Original hypothesis on connecting Social Justice and Higher Ed.
A few days ago when I visited Santa Clara University I heard the term social justice numerous times. I’ve been meaning to write about this concept for a while, but several things have been holding me back. One is my fear of sounding like an idiot. I’ll be honest I’m still a bit confused about the term social justice and what it means to me. It seems like a buzz word among certain higher education circles right now but I’ve never heard a definition, only a lot of references to it. Another reason for my hesitation is because my current concept of social justice creates quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in my own mind and there are times when I like to ignore such feelings. With this being said, I type on…
To me one of the greatest difficulties with the term social justice is that it easily gets wrapped up with the concept of community service. When I was in AmeriCorps, I thought the two were one in the same. I thought I was contributing to social justice simply by working at a homeless shelter or lending a hand in hurricane recovery work. Now I see things differently. The term social justice implies more than simply giving back, making the world a better place, or assisting an under-served population; it means recognizing and then responding to the fact that this world is not a socially just place. It means grasping the concepts of unearned privilege and oppression and recognizing one’s place within the systems that create these realities. For me this means not only staring straight in the face of my own unearned privilege, of which I have a great deal, but also recognizing that American higher education contributes and feeds off systems of privilege and oppression. This is where things become problematic for me.
If higher education were removed from systems of privilege and oppression everyone would have an equal opportunity to attend college. However, this is simply not the case. Going to college is a privilege: a privilege not everyone can afford. In addition not is everyone afforded a quality of K-12 education that properly prepares them for college, and not all campuses are inclusive and welcoming to everyone. Colleges separate/admit people based on factors that they have no control over (wealth of their parents, physical and mental wellness, neighborhood schools that they attended); in other words, colleges are tied up in the system of oppression that affects so many American institutions. This is a harsh statement to make and there may be some backlash for making it. However, I stand by my statement and would be happy to discuss it more thoroughly with anyone who wants to provide a different view.
With that being said, I don’t see colleges as the root of the problem and I think that higher education can help lessen oppression and privilege: there is no way I would be continuing on in this field if I didn’t. I recognize that many universities support and continue to increase programs devoted to diversifying their student bodies. I recognize that financial aid, indowments and scholarships are available to help off-set the costs of attending college. I know that their are numerous university staff and faculty members who spend countless hours creating programs, writing grants, attending conferences, and working with colleagues to create inclusive environments and lessen the oppression that some students feel before and during their time on college campuses. Most importantly, I know that many students will not learn about the concepts of privilege, oppression, and social justice unless they attend college. In other words, higher education is a two-faced coin, on the one side part of institution of education which contributes to oppression and unearned privilege, and on the other side an institution that can help students recognize these forces and work in their various fields to prevent their spread and hopefully lessen their impact.
Ultimately this is where my concept of higher education’s connection to social justice must be. We must work to create programs that address issues of privilege and oppression. We must support faculty members who challenge students to recognize and respond to these forces. We must continually encourage and engage students in conversations that make them think about these issues not from a theoretical standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. We must find ways to ask the hard questions and probe the hard topics. Perhaps most importantly we must be able to look inside ourselves and decide what we are going to do, how we are going to react once we have learned about the unearned privilege and oppression that impacts our daily lives. I’ll be honest, I’m still years away from coming up with a response that I’m proud of, but I’m getting closer everyday and reflecting on this concept can never hurt. There will be more to come in this area, just wait and see!