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Social Change: Can We Begin the Process in the Schools?

There is an old maxim that goes like this: ‘one cannot not communicate.’ In other words, whether we like it or not, we are always, whether verbally or non-verbally, communicating something. Even ignoring another person is a response and a facial expression is sometimes far more expressive than a few words. In a very real sense, the same is true in terms of schools and social change. Schools influence communities and they “cannot not” influence the communities in which they sit. In other words, schools will indeed leave a mark, so the question isn’t whether or not a school will impact a community through social change, but we must identify whether the influence is one that promotes social justice or injustice?

Do schools promote a certain type of social change or are schools simply reactionary institutions following current trends? In this paper, we will make a case that not only do schools impact social systems, thereby becoming agents of social change, but schools can actually lead the way in ushering in positive social changes by being more intentional in both instruction and influence. We turn first to a foundational question that sets up our understanding of intentionality. What is the difference between education that positively impacts a culture and education that intentionally advocates for social change?

Positive Influence or Fighting Injustice

It has been well-documented and well-argued that educational reforms are mitigated by urban poverty and cannot transform inequities in schools without thinking about restructuring the city environment itself, which produces these students and the failing schools" (Anyon, 1997, p. 13).[1] So, who influences who? Is it the schools or is it the community that influences the school? Actually, we must admit that this is a mutually influential relationship in which the community benefits from a quality school while a quality school must be supported within a community.

Of course, when it comes to social change, “Is teaching for social justice a process of conveying a set of radical beliefs related to equity, diversity, and racial differences? Does it mean taking a political stand and becoming a change agent in diminishing the inequities in schools? Is it a virtue? Is it possessing certain abilities and knowing certain kinds of knowledge to do certain things in the classroom that reflect equality?”[2] What many people look for, to combat political, religious, or social biases is simply empirical data or quantitative measurements that will objectively tell us whether or not a school is socially impacting a community in a manner that is not only positive, but in a way that addresses issues like racism, poverty, and discrimination against women.

Yet, in order to understand this quantitative data a qualitative framework must already exist and there must be a vision or common understanding about what social justice looks like, otherwise, what are we aiming for?[3] To simply reveal that a school positively impacts a community via its reputation, its notoriety in certain extra curricular activities (note the large budgets of some sport programs in some schools), or its test scores, misses the opportunity a school has to position its own resources in a way that teaches more than its students. Schools, as a system within a larger system, have the ability to move beyond incidental influence to intentional social justice.

Let’s embrace the position that teachers are influential and let’s be intentional. After all, “classroom teachers are the most essential element because they have the ultimate responsibility to navigate the curriculum and instruction with their students in the classroom. They can examine the impact of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and poverty itself on the educational outcomes of students in urban schools. They have the intellectual and critical capacity to analyze the purposes, practices, and policies of schools and the impact on students' life opportunities. They may not be able to transform the society's fundamental inequities, but they can contribute in many practical ways by raising the level of social awareness of their students and guiding the curriculum for social justice instruction.”[4]

Celebrating diversity and promoting multicultural understanding isn’t enough. After all, what is considered ‘diverse,’ seems to change by the generation. Racism of the post World War II Civil Rights era in education looks very different to the fear of AIDS, homophobia, and gender inequality in the internet age.[5] In regard, then, to systemic change within organizations and communities, schools become a living, breathing laboratory where students can address pressing issues of social concern in a guided environment. Entire schools can address pressing issues of social concern as a community within a community, afforded the opportunity ‘fail’ a bit more, because the risk is in a sense protected for a time.

Can schools, then, become agents of social change? Absolutely and in many respects, this opportunity to do so, should not be passed over. The question, though, from ‘could’ to ‘should’ often becomes the controversial shift. Should a school take seriously its role in social change? If so, then ‘teaching to a test,’ becomes redefined as the tests of life are more than filling in ovals that a machine can read. We are talking about creating communities that address the issues that students and families will deal with the rest of their lives. And in doing so, the school becomes a proactive voice, even if in the inner city or in a troubled neighborhood, of advocacy and not simply a bystander in political and social discussions.

