Social Justice and Higher Education: How are we walking the talk?

By Fernando Murillo
PhD in Curriculum Studies Program
Faculty of Education
University of British Columbia

November 17, 2014

The notion of social justice has proven to be particularly complex, especially when it comes to be considered as an orientation in university level education. As with many other concepts with “aura” – such as “quality” or “democracy”- that seem to be self evident and supported by a generalized consensus, they produce the effect that when we use them, we are all referring to something more or less similar, when in fact, we may be talking about not only different, but even opposing views. After considering some of the criticism that the notion of social justice has received due to its under theorizing (Cochran Smith 2004, 2008; Zeichner, 2009), the question that remains is: What is it that we talk about when we talk about social justice? It is helpful to consider that discourses and social practices are constituted (and are constitutive of) representations, epistemologies, rationalities and – ultimately ideological positionings that determine the scope, limits and possibilities for the understandings and actions they generate. In other words, we think and do according to our (sometimes unconscious) beliefs.

In a recent study analyzing the ideological contents in discourses of social justice (Murillo, 2014) a central idea that stems from the findings is that social justice is not an stable concept (with a fixed definition) but rather a dynamic perspective. The perspective can be positioned along a continuum between two poles: on one extreme, the domain of the redistributive paradigm (the hegemonic view that holds the assumption that issues of justice can be addressed by distributing goods, services and access to them) and on the other extreme, the domain of a recognition paradigm (that acknowledges that not all situations of injustice are explained by problems of distribution, but rather by misrepresentations and misrecognitions of identities, reproducing politics of difference and dominance).

The position where we situate ourselves along this continuum (closer of farther from each extreme) will give way to radically different operationalizations of justice in the decisions and practices we engage in.

The study also showed that at different levels within an institution of higher education, the notion of social justice appeared primarily as a declaration of an abstract desirability expressed through a language of affective and cognitive operations, rather than through practices related to decision-making or action-taking processes in those involved in the learning community. This finding points to the importance of making social justice not only an explicit part of the curriculum of higher education, but also a practical stance included in the competencies and evaluation in the process of those becoming a professional practitioner. In reflecting about your stance on social justice, where would you position yourself along the continuum: as a matter of equal opportunities and access, or a matter of recognizing, valuing and empowering the identities of those who suffer misrecognition? What about the institution at which you work? In what ways does your institution, and your own practice, reflect a commitment to social justice? And after considering what you have just read, in what ways could you re-conceptualize and strengthen that commitment.