What is social justice?: Implications for the field of education

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Social justice
Philosophical hermeneutics

In the field of education, there is currently much enthusiasm for social justice and a popular education movement, Social Justice Education (SJE), based on advancing this ideal. However, efforts to achieve social justice in and through schooling are undermined by a lack of clarity regarding the meaning of the term. Educators and educationists use the term nebulously and frequently as justification for diverse and even opposing programs, the merits of which are impossible to investigate absent conceptual consensus. Little attention has been devoted to clarifying concepts that underlie the SJE movement. The primary aim of this dissertation, therefore, is to answer the question “What is social justice?” and a secondary aim is to examine the question “What is the relationship between social justice, education, and schooling?” Because there currently are multiple and competing philosophical accounts of social justice, these questions were investigated historically, guided by Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics. The historical emergence and development of social justice over the past three centuries is examined. I have argued that the concept and practices of social justice are interwoven with the history of liberal thought. Based on this historical account, Nancy Fraser’s principles of social justice and Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach are offered in the present work as the best ways of thinking about social justice, with implications for educational policy and practice. Education has been central to the liberal project and given social justice’s association with liberal ideals, it is unsurprising that social justice and schooling have come to be associated with each other. However, current support for SJE in the field of education is premised on the notion that realizing social ideals is an aim of schools, which, paradoxically, undermines the end it is designed to achieve. As an alternative, I have suggested that educators take up the view of early liberal theorists who considered quality schooling a result of social justice (and not the reverse).

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Jeff Sugarman
Education: Faculty of Education
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.