The question, for us, though moves to not only the role of a school, but does this apply to all levels of schooling? The answer is simply that not all levels of schooling are resourced in the same way to impact a community. The elementary school or primary school has a far different mandate in many respects, though still influential and still intentional, than a University does. And so, we turn now to the unique position that is afforded a college or University within a community and the myriad of ways that a University can and should be a change agent.

The Unique Role of the University

Immanuel Kant makes the point that “If you punish a child for being naughty, and reward him for being good, he will do right merely for the sake of the reward; and when he goes out into the world and finds that goodness is not always rewarded, nor wickedness always punished, he will grow into a man who only thinks about how he may get on in the world, and does right or wrong according as he finds either of advantage to himself.”[6] So, what happens when this child goes off to college? Do colleges challenge this preclusion to protect oneself or is there a way that Universities can model, in a unique way, education that advocates for the common good?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, from Yale University, identifies three ‘distinct dimensions’ that make up an ‘adequate framework’ for teaching social justice in a University setting.[7] First, there is the “social ethic,” which is further defined by one’s faith-based or moral convictions.[8] This is followed by a “structural analysis of our present-day social world.”[9] The third component, suggested by Wolterstorff is that of bringing together the “ethic with the analysis,”[10] so that the principle understood as ‘the ethic’ is applied more specifically to the situations that are analyzed.

Taking this three dimensional framework to various communities, we find that there is a wide range of understanding in terms of what people feel are proper social ethics. And thus, there are limitations immediately attached to an analysis of social issues. In many respects, we can all agree on the indisputable effects of racism, poverty, and social injustice that plagues many cities and neighborhoods, but without a common social ethic, solutions to social ills often become rather generalized or superficial. Why? Because, so often we tend to back up to the lowest common denominator to solve problems, because the respective lenses through which we view the problems or social ills are so often fogged over by various understanding of ethical behavior.

Herein lies the advantage of both grassroots movements as well as faith based Universities. While many faith based Universities advertise an ideal that is far greater than the reality of its own environment and curriculum, there is the possibility of unifying around a ‘greater’ cause and something that is greater than what is often visible. Faith based education can, without apology and as part of its own mission, address issues of the heart in very clear terms. Public Universities, who are funded by taxpayers and our own government, often must address social issues first, from an accepted social ethic, then the analysis is done in terms of what is ‘politically correct’. This limits the analysis rather quickly and this is evident in the history of racism. In public education, the prevailing view that is in power tends to influence greatly the prevailing acceptable views and taught social ethics.

When power shifts, then so do some ethics. So, for example, a culture like ours can say in the 1800’s that women and blacks have no vote, but in 2008, we see that as so utterly oppressive that it’s virtually unthinkable. The result of a changing social ethic though can be healthy for the University to address. And Universities have historically been places where challenging the prevailing powers that be can be done in effective ways.[11] Universities are uniquely positioned in communities, with resources and a certain respect allocated to them, to address social justice issues in reforming ways.

“The lesson to be learned by schools is that they must look for ways to confront their students with the faces and voices of suffering—with images and voices of the night….it helps to have that other presented in such a way that one suffers over his or her suffering and rejoices over his or her rejoicing.”[12] And often, Universities are afforded the freedom to peel back the current plight in the drama of suffering in our world. We tend to insulate children from it and understandably so and we tend to try to frame it for secondary students. But, University students and thus, the University faculty and community are uniquely positioned to show issues as they truly are in all of their ugliness, beauty, controversy, and compassion. If a school is going to intentionally address issues of poverty and inequality, then the challenge is to clearly show what poverty and inequality looks like and the implications of it.

The insulation can be taken from a student and the resources of a University can allow students a guided tour into a different side of life where injustice is seen clearly for what it is—ugly. Without seeing injustice clearly, social change will often be accidental, not incidental. And as Kant observes, the outrage will hardly be outrage at all, but a cry from personal discomfort, articulating an individual struggle, not a collective ownership of a community.

