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Teaching Social Justice on Campus for Self Awareness, Community Sustainability, and Systems Change

“The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. To some extent we all know whenever we address in the classroom subjects  that students are passionate about there is always a possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas or even conflict”.

(Bell Hooks, 1994, p.39)

In a collection of works which focused on teaching for social justice, Linda Christensen (2000) wrote that though  conflict does occur when one  “rises up”,  transformative acts such as students “reading the word and the world” also occur and so does engagement and empowerment. In essence, engagement in diverse ideas causes conflict which causes change which causes learning to occur.  Fried (2006) defines learning as a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development and the campus as a learning system .  This learning system is in the classroom, the residence halls, the cafeteria, the athletic field, study abroad programs, and student organizations. To promote the study and examination of social justice issues for students, most colleges and universities have either curricular requirements for social justice coursework or a campus culture that promotes such engagement outside of the classroom (Tritton, 2008).   

 This chapter addresses the relevance of teaching social justice on campus – in the classroom and in student affairs – and the challenge of maintaining a balanced and reasoned approach.

The teaching of social justice: The impact on teaching, research, and civic engagement

After Thomas Tritton served as President of Haverford College for twelve years, he returned to the classroom in 2007 as President in Residence at Harvard University Graduate School of Education where he designed the course entitled, Social Justice in the Undergraduate Experience.  In the article, Teaching Social Justice in Higher Education, Tritton (2008) reported that before teaching the course   he explored how colleges promote social justice issues to students.   He pointed out that while in this pursuit, he quickly realized that there was little coordination or consensus among colleges pursuing social justice goals.  It was also apparent that there was not a well-developed base of scholarship on the definitions, objectives, and outcomes of course instruction in social justice. 

Students who took the course with Dr. Tritton examined Brian Barry’s theoretical approach to distributive justice where fairness and equality are achieved in all aspects of society; bell hook’s view of higher education as a combination of autobiography, history, and literary analysis; and Martha Nussbaum’s unconventional approach to three unsolved aspects of justice, namely, the disabled, non-human animals, and global justice.  In addition, through small group discussions, students examined the most effective ways that   colleges could have the most impact in the teaching of social justice.  Furthermore, the students also  examined   whether the focus should be on research or teaching, curricular or extracurricular, through specific courses or across the curriculum, how to partner with those  outside of the academy, how to encourage more than one viewpoint on controversial issues, and to what extent can or should academic critique influence the public agenda.  Each group was also responsible for leading a class session on the social justice topic of their justice.  The class settled on four main topics:  healthcare and social justice; justice for non-human species; diversity ad social justice; and housing and social justice.  These topics   demonstrate, as pointed out by Tritton (2008), that one can make any course better by egaging social justice concepts from nearly any disciplinary perspective.

Just as Tritton’s approach engaged the students in the critical exploration of teaching and applying social justice theory, Pettit (2006) similarly concurred that we in   the academy can “cultivate the highest capacities of human beings when we assist them in critically evaluating questions about how we can better flourish together in our communities, rather than isolating communities and reacting to each other without ever really knowing why we do so” (pp. 475-476).  As a result, to help “advance the cause of searching for better ways to think about and to teach social justice” (p. 477),  Pettit offers the following five rules:

  • Differentiate between unjust and unfortunate states of affairs. Situations are often discounted as unfortunate when one does not critically examine the causes of the misfortune.  This means that teachers of social justice must use history, sociology and public policy to purse any structural changes that might make a real case for the possible existence of injustice, rather than mere misfortune.
  • Avoid misanthropy which is defined by Pettit as “distrust or negative evaluation of human beings as such”. Regardless of the nature of the indictment (i.e., corporate corruption, racism, sexism), those who teach social justice must believe in the inherent ability of the human being to do something about social justice.  A negative outlook on the human capacity to be part of the solution is counter productive.
  • Observe the pedagogical priority of injustice to justice. This rule implies that we must learn about justice by beginning with injustice.  Theories of justice are better taught by first examining injustices which are often areas of agreement or common ground of diverse groups.  This approach allows participants to converge on particular outcomes without feeling the stress of not being able to solve large scale issues.
  • Put actual political discourse back into theories of political discourse. This means paying some attention to the mechanisms of discourse and communication.  It means getting actively involved in the community to make things happen (i.e., making phone calls, letters to legislators and newspapers, listening to constituents) rather than merely studying the theory of the process.  Involvement builds within the student a tolerance for uncertainty, conflicting opinions, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining, compromise, and imperfect solutions.  This in turns helps to shape a citizen that will remain steadfast in the process instead of becoming aggravated and possibly walking away.
  • Link discussions of social justice and injustice to actual opportunities to pursue justice or to confront injustice. This linking of social and political ethics to opportunities for action, according to Pettit, brings the first four rules together which enables one to possibly claim the presence of injustice rather than merely an unfortunate state of affairs.

