by Ian Munro
The British Columbia Ministry of Education has introduced a new high school elective course, Social Justice 12, as part of an agreement to settle a human rights complaint. Because students will be expected to understand such concepts and terminology as anthropocentrism, consumerism, and fundamentalism, the course has been nicknamed “Lesson in Isms” by some.
A read through the Ministry’s background material on the course (available at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/drafts/sj12_draft.pdf) generates two more “isms”: an initial optimism that the woeful state of civics knowledge in Canada will be improved by a course that discusses important public policy questions, and then scepticism that the outcome will be anything other than one-sided propaganda directed at impressionable 17 year-olds.
People of all political stripes can agree that it is appropriate and indeed crucial that a high-school political science class, for example, covers the roles and policy prescriptions of all the major political parties. Equally, we all can agree that it would be highly improper for a high school teacher to teach her students that the NDP is virtuous and courageous and that the Conservatives are evil and despicable – or vice versa. With regard to Social Justice 12, there are worrying signs that the latter model may hit closer to home than the former.
An initial problem is the title of the course itself. The background paper contains long lists of terms to be defined in the course, but nowhere is “social justice” itself defined as a concept, nor is guidance provided – explicitly – as to what is socially just and what is socially unjust.
A closer look at the details of the program, however, leaves one with a nervous feeling that in the Ministry’s view the famous blindfolded woman with the scales looks a lot like Maude Barlow or one of those rock-throwing kids that show up at trade talks.
For example, students will “assess the social justice implications of specific international policies, agreements, and organizations such as … NAFTA, Kyoto Accord, land mines treaties …” Will this “assessment” include consideration of the state the Canadian economy would be in without liberalized access to the US market over the past 20 years? Will the enormity of the costs of complying with the Kyoto Accord’s 2012 deadline be discussed? Will the “social justice” implications for South Koreans protected from Kim Jong Il’s 1.2 million troops by a landmine barrier be presented?
The course also will ask students to “give examples of how public policies related to areas such as health care, housing, trade, education, multiculturalism, income security, labour relations, and employment promote or are detrimental to social justice.”
How likely is it that students will be asked to reflect on how just it is for a person in pain to be denied the right to use her own resources to seek treatment that a public system will not provide for months or years? Will there be any discussion of the possibility that state-sanctioned multiculturalism could lead to division and a lessening of social cohesion between immigrants and long-established Canadians? Will the lesson on labour relations cover topics such as workers who have no choice when unions take dues from them and then spend the money on political purposes, rather than on efforts related to collective bargaining?
Furthermore, when students “analyse social justice issues related to globalism and globalization,” what are the odds that this will include thoughtful reflection on the costs – especially for some of the world’s poorest people, like African farmers – of trade protectionism? And when they “analyse factors that perpetuate or mitigate global inequities”, will the well-established link between prosperity and economic freedom make it onto the list on the blackboard?
The engagement of students in discussion and debate over public policy issues always should be welcomed. A course that intends to teach young Canadians to conduct research, think critically, and craft and express arguments and opinions is laudable. Reinforcing the messages that discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation is wrong and that trying to help those who truly are in need is noble is a commendable objective.
When these efforts spill over into indoctrination towards a specific political point of view, however, we have a very serious problem. The Social Justice 12 outline calls for students to assess information by “determining examples of point of view, bias, and implicit/explicit agenda.” Perhaps the very first lesson should be applying this concept to the course itself.
Ian Munro is the Director of Research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.