Instead of promoting ‘social justice,’ let’s promote our humanness


by Christopher Paslay

Fighting for social justice, the 21st century term for “equality” or “civil rights,” is the hippest thing since wearing pink for breast cancer.  Topped only by going green, promoting social justice has become the latest adopted cause of politicians, universities, educational researchers, and of course, the starry-eyed, idealistic school teachers fresh out of college.      


Striving to level the playing field for the underprivileged in America is very commendable, but we must be careful how we go about doing so. 


Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun who wrote When Things Fall Apart, explains, “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.” 


This insight is incredibly profound.


Promoting social justice in the 21st century has a dualistic quality to it.  The concept suggests that there are “haves” and “have-nots,” “free” and “oppressed,” “celebrated” and “marginalized”.  Because of this, there is a built-in condescension, a polarizing effect between the giver and the receiver. 


Last month, in a Philadelphia Weekly commentary, Teach For America transplant Brenden Beck explained why he was giving up teaching in the Philadelphia School District


. . . I got into teaching to promote social justice, mad at the Jim Crow-sized injustice that gives our nation’s poorest students an education much inferior to their suburban peers. I hoped to listen to and learn from people who endured the poverty I’d read so much about in college. . . .


. . . Since my students were all black, I talked about whiteness. I used my own experiences as a point of departure for discussions about privilege. While reading a story about Haitian street children, we talked about how police treat black and white people differently. While reading a biography of Thurgood Marshall, we talked about the advantages most white people had growing up.


I hoped that I could offer my students insight about the ways to speak and write or the mathematics needed for college and jobs. But I found that those very same privileges prevented me from connecting with them.


Late one afternoon, many students had begun to ignore the lesson, talk to one another, and throw the work on the floor. Exasperated, I launched into a lecture about using education to go places, to have options. One of the kids, Shandra, a bright, talented student, said, “What’s wrong with it here in Germantown? Why do we need to ‘go places?’ Why don’t you go back to the suburbs?” I stared mutely at her, and mumbled something about me being there because of my belief in social justice.


In talking about my whiteness and advantages, I had ignored my students’ situation: I was casting their homes as an undesirable obstacle to be overcome. My students knew theirs wasn’t a “good” school, but it was theirs, and they weren’t sure why I was there. . . .


Brenden Beck’s revelations are very interesting, and very true; I suggest reading Beck’s whole commentary in the September 16th issue of Philadelphia Weekly.  His writing is excellent, and his observations are right on the mark (you can do so by clicking here).


I think Beck’s experience teaching in Philadelphia can serve as a lesson for all those folks who wear their social justice buttons on their shirtsleeves.  Just like Pema Chodron says, we don’t help people because we are better than they are, but because human beings share the same stuff. 


This is the main reason why I’ve survived 13 years teaching in the Philadelphia School District.  My students and I are the same.  There’s no up here and down there, rich or poor, fixed and broken.  I don’t teach from a place of guilt or idealism, or from a lofty privileged pedestal.  When I look at my students I see me sitting in those desks. 


In my opinion, this is a big reason why so many new teachers can’t hack it in large urban cities.  Programmed by the divisive politics of many multicultural education courses, new teachers often view their students as “underprivileged” and “marginalized,” victims of an oppressive system.  Riddled by guilt, they try to play the role of savior, and when they find out it’s not as easy as theorized in their college textbooks, they get discouraged and move on. 


I am leery of trendy 21st century buzz words that come out of the mouths of the masses.  Instead of fighting to promote social justice, politicians, researchers and public school teachers should simply fight to promote our humanness. 


6 thoughts on “Instead of promoting ‘social justice,’ let’s promote our humanness

  1. Perhaps our Teach For America teacher, Mr. Beck should have been required to read Herbert Kohl’s book, I Won’t Learn From You, during his boot camp training on becoming a teacher. He may have fared better in his teaching experience in Philadelphia and better understood why he wasn’t able to connect with the students that he taught.

    Anyone who thinks that it easy being a teacher has never taught. My question is this: Are TFA graduates really interested in becoming teachers or in building an impressive resume to further their non-teaching careers (in addition to getting some of their huge tuition debts deferred)? If this is the case, then the goal of Teach For America is not succeeding in recruiting good quality teachers into our system and we will continue to fail those students who need the most support.

