Justice for Political Dissenters

By June 8, 2006

As FIRE reported this week, NCATE, the largest national accreditor of education schools, has decided to drop the term “social justice” from its “dispositions” criteria for student graduation. FIRE’s objection is not that we as an organization are opposed to social justice—far from it. In fact, if anything, FIRE would define its mission as a critical part of social justice for college and university students and professors. After all, how can a society where speech, expression, or religion is not free be a just society?

Clearly, though, there are people who disagree with FIRE; they believe that a just society is one that places a priority on minimizing hurt feelings and smoothing the edges of the rough-and-tumble expression that is characteristic of a society in which ideas can be freely expressed and examined.

And that’s the problem. There is no way to come to even a rough consensus of what constitutes “social justice.” Take a common example: some people believe that affirmative action is a crucial aspect of social justice, while others believe it to be unjust. To examine someone on this topic is necessarily to examine their political beliefs. Yet until yesterday, NCATE persisted in mentioning a belief in “social justice” as one of the “dispositions” that a would-be teacher must have—and schools ignore the “suggestions” of accrediting agencies at their peril. If this is not a prescription for a political examination of students, I do not know what would be. And we know that students like Ed Swan and Scott McConnell do indeed suffer for expressing beliefs that don’t accord with those of education school faculty or administrators.

“Social justice” as a criterion for would-be teachers has to go. NCATE’s decision will help, but it’s not the end of the road. In the next few months, FIRE will begin to look at the policies of our nation’s education schools and point out to them that political litmus tests of students are both legally and morally suspect. We hope that with time, these institutions will recognize that it is the ability of students, not their political beliefs, that should determine success in the college or university setting.

Schools: Washington State University Le Moyne College