By adhering to these five rules in teaching social justice, students are enabled to become educated rather than trained and would be expected to engage in intellectual discourse. On the contrary, as noted by Fried (2006), teaching in the academy has “usually been understood as the transfer of information” and learning is “the ability to acquire, recall, and repeat information” (p. 3).  This “positivist epistemology” (p.3), as explained by Fried, views learning as a body of knowledge that exists objectively, separate from the person who is learning.  On the opposite side, Fried cites that “constructivism” (p. 4), a challenge to positivism, addresses questions of personal meaning wherein “individual perspective and life experience shape each person’s interpretation of information” (p.4).

The teaching of social justice is a means of provocation of thought, thus supporting the notion that the educational goal should be to help students address personal questions of meaning, experience, or involvement.  This approach further allows the individual to explore endless possibilities and respond collectively to societal needs a s determined by each generation.

Outside the classroom

In 2003, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) identified 16 individual learning and development outcome domains (Komives & Schoper, 2006).  This author points out the following eight of these domains as areas of impact in the teaching and application of social justice:

  • Intellectual growth
  • Effective communication
  • Realistic self appraisal
  • Leadership development
  • Meaningful interpersonal relationship
  • Collaboration
  • Social Responsibility
  • Appreciating diversity

These domains served as the basis for establishing learning outcomes in a collegiate course in negotiation and conflict resolution taught by a student affairs administrator during the Fall of 2007 and Spring 2008.  In a research study of the  assessment of  learning outcomes, Rashid (2008) concluded that the use of these domains prove helpful in establishing and assessing learning outcomes which enable students to acquire new skills, knowledge, and/or attitudes in the practice of negotiation and mediation.  Teaching students conflict management and resolution enabled this researcher , as a student affairs administrator, to demonstrate that academic learning and student development processes exist simultaneously and should be highlighted more in the academy.

To demonstrate this inherent existence, Street (1997) found that most of the research that examined the affects of  the college environment on college students outside the classroom dealt with the role student organizations play in both student involvement and student development.  Historically, college student organizations “play a significant role in student life on most American college and university campuses” (Street, 1997, p.6) and particularly within student leadership development (Komives, 1994). More specifically (Street, 1997) describes student organizations are viewed as “learning laboratories” (p.4) that offer many opportunities for students including the chance to develop meaningful relationships, to pursue special interests, to clarify a sense of purpose and identity, and to develop interpersonal, leadership, organization, and social skills.     

 There are many variables at play within student organizations that influence individual and group behavior. Schmitz (1997) explored the adaptation of organizational behavior theory to college student organizations depicting the student as the core of the group being surrounded and influenced by task, technology, structure, leadership, and culture all within the university environment. It is the job of educators to equip students of all ages with the relevant skills needed to navigate the constant interplay of these variables.

The challenge is for student affairs professionals to assume their appropriate role as equal partners in the educational training and development of not only student leaders (McIntire, 1989) but also all students. For example, on the college campus there seems to be a general assumption that student leaders of campus organizations are automatically effective leaders that are “flexible, prepared, knowledgeable about self, and are able to create therapeutic climates, intervene critically and to successfully apply “problem-solving processes” (Conyne , Harvill, Morran, & Killacky, 1990, p.34). This may very well be an expectation of group leaders but cannot be left to chance by student affairs professionals. Without proper training, many students who are chosen to lead organizations, for example, are unable to effectively assume leadership responsibilities (Lamoureaux, 1984). These “idealistic, energized students are quickly ‘burned out’ by unrealistic demands they place upon themselves and by the frustrations that develop as a result of the absence of a systematic approach to solving their organizational problems” (Duvall & Ender, 1980, p.145), in addition to coming to terms with their personal self identity .

As a result, there is constant conflict in student organizations caused primarily by role conflict, interdependence and scarcity of resources (Franck, 1983).  These findings further indicate the  potential to teach the principles of social justice as a means to  increase self awareness and to manage interpersonal conflict.  Critical reflection of thoughts and ideas along with self introspection enable students to gain invaluable life skills. 


