The Social Justice Imagination

Essay, 2010

61 Pages


Authors note:

In this new second edition, I have updated the introduction to include an essay entitled, “What School Could Be”. This essay, which originally appeared in the winter 2009 edition of Canadian Teacher Magazine, sets a precise stage for what I believe should be our aim in schooling.

It is within the mindset, indeed the mandate of which the essay brings to light, that I believe we should then apply the rest of my philosophy - namely that of the Social Justice Imagination.

I’ve updated this book with this essay and a modified introduction because I was afraid of having the social justice imagination unfold within the current educational milieu; a greatly inadequate atmosphere. Indeed one will find all kinds of social justice projects operating in schools today. The problem lies within the context in which they are unfolding if not with the projects themselves. First, we must re-imagine what school could be, then, only then, might we progress to bring about the social justice imagination and advance our democratic project.

I hope this book helps its readers to envision what is needed - what is possible - in public schooling.

Michael Ernest Sweet March, 2010 New York, NY

What School Could Be

What school could be is an interesting idea.

It also seems to be one which relatively no one stops to consider seriously. What could school be? Recent articles in a number of newspapers got me thinking, again, about why no one seems to get it. Education is not rocket science, despite the continuous educational ’reform’ which seems to plague the system. An eight-year-old boy in Massachusetts does not need to be suspended and ordered to undergo a psychological examination for drawing a picture of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. The child was asked to draw something which reminded him of Christmas, what was expected a picture of a PlayStation? Every time something goes amiss we don’t need to open commissions and panels, we don’t need to write up new curricula or spin out new policy. What needs to happen is schools and schooling need to return to some basic ideas, and I don’t mean two plus two, although that wouldn’t hurt either.

What school could be is a place for children to feel safe and valued where they can also learn to read, write and think. School could be a place for children to come into being themselves and to understand and empathize with others unlike themselves. School could also be a place where society is transformed rather than merely reproduced. As recent educational reporting has illustrated, school is not like this. So the question we must all stop and seriously ponder is how do we get back on track with what school should be. I have a couple of suggestions and I will frame them around three words not often heard in the educational community - courage, compassion and common sense. Certainly all three of these could have benefited the recent situation with the eight- year-old in Massachusetts.

Courage is lacking in all parts of the educational system. DOE officials and lawmakers are scared of voters, board officials and school administrators are scared of parents and politicians and teachers are scared of all of the above. As a consequence, it has taken a couple of grade 11 students in Montreal Quebec to stand up and speak out about the unfairness of their high school English leaving exam. We should all learn a lesson from this and all stand up and speak out. We should also speak from the heart when we are dealing with what is best for children and their development and set aside the policy and rhetoric once and for all. Poor schooling and bad teachers leave way too much to chance for our society's future. Teachers must find the courage to stand up and claim the dignity and respect deserving of such an awesome responsibility as teaching. Parents must find the courage to stand up and demand good teachers and be prepared to support the cost of maintaining them. The time has come for a lot of speaking out in education and it need not all be done by grade 11 students.

Common sense may seem like an oversimplified idea for radically changing our schools but believe me it is one of the most sorely needed things in education today. When students are being suspended and remanded for psychological evaluation because they have drawn the crucifixion, or when provinces spend years and millions of dollars reforming evaluation techniques to arrive at incomprehensible systems of 12345 or 1234, it should be glaringly clear that we could benefit form some common sense. If you don't want children to draw the crucifixion don't ask them to draw things which they associate with Christmas. If parents and even administrators are unable to read report cards because they are littered with 1's and 2's or 4's and 5's, which hold little to no meaning to anyone other than the bureaucrats who spent years crafting these cryptic schemes, then eliminate them. Return to something the whole world understands, always has, and which works like ABCDF. Actually, ABCDF and 12345 hmmm. Education and common sense have become an oxymoron. This must change and it can, but it will take courage.

