Knowledge for What? Educating for Social Justice

When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, the General Assembly urged member states “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read, and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.” How well have schools and universities promulgated the Universal Declaration and other issues related to social justice and human rights and human rights behavior? And what challenges do they face in implementing these educational programs?

In his book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Zygmunt Bauman expresses outrage at the inability of the social sciences to “[assimilate] the lessons of the Holocaust in the mainstream of our theory of modernity and of the civilizing process and its effects.” His sentiments echo those of a now little-read sociologist, Robert Lynd, who argued passionately in his 1939 book, Knowledge for What?—written with the events in Germany as background—that social scientists must “keep challenging the present with the question: but what is it that we human beings want and what things would have to be done, in what ways and in what sequence, in order to change the present so as to achieve it?”

Bauman and Lynd imply that a real engagement with human rights and social justice would constantly interfere with—and so organize—our experiences. Unfortunately, too often discussions of current events are divorced from human rights topics. For example, an otherwise rich course at the University of Pennsylvania on “Psychological and Ethnopolitical Conflict” devotes a week to “Toward Ameliorating Ethnopolitical Conflict,” and covers such topics as “Psychodynamic approaches: loss and mourning, narcissism of small difference,” “Forgiving, negativity dominance, and some aspects of methodology,” and “Non-experimental (observational) studies: cross-sectional and cohort investigations.” Presumably, the promotion of human rights should have some role in “ameliorating” ethnopolitical conflict. Unfortunately, there is no mention of human rights in this 31-page syllabus. Similarly, university courses on the Holocaust commonly do not integrate human rights or contemporary human rights abuses into their syllabi. We have the examined past, but do we have a useable past? Examples abound of curricula that leave out the essential question: How we should behave in the light of human right abuses?

There are three approaches that are commonly found among educators that hamper social justice education. The first is a commitment to a particular model of education that champions objectivity, devalues subjectivity, and does not allow students to create personal values and a moral voice. The second approach is related to the first: devoid of a moral voice, students cannot develop sophisticated feelings that lead to ethical behavior. Finally, educators attempt to create professionals who can compete in their particular marketplace, but they do not discuss how these professionals could further the public interest.

Educators generally teach with a “literacy model” in mind. This model focuses on what students should know, as well as how they perform relative to their grade level. The national discussion on performance standards and standardized exams reflects this approach. Objectivity is the benchmark of the literacy model. The educator and sociologist Parker J. Palmer reminds us that “fact” comes from the Latin facer, “to make,” and “theory” comes from the Greek theoros, or “spectator.” The word “objective” is rooted in the Latin “to put against,” “to oppose,” and the word “reality” comes from res, meaning a property, a possession, a thing. In other words, we champion an intellectual approach that distances ourselves from the world. We master a subject (and note the element of possession in the term “master”) by dis-engaging. Palmer calls this educational approach in which our focus is always outward and separate, the hidden curriculum. The peril of this hidden curriculum lies in the inability to put relationships at the heart of education. Current education has eliminated the idea that knowledge implies connection and relatedness. How strongly I connect to the subject and why it makes a difference cannot be addressed if I am taught to distance myself from the subject.

The consequence of the literacy model keeps teachers from making value judgments about anything except the most blatant abuses. The argument is that since each culture has its own values and practices, educators should not make value judgments about cultural differences. As a result, educators have concluded that the study of customs and norms should always be value-free and that the appropriate role of the student/researcher is that of observer and recorder.

The fear of cultural imperialism impedes talk about what is right and wrong. This relativism—rooted paradoxically in the search for a value neutral objectivity—has even played an historical role in disengaging well- meaning intellectuals from the human rights debate. For example, in 1947 the executive board of the American Anthropological Association felt that no principle of human rights should apply to all human beings and withdrew from discussion about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban describes how torn she was between her commitment to respect local customs and her personal abhorrence of female genital circumcision (FGM). During the discussions at the 1993 International Human Rights Conference, Fluehr-Lobban realized that “there was a moral agenda larger than myself, larger than Western culture or the culture of the northern Sudan or my discipline.” She began to uncouple FGM from culture and think of body and pleasure and body and pain as universal, transcultural “grounding experiences” (as Martha Nussbaum phrases it) that are prior to specific cultures.