[1] Jose Lalas: “Teaching for Social Justice in Multicultural Urban Schools: Conceptualization and Classroom Implication.” From Multicultural Education; 2007, p. 3.

[3] See also

Where in this review, the author makes the compelling point that qualitative data influences our understanding of social change or social injustice so much that we ‘take sides’ before there is empirical evidence, therefore tainting the data. I want to make the case that this is true individually as well as communally and we need not fear this, but embrace this as our reality. Numbers mean something only as we attach meaning to them.

[4] Lalas, p. 3.

[5] See also for references that take this line of thinking further. Teachers that are allowed to move beyond teaching to a test can be change agents inside and outside the classroom.

[6] Immanuel Kant quoted in “Teaching for Justice: On Shaping How Students are Disposed to Act,” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, from Educating for Shalom, edited by Clarence Joldersma and Gloria Stronks; Eerdman’s Publishing, Grand Rapids, 2004; p. 138.

[7] Ibid, p. 146.

[8] Faith based colleges have both an advantage and disadvantage in addressing social justice. The advantage is that there is often a clear or at least clarified, somewhat unified understanding of what is meant by the term ‘justice’ and so the faith based community can move forward in a more unified fashion. The disadvantage is that often the perception of a faith based community is one in which many people believe that ‘faith’ or religion is part of the oppression that constitutes a society, therefore faith based institutions often fight first for credibility amidst a culture that so often identifies exclusivity and intolerance with religious ideals.

[9] Ibid, p. 147.

[10] Ibid, p. 148.

[11] We probably only have to mention phrases like ‘California Berkeley and Kent State’ to clarify the point.

[12] Ibid, p. 152.


But what social change? The schools are an agent for the social change for the politically correct governing class that are trying to instill their worldview in the next generation. What this post does not address is whether the change the schools are pushing is "good". I would prefer that my tax dollars are spent teaching my children reading, writing and arithmetic, not "social justice". BTW - what is social justice?

Also, the younger generation arrogantly thinks that they are better than the older generations because they hold this nebulous term "social justice" as a banner of triumph. What they often do not understand is that they have been manipulated by left wing zealots like Ayers and Wallace into thinking that they are the first generation to push for social justice. Evidently, if you do not beleive in homosexual marriage, you are "homophobic". This is a lie ofcourse.

True, politically correct stances do color how some tax dollars are spent, but I think the article above also points to the benefits that faith based groups have in solidifying something that is not reliant on whatever winds of change are currently blowing.

In regard to defining social change or social justice, I think the article simply says that each of us (in particular universities) contributes to the environment and culture in which we live and that institutions as influential as schools must take into account that their place in the community does indeed change a community. For example, when people buy real estate near certain schools or in certain school districts, that's admitting the influence of schools on our own neighborhoods. And let's then be intentional as school leaders in our influence.

Amen to Guest! I'm glad you've unmasked "social justice" for what it really is -- a left wing, neo-socialist, anti-Christian/American, homo-feminist, Obama-loving ideology.

To the first "guest" and "friend of guest",

I'm confused by your thoroughly did you read the author's conclusions? In the last section, the author supports the "unique role of faith-based Universities" as distinct from tax-dollar funded public institutions that, as the post seems to indicate, are handicapped from any depth of engagement or wrestling with the exact questions you bring up: "what is TRUE social justice? what is GOOD?"

I cannot believe you both are against the faith-based Institutions in this country and against their attempts to instill in future generations the DNA of Christ who called us to care for "the least of these"...?

The point I derived from the post was not some "Obama-loving, Left-wing zealot" rhetoric, but rather an honest assessment of the unique role of the Faith-based University as well as an open questioning as to how those institutions might be more intentional about focusing their un-stoppable social impact. For we cannot not the author stated.

I believe that changes should start from each person. Only then that we can make some changes in the society for the better. - Ellerslie Mission Society

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As a University director of study abroad in Illinois, ideas and stories matter. These reflections are for pilgrims making progress.