Compassion is lacking in schools. Far too often students are suffering from something other than poor behaviour or lack of motivation. These are symptoms not disabilities. Our students are people, real people with hopes and dreams, struggles and fears, and lives which need our compassion and understanding. This is hard when teachers have more than a hundred students and see some of them once in a nine day cycle. To truly engage children in school and in their learning we need to engage them as people, as individuals first. We must recognize the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. Teachers need to have meaningful relationships with students and we must find the courage to demand the conditions necessary to achieve this. When students know teachers, and teachers know students, and caring relationships are forged, situations like Dawson College in Montreal or Colorado’s Columbine High become less likely to happen. We don’t shoot people we care about or people who care about us. We shoot at numbers and students and teachers alike have become numbers trapped in a bureaucratic system of meaningless busywork. We are both feeling dehumanized and the consequences are beginning to show. This must change and it can, but it will take courage and common sense.

I’m afraid that perhaps in the end we cannot see the forest for the trees. English exams are not the problem. A child drawing a crucifixion, no matter how graphic, is not the problem. The problem is that education suffers from a profound lack of courage, common sense and compassion - from a lack of basic humanity. This must change, and it can. We must get beyond the compartmentalized critique of schooling, we must get past the mountains of policy and rhetoric and get back to some basic ideas about being human. Most schools operate in a way which if they were a country or a community at large cries of human rights abuse would be heard loud and clear. Public schooling is at risk and therefore our society is at risk. What school could be is a place where we are truly concerned with the children in front of us, a place where we act with courage, common sense and compassion. We must act now.


In this book I aim to establish a few things; 1) education in general, as we know it, must change; 2) citizenship education must expand beyond the social studies classroom and; 3) we, in education, must pay greater heed to the creative imagination and the arts. Of course, this task will not be easy and this book does not fully accomplish this goal. There are many aspects of the above that I have not wholly investigated between these covers. However, in the end, I believe this book does function as a beginning, a first step, in awakening the various stakeholders to what might be - to what is possible for public education. Therefore, this book is not a conclusion to my argument but rather a beginning - an opening to possibility, to an alternative. It should come as no surprise that public education is falling short of its potential and far too many students are being left behind. In fact, one is reminded of the United States and its No Child Left Behind legislation, which seems to have left even greater numbers of children behind. In Canada, we have province after province rushing to ’reform’ their curricula, amend their policies and 'add colour’, length, time and even videos to their high school leaving exams in an effort to get students to do just that - leave (graduate) high school. Imagine, rushing to reform curricula in this way despite similar reforms having previously failed, to a large extent, on three separate continents. The problem is there is little to no focus on 'how' students are leaving high school and with what knowledge, skills and social preparation. Simply getting students to 'leave' high school is, once again, not enough. I might suggest, in fact, that it is grossly negligent in respect to the states social contract with its citizens. Most provinces are well positioned to be sued, and likely successfully, given the degree to which they are not educating our children to their full human potential.

Narrowing the focus somewhat, to citizenship education, we see nothing but more doom and gloom. Students are learning decontextualized, standardized and greatly limited instrumental facts and rules about how to function as a citizen. For example, in many provinces students still spend generous amounts of time learning about how parliament is structured, the number of seats in the senate, the function of the Queen, the Governor General and even the address of the Prime Minister’s residence. All perhaps useful information for someone who might take public office as their career but, even then, still open to wide debate. Students who will become citizens - the public - need to know very little in terms of facts and figures, but rather, need to ’learn’ how to think intellectually, critically and empathetically. Citizen candidates need to be able to ’feel’ the need to contribute to society and understand how to do so in a way that is specific to the situation at hand. For example, knowing that racial discrimination is against employment legislation in Canada is not the same as being able to ’feel’ into the plight of someone who is being discriminated against. Not the same as being able to empathize with victims of discrimination. It is this ability which, in my opinion, will motivate the citizen to act. It is this kind of ability which, in my opinion, we are not fostering in our children through current public schooling initiatives.

Busywork is everywhere in public schools. Students, teachers and administrators and board and ministry officials are all busy doing busywork. In fact, the meaningless nature of some of these people’s daily tasks is so striking that one might wonder how anyone can believe anything they are doing is making any difference to anyone at all. In situation after situation people are engaged in generating paper. Paper tests, paper curricula, paper policies, paper newsletters about the new tests, new curricula and new policies. Lots of paper. Lots of things happening on paper. But, what is happening in the classroom? What is actually happening at the hands of the students that we take as our responsibility to educate and prepare for our beloved democracy? Very little I’m afraid.