Racial, ethnic, cultural, and language diversity deepens the quest by different groups for cultural recognition and rights (Banks, 2004).  In essence, when men and women simultaneously reflect on themselves (self awareness, as the title of the chapter implies) and on the world, they increase the scope of their perception and “begin to single out elements from their ‘back ground awareness’ and to reflect upon them” (Friere, 1970/1993, pg. 64).  This “problem-posing education” according to Friere, causes people to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (pg. 64).  Thus, this quest by different groups for cultural recognition and rights challenges the “assimilationist notions of citizenship”, as noted by Banks (2004, pg. 290), in which all groups are expected to forsake their own culture to fully participate in the dominant mainstream culture.  On the other hand, the twenty-first century and beyond calls for “a delicate balance of unity and diversity… as an essential goal of citizenship education in multicultural nation states “(Banks, p. 289).

As a result, it is vital for campuses to be engaged in building community through social justice research, teaching, and civic engagement.  Curricular and co-curricular experiences in social justice provide a forum for the student to acquire new skills, knowledge, and or attitudes and enhance students’ ability to work with people whose personality, backgrounds, expectations, and values differ from their own. 

There are many world problems that affect us all that need our collective attention.  Today, citizenship education is just as vital a part of literacy as basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics (Banks, 2004).  We must teach our students how to communicate with each other – not to fear one another because of differences but to learn from one another as we seek to address the pertinent challenges of our time.  We are cautioned by the late Martin Luther King, Jr. that “we must learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools”.  Let us take heed within the academy to provoke thought among our students through the teaching of social justice for all and for all things.



Banks, J.A. (2004).  Teaching for social justice, diversity, and citizenship in a global world.  National Forum, (68).

Barry, B. (2005)  Why social justice matters.  Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Christensen, L (2000).  Reading, writing, and rising up:  Teaching about social justice and the power of the written word.   Milwaukee, Wisconsin:  Rethinking Schools.

Conyne, R.K., Harvill, R.L., Morran, D.K. & Killacky, D.H. (1990). Effective group leadership: Continuing the search for greater clarity and understanding. Journal for Specialist in Group Work, 15(1), 30-36.  

Duvall, W.H. & Ender, K. (1980). A training model for developing leadership awareness, in E.B. Newton and K.L. Ender, (Eds.), Student development practices: Strategies for making a difference.  (pp. 145-168).  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas,.

Franck, B. (1983). Conflict: Is it tearing your organization apart? Campus Activities Programming, 16 (5), 26-29.

Friere, P.  (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Rev. ed., Myra Bergman Ramos, Trans.).  New York:  Continuum.  (original work published 1970)

Fried, J. (2006).  Rethinking Learning. In R.P. Keeling, (Eds.), Learning Reconsidered 2:  A Practical Guide to Implementing a Campus Wide Focus on the Student Experience (pp. 3-9). Washington, DC:   National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Hooks, b. (2003).  Teaching community:  A pedagogy of hope.  New York:  Routledge.

Komives, S.R. (1994). Women student leaders: Self-perceptions of empowering leadership and achieving style. NASPA Journal, 31, 102-112.

Komives, S.R. & Schoper, S.S. (2006).  Developing Learning Outcomes.  In R.P.Keeling, (Eds.), Learning Reconsidered 2:  A Practical Guide to Implementing a Campus Wide Focus on the Student Experience (pp. 17-41). Washington, DC:   National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Lamoureaux, G.P. (1994).  Leadership training:   A special focus on Berkshire Community College student leaders.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

McIntire, D.D. (1989). Student leadership development: A student affairs mandate. NASPA Journal, 27(1), 75-79.

Nussbaum, M.C. (2006).  Frontiers of   justice:  Disability, nationality, species membership.  Cambridge , MA:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.

Pettit, J. (2006).  Five rules for teaching social justicePolitical Theology, 7 (4), 475-489.

Rashid, J.N. (2008, September).  Conflict Resolution Education:  Assessing student learning outcomes. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution ,  Austin, Texas.

Schmitz, C.A. (1997). The translation   of organizational behavior theory of college student organizations. Unpublished  doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California at Los Angeles.

Street, J.L., Jr.  (1997). Leadership development: a comparison of strategies for college student organizations.   Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California at Los Angeles.

Tritton, T.R. (2008). Teaching social justice in higher ed.  Retrieved September 19, 2008,



Judy Rashid

Dr. Judy  Rashid has been involved in education for over 40 years as a former teacher, school principal, and university administrator.  After serving NC A&T State University for 25 years, she retired as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs / Dean of Students.  Presently she serves as Adjunct Faculty… MORE >

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