Monday, October 25, 2010

It’s All About Social Justice

 I often wonder, as do all educators, what really sticks with a class or an audience? I really pour myself into both the preparation for and delivery of a classroom, workshop presentation or speech. Usually, I get some kind of verbal and written feedback. But I have to wonder, what is it that really might last? When I lived in South Carolina, which is like one great big extended family reunion, where everyone knows everyone, I used to run into my former students constantly, never failed. Good thing I was always on my best behavior and a good ambassador for the University! After hundreds of these kinds of serendipitous meetings and exchanges I came to conclude that what my students remembered most, was me, and especially what I stood for, some kind of core values. And for many of them, they found me quite different in that regard.

A few months ago I did an all day workshop with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and at the end of the day, one of the participants gave me verbal feedback that what I had done/said that day that had meant the most to her was sharing a personal statement of my philosophy of education (about which I have blogged previously).

Recently, I gave a speech and several members of my audience told me in strongly worded statements of appreciative feedback that what really grabbed them was my reminding them that the bottom line of what all our work on student success is about, what it all comes down to, is social justice.

I reminded this audience that the movement for “student success” grew out of the convergence and interaction of multiple parallel historical and social movements in the early 1970’s:
* the civil rights movement
* the women’s rights movement
* the anti-war movement
* the students’ rights movement
* and more specifically: the desegregation of US higher education, and the implementation of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Higher Education Act (especially Title IV to provide Federal financial aid)

All of these can be described in summary as a grand national effort, albeit an incomplete experiment, to bring social justice to more of our citizens (and now recent immigrants who are not yet citizens).

And this effort to promote social justice through higher education is not done. It is ongoing, needed as much, and in some ways, more than ever. So, yes indeed, social justice is what this is all about.

I wish more of us would use this language more often. Given the political polarization of our country and the hi-jacking by the right wing of previously respected concepts and ways of thinking (such as “liberal”), most of our higher education leaders are so careful in their chosen public utterances that they rarely use this language. What a shame. This is still what it is all about.

So let’s hear it for social justice.

-John N. Gardner