Thousands and thousands of classrooms across Canada and the United States are still without virtually any books. English classrooms without dictionaries and thesauri let alone computers and televisions. Science classrooms without beakers and sinks let alone microscopes and up-to-date textbooks. So where is the money going? The answer might well be paper generation in far too many instances. Conferences to review the new papers in countless other situations and, of course, salaries for people to write and showcase more new papers.

Am I ranting? Yes. Do I need to rant? Yes. You see, the situation is dire as we are so muddled in meaningless busywork, paper generation and educational reform that we cannot even see as far as the student in front of us. We are so occupied with teaching 'facts', 'figures' and 'rules' that we cannot see the grade ten child struggling to write a sentence or read a novel; the grade eleven students who is loosing self­esteem at the hands of a teacher-bully. Imagine, studies have found teachers to be bullies, particularly in high schools. We are lost. And, we must get ourselves found.

The book you are about to read will present merely one alternative to some of the meaningless busywork in public schooling. In particular, the following pages set forth how we might construct more meaningful citizenship preparation and get students engaged in being the type of caring, compassionate and critically active citizens we must have if we are to bring about the democracy we desire.

In the end, we need to slow down, reduce the paper generation and focus our energy, efforts and most especially our money on students and our classrooms. Good teaching is not hard to if you have good teachers. What makes good teaching scarce in this country, far too often, is not the lack of good teachers but the countless obstructions to their good teaching. Clerical tasks, airtight curricula and severe lack of 'real' resources limit even the best of teachers to mere busywork.

Public schooling can be socially transformative or socially reproductive and the line is tenuous. If we are to advance education to its full transformative potential, and strengthen our democratic project, we need to start getting serious about what goes on in our classrooms. We will need to start breaking down school walls andjoining our students and their projects with our communities. We need to invest in good teachers and the resources they need to 'do' good teaching. We need to look beyond the 'rhetoric of reform' and begin to foster that which is both human and humane in our schools. Democracy needs to have meaning in school and be practiced, school leaders need to lead with compassion and empathy for the human condition and we must all begin doing what we know is right and demanding the professional autonomy to do so.

This book offers a glimpse into how we might advance in this direction.

Michael Ernest Sweet January, 2010 New York, NY

It will come as no surprise if I claim Canada to be a democracy. A question that might receive more reservation is whether or not Canada has given birth to the kind of democracy we imagine or desire. Have we brought into being a citizenry that is engaged? At the very least, these questions would seem to be valid for debate. Martin Luther King Jr. (1967) set the tone in the following quote for the argument that I will make in this book, namely, that we must educate to bring about a democracy that is genuinely concerned with actual people and the flourishing of their lives:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. ( p.9)

Agreeing with King and believing that we must shift our focus as democratic citizens, I suggest that we must, as a society, reorganize our aims toward humanistic ends. The question now becomes how we might go about such a seemingly fundamental shift. How might society cultivate a citizenry concerned with human lives, values, hopes and dreams, and become a society genuinely in touch with what it is to be good and beneficent humans who care deeply and genuinely about others and their plights? In this book I argue the idea of public education generally, and citizenship education more specifically, as a possible answer to fostering a new generation of engaged citizens genuinely concerned with human lives - with a socially just democracy. However, not any public schooling or citizenship education is sufficient.

Weisel makes this clear when speaking about the designers and perpetrators of Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Although they were heirs of Kant and Goethe, widely thought to be the best educated people on earth, they were also the architects of the Holocaust (as cited in, Orr, 2004).

Understanding that mere access to education is no guarantee of a benevolent and socially just democracy, we must carefully outline the type of education that is needed in our schools to foster citizenship for this humanistic shift in our society. We must bring about education that will promote and develop respect, awe, wonder and sympathy for the human predicament. To do this I suggest a two-fold approach: a) citizenship education become a cross-curricular objective and not merely an abstract topic for the social studies classroom, and b) English language arts generally, and the reading and writing of literature more specifically, be made central to a new broader more encompassing form of citizenship education. It is with this proposal that I move forward to expand on these claims and examine the works of Maxine Greene and Martha Nussbaum, among others, to establish my argument as not only pedagogically promising but theoretically sound. Although certain literature will prove more useful to citizenship education, on the face of it, I do not limit the possibility of this approach by restricting the teaching model to specific literary works. Regardless, it is to be noted that careful selection and attention to the literature used, and how it is used, is inherent in the process, as it would be in the teaching toward any aim.

