theorists have drawn largely from postmodernist and neo-Marxist traditions and have applied their philosophies to issues of social justice (although again, with drastically differing perspectives within the critical theoretical tradition). Some overlapping themes might be said to exist regarding issues of social justice by critical theorists. Generally, critical theorists start from the assumption that the prevailing social order is historically situated and thus socially constructed and changeable. The dominant social order and constructed realities are often referred to as “discourses” in which the dominant view is perpetuated and maintained through the norms and social values of the society. The dominant (or hegemonic) discourses have a strong correlation to those who are privileged and are able to consolidate power so that structure between power and oppression is strongly linked. The work of critical theorists, then, is to unearth the dominant discourses that perpetuate and entrench inequitable social arrangements, and in so doing, resist and challenge forms of oppression.

Philosophically, a growing recognized area in social justice is the application of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice to education. Since the publication of Rawls’s book in 1971, philosophers have been debating the merits and shortcomings of his political liberal theory. Whether or not one agrees with Rawls, one cannot dismiss this pivotal work: It has changed the philosophical landscape on which other texts are based and compared. Political liberal philosophy has made significant strides in advancing the merits of liberty and equality in the areas of legal and medical ethics, international law, and education.

Liberal theory is a normative political theory for how citizens ought to create a just society. Rawls is specifically concerned with the two moral paths: a capacity for conception of the good and a capacity for a sense of justice. How we come to define and create acceptable rules and behaviors is developed through

Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness. Two main principles are of highest priority in Rawls’s theory: the liberty principle and the “second” principle:

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (Rawls, 1971, p. 53)

These two principles constitute Rawls’s theory of justice. By building on notions of fairness, Rawls argues that the priority is on the right over the good. Simply put, what are important are principles that are agreed upon by individuals, rather than having a preset notion of the good. Within this liberal conception, principles of liberty and fair equality of opportunity would be adhered to, and when inequalities of wealth and income occur, they would be allowed only when it is to the advantage of the least well off.

Liberalism attempts to identify normative principles for a just society. How does this help educators address and consider educational issues? Egalitarian liberalism in an educational context is committed to both autonomy and equality of opportunity. The first principle suggests that the role of education is to provide various opportunities and experiences that may enhance and expose children to different ways of living. It also may require schools to provide opportunities for children to be exposed to and participate in various educational experiences that help to facilitate the process by which children learn how to discern and critically reflect upon their present way of living, and potentially consider alternative ways of living that may be to their benefit. The second aspect of this principle attempts to secure fair equality of opportunity. If we are to secure fair equality of opportunity in society, education arguably plays a major role in this condition. Schools must provide both equitable conditions and opportunities for children in order that they have an equitable footing in later life, having the ability to pursue various opportunities.

Finally, the capability approach developed by philosopher and economist Amartya Sen is gaining influence and applicability in educational circles. In further developing Rawls’s principles of justice, Sen argues that not only are economic redistributive resources required for a human to fully flourish, but other substantive freedoms as well; Sen describes this as “capabilities to function.” “Functionings” are those actions that humans can actually do, such as eating an apple, going to work, and so on. “Capabilities” are those actions that individuals have the ability to do; for example, they may wish to eat an apple and have the ability to decide whether or not they will eat it. The distinction between the two is that a functioning is the actual achievement, whereas the capability is the opportunity to achieve the action. A common example that illustrates a capability is the difference between a person who fasts and a person who is starving. The person who fasts makes the decision not to eat, whereas the person who is starving does not have the capability to decide whether or not to eat. Agency is a key aspect of Sen’s capability approach. A capability can be achieved only through a person’s agency: the freedom and ability to make decisions about how one should live in a certain way.

Sen’s articulated capabilities approach then considers the range of options necessary for a person to achieve full human dignity and well-being. Within this redistributive theory, Sen distinguishes between individuals’ differing needs in order to achieve wellbeing, something that is often unarticulated in other theories. For instance, a growing child or a pregnant woman will require more nourishment than a middle-aged person. The nuanced aspect of this redistributive theory provides principles to ensure that social justice is achieved not on a general, ambiguous level but addresses the varying needs of each and every individual.

Education is a pivotal aspect in Sen’s theory; it is considered a capability in itself with overlapping capabilities within education. An education is a capability in itself in the intrinsic worth that an individual attains to develop human dignity, self-respect, and fulfillment. However, education provides instrumental ends in assisting an individual to achieve many things both in the present and in the future.

From these four perspectives, it is apparent that there are competing ideals in the recommendations put forth for social justice in education. Critical theorists criticize the individualist emphasis in Rawls’s and Sen’s theories, whereas liberal theorists would challenge the assumptions made by critical theorists in their critique of the modernist society. Little consensus exists, then, on a conceptual framework of social justice. Depending on one’s a priori assumptions, the methodological and theoretical approaches taken to address social justice and, consequently, the recommendations put forth can be both complementary and competing at times.


  1. Apple, M. (1999). Power, meaning, and identity: Essays in critical educational studies. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Applebaum, B. (2004). Social justice education, moral agency, and the subject of resistance. Educational Theory, 54(1), 59–72.
  3. Brighouse, H. (2004). Justice. Cambridge, UK: Polity. Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Penguin.
  4. Griffiths, M. (Ed.). (2003). Action for social justice in education. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
  5. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Rawls, J. (2001). Justice as fairness: A restatement (E. Kelly, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
  7. Sen, A. (1992). Inequality re-examined. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  8. Walker, M. (2006). Towards a capability-based theory of social justice for education policy making. Journal of Education Policy, 21(2), 163–185.

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