Depending on how we understand ‘social justice’ and ‘education’ the relationship between them changes. ‘Social justice’ can be a slippery concept, particularly when it is kidnapped by a government that supports an individual-blaming culture.
The Centre for Social Justice, set up by Ian Duncan Smith, defines the need for social justice as a need to respond to issues that emerge due to poor individual decisions, such as drug and alcohol abuse, educational failure (of the individual) or serious personal debt. The scent of blame is inescapable.
This view reminds me of Boris Johnson’s suggestion about poor people having a low IQ, which is why they are poor. An individualistic agenda for social justice masks the social origin of inequality by pointing the finger to the individual: “it is your fault” (or you are faulty).
By contrast, understanding that individuals necessarily live in a social world, defines social justice in a very different manner.
Inequality and poverty are the result of poor living conditions, scarce opportunities, low wages (which are far from being living wages), educational offers that do not respond to people’s needs and that do not create a bridge towards (and from) diverse cultures, and an economy in which workers’ needs fill the elite’s pockets through the use of credit, for example.
An agenda for social justice needs to challenge inequality in relation to social class, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference, immigration status and any issue that contributes to our diversity.
For this reason, a social justice agenda involves encouraging participation and confronting issues of power and power relations. Education cannot compensate for society, as Basil Bernstein stated some decades ago.
This is to say that equality in relation to access to basic goods and services, and to opportunities to grow and develop, need to be created outside the education sector as well as within it.
Nevertheless, education can indeed compensate for social differences as research has shown in recent years, when it contributes to the creation of common experiences that support learning to trust, to the support of critical reflection and expression of our thoughts and feelings, to the development of dispositions towards solidarity and other shared values, and to the nourishment of our aspirations to learn and work for change.
Education can constitute a practice of freedom, in Freire’s words.
Education is not reduced to blackboard and chalk (or whiteboard and marker), to drill and practice, to workforce training, to credentials, to transmission.
Education needs to constitute a rainbow which bridges towards the future.
On that bridge we walk together while we learn to participate in social life, via that bridge we enrich our knowledge and understanding and through that bridge we develop skills and dispositions about the world and ourselves.
Even more, if we think about the future, education for social justice is what makes us humane as we prepare to move the axis of a world that currently spins around profit.