Gender-specific petitions for political asylum in the United States federal immigration courts often reveal the insensitivity (or confusion) of drawing a too-sharp distinction between universal ethics and commitments to local customs. Thus, in the 1996 case Fisher v. INS, the 9th Circuit Court held mistreating a woman in Iran for failing to follow the dress code was not persecution, but “routine punishment for violating generally applicable laws.” Her petition for asylum was denied.

I do not mean to deny the importance of context and the uniqueness of culture, politics, and power by my comments about relativism. Even the UN High Commission for Human Rights takes a pragmatic stance, and considers itself a “protection agency” rather than a relief organization because it has to work with government that are “sensitive to human rights issues,” when areas of national law conflict with international human rights law. International law does not deny the uniqueness of individuals and cultures. However, it assumes that universals exist and will emerge through a resolute quest for fundamental understanding and for actualizing the potential for a full life.

The fact that there is no culturally neutral interpretation of human rights should not keep us from discussing the challenges inherent in a universalism vs. the specificity of cultures. As Michael Freeman pointed out in a 2004 article in Human Rights Quarterly: “It is not the task of human rights theory to determine ultimate religious or philosophical truths, but to identify the rules that ought to govern the relations among persons of different beliefs.”

This brings me to the second point. The educational approach that privileges a value free objectivity hampers discussion of ethical behavior. Many educators, focused on literacy and mastery, do not articulate such a bold and explicit mission.

There have been interesting attempts to inject the question of how to behave in a few selected high school social justice programs and curricula. For example, the Boston-based Educators for Social Responsibility offers a curriculum for students, teachers, administrators, and support staff in middle and high school that “emphasizes making personal connections to the skills and concepts of conflict resolution. This personal perspective involves providing regular opportunities for self-reflection through observation, writing, reading, and discussion.” In this program, teachers are challenged to address behavior: “If we want students to use peacemaking skills in their own lives, we, as teachers, must strengthen our commitment to model and practice these skills on a daily basis in our classrooms and communities.” The National Council of Teachers of English Committee on Teaching about Genocide and Intolerance proclaims in its two-volume book of essays and resources that “If we as teachers believe that prejudice is a learned behavior, then it is imperative that we work as teachers to reduce, if not eliminate, prejudices we find both in ourselves and in our students.” Facing History and Ourselves addresses ethics in its history-based curricula on the Holocaust as well as the American civil rights movement. These educational programs do not shirk from a discussion of personal values and value building.

Lastly, the “literacy model,” whose aim is to turn students into future professionals, can disregard the conflict of interest between the professional and the public interest—a conflict amply illustrated by charges of partiality leveled against doctors who are paid by pharmaceutical companies to endorse new products.

In 1968, the distinguished American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, wrote that the professions have become “the most important single component in the structure of modern societies.” Parson’s statement is certainly true in our complex contemporary culture. Universities have been very successful in building professional cadres in nearly every field. Individuals, corporations, courts, and government increasingly depend on people who are purported to have expert knowledge. The danger is that experts are perceived to have special knowledge that is inaccessible or too complex for the general public—the entity they are supposed to serve. This confers a lot of power to the professional and is a barrier to informed discussions. In addition, status, social power, and significant financial gains often make them dependent on the social and political entities for which they provide services.

Unfortunately, many people around the world are in grave danger. Academic discourse is irrelevant to them if it is not accompanied by activism. The 1948 UN Genocide Convention was meant to be preventative and to mete out punishment. Recent genocides reveal the difficulty in preventing such events. The activism I speak about includes providing an acquaintance with the history of human rights abuses and sophistication about the way governments work. But this is not enough. Teachers must also engender feelings of obligation and insist that relationships are at the center of the human rights enterprise. 

Social justice education that results in activism occurs when students become allies—rather than bystanders— to marginalized, voiceless, and under-represented people and groups in their community. A practical interest in local causes can be the starting point for students to engage with national and international human rights concepts and current issues of justice.

A recent case exemplifies this fusion of knowledge and ethical behavior. The Nation reported (December 17, 2012) that students in a sociology class at San Jose State University on “Social Action” decided to champion the minimum wage cause. Starting from scratch, they researched the problem, gathered interested students, approached unions for funding, lobbied the city council, and eventually gathered more than enough signatures to put a minimum wage proposal on the November 2012 ballot. It passed. They proved that knowledge in the service of social activism leads to meaningful change in society.


Michael Nutkiewicz was Executive Director of the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles from 2001-2007. He served as Senior Historian at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, established by Steven Spielberg to videotape the testimony of Holocaust survivors.