  2. hey chris,
    great blog and insightful commentary. however, i would disagree with your assertions about social justice. I am a product of the philly school district; central east middle school and del val charter, and currently a 1st year candidate for my masters of social work at university of denver. so, i am in the social justice business.

    i think what the teacher above might be experiencing is guilt or being uncomfortable with his privilege; hence going in to “save” the black kids. very similiar to what people do in africa and other developing countries…this has more to do with his own need to be a benevolent saviour than a true partner in progress, so please be careful in equating his insecurities with a particular perspective.

    if you look at dennis saleeby’s work or other academics in the field of strength based social work and social justice; you might be suprised, the ideal isn’t to continously rap about the have and have-nots… its to address the power differences…to address privilege… and to act as a faciliatator w/ different groups..

    to say that you or any of my other teachers in the district are the same as me or your students is dangerous territory. It neglects to realize the barriers that the system and curriculum uphold….besides the fact that by virtue of your education and position of power(teacher) you don’t know what its like to be 15, black, in north philadelphia in 2009.

    in fact, i was born and raised in philly(as were you)… but because of my progression through academia, to assume that I can understand the needs and strengths of my old neighbhorhood or philadelphia does a disservice to the community that actually lives there RIGHT NOW; which is when social justice and community organizing come in.

    i will agree that the language used to explain and have discourse about certain populations has extremely negative connotations, but to simply say we are human is to neglect true disparities that my peers and I have faced and continue to overcome. i will also agree that multicultural education is usually taught by left-leaning educators, but isn’t that because those on the other side of the spectrum can’t and won’t see race?

    think about this; when you say “humanness”; what would be the exact definiton… basic rights, an “equal” playing field,basic needs, accessibility,perhaps?

    and all your students have this?

    i actually grew up with many of the students that went to your school…. one in particular steps out; i’m certain that you have been in and out of juvey, your father was in prison most of your childhood, and the gang at the rec center is pressuring you to join?
    Chris, did that happen last week or yesterday?

    To harp on what you said in one of your other blogs. A person from a particular race can still uphold policy that does a disservice to the community they belong to. If you look at oppression from a systems perspective; race has nothing to do with upholding racist ideology.

    I also find it interesting that you love personal responsibility, but neglect to realize that its through a support system that people have truly acheived success. Ask any “success story” and they will tell you it was mentors and other people/organizations that helped them. Your pull yourself by the bootstraps ignores our human need for dependence on another.

    Also, on a final note; If you don’t think your students are not fascinated by Barack Obama primarily due to his race/cultural upbringing and identifying him as such then your are neglecting to observe your classmates.

  3. A-yep. If teaching ‘social justice’ is nothing more than paternalism, then it is doomed to fail. If we think that our jobs are to help students to critically analyze the world around them and come to their own decisions about what they see, hear and feel, we can teach them honestly and openly, without fearing that our background would somehow keep us from teaching kids from different lives.

  4. ” Instead of fighting to promote social justice, politicians, researchers and public school teachers should simply fight to promote our humanness.”

    Actually, I think public school English teachers should teach English, public school Math teachers should teach math, Science teachers should teach science, etc.

    Fighting for social justice (a practical and desirable goal) and promoting “our humanness” (which, as near as I can tell, means, approximately, fighting for social justice) can and will be tackled by strong thinkers.

    Strong thinkers will be cultivated by good education.

    As a teacher, I plan to spend approximately no time at all deciding whether I should “promote social justice” or whether I should “promote our humanness.” I plan to focus more on fractions, addition, subtraction, probability, and triangles.

  5. It’s been more than two years since this blog and its replies. Just wondering what anyone may be thinking now…disagree or agree? hold the same opinion or have a change of mind?

    • This entry is a demonstration of a lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the view that has been shared is one that is common amongst many educators that struggle to respect, connect with, and understand their pupils, the culture of their pupils, and often the communities they SERVE. Far too many who call themselves educators have lost sight of the reality that one has only taught when learning is taking place. That means the measure of teaching is learning. You must have an impact. You can teach discreet skills and knowledge, but the research on the way the human brain, memory, adolescence, and social interactions work, as well as the impact of socioeconomic conditions, self-esteem, culture and linguistics is irrefutable. Arguing that inequity does not exist or that it is not the responsibility of an educator reflects a poor understanding of ones responsibilities, but also is exemplary of the way that various agendas are served through the vehicle that is education. Someone such as the author, who disregards the responsibility of an educational system, ignores history and statistics, and is guided by his/her own agenda and not a vision for students success that is holistic in nature is essentially a contributor to social injustice because he/she is not working to overcome it. We cannot Kumbaya society’s ills away. Education can only be “the great equalizer”, as the old cliche goes, if the factors that create inequality are addressed. Inequality is real. Happy thoughts don’t fix poverty.

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