Our classrooms are not connecting with the world beyond the school walls. We are shut-up in the dark, occupied with busywork. It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale to paraphrase historian and scholar Page Smith (as cited in Orr, 2004). Smith forwards this point specifically in relation to higher education, but it does not stretch the imagination to see how this is so at all levels of modern schooling. If education is successful in achieving anything it is merely the production of efficient workers, a pedagogical aim referred to as social efficiency (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Labaree, 1997). There is evidence that this is effective, namely that our economy is growing at such a rate, if maintained, it will finish its best decade ever. The Economist (2006) claims if it maintains pace “it will beat both the supposedly idyllic 1950s and the 1960s” (p. 13). But what of other aims - those concerned with humanistic ends; those which will work to bring about the shift alluded to by King? Perhaps one of the greatest possibilities for changing this arguably ineffective and disingenuous model of education to something more meaningful - more humane - is to have a total paradigm shift with the focus moving from, to return to the words of author and scholar Elie Weisel, the abstract to the conscious, from the answers to questions, to values instead of theories (as cited in, Orr, 2004). There needs to be a shift in focus. We need to realign contemporary education with the Greek concept of Paideia, moving the goal of education from the mastery of subject matter to mastery of one’s person - the self. Simply put, the concept of Paideia refers to, “the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine humannature” (Jaeger, 1939, p. xxiii).

Students are in need of understanding what is good, beautiful and funny, and why. And, how understanding and embodying these uniquely human experiences adds to our ability to be more humane. Thus, equal importance should be given to understanding such concepts both objectively and subjectively. We have curricula for understanding the economy and promoting it, mathematics and how to assess profit, and why Pluto is no longer a planet, but do we have curricula to teach an understanding of happiness or love; to teach about human desires and dreams and how they might be achieved - about human pain and how to cope and overcome? Do children leave school understanding “the intimate reality of others” (Scott, 1976, p. 49)? We do not need to eliminate abstract and instrumental learning from our schools, but we do need to pay more attention to how abstractions are used in classrooms and ensure that they are invoked to further the higher purpose of making our “world more humanly habitable” (Warren, 1975). We must buttress the abstract, the impersonal with the emotional, the personal. The dominant philosophy in public schooling during the past two centuries has been that of realism, scientific realism more specifically, and the subsequent effects have been deleterious to public educations’ potential (Kincheloe, Slatterly, & Steinberg, 2000). Michelli and Keiser (2005) focus this concern in its more modern manifestation in the introduction to their volume titled Teacher EducationforDemocracy and Social Justice:

At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, we see education moving away from... being a vehicle for the education of a democratic citizenry that fosters community participation, and prepares students for rich and rewarding personal lives and high levels of understanding, it has become increasingly more technical and instrumental, with a primary focus on the economic outcomes of education, and undergirded by a resolute belief in meritocracy. Unsurprisingly, this narrowing of purpose has expanded an already troubling emphasis on high-stakes testing...(p. xviii)

Defining what education should be, that which would support, promote and foster democracy, is, perhaps, more difficult than identifying why our current models of schooling are insufficient. Narrowing the field to examine citizenship education necessarily also narrows the task of defining the desired model of schooling. In this book f investigate how both citizenship and citizenship preparation must be broadened and how the concept of citizenship in general needs to be opened up to allow more scope in its aims. f suggest education for fostering democratic dispositions and moral sensibilities as imperative to authentic citizenship preparation for a modern pluralistic democracy. Educating and fostering the self to be more genuinly humane is crucial. Citizenship education must expand throughout the disciplines and become one of education’s chief aims. In fact, as pointed out by Pring (2001), teaching the humanities has as its real purpose “helping the young become more humane” (p. 82). With this in mind, I argue with fervor for the use of the arts and humanities in thisjourney toward a new citizenship.

There is a great divide emerging between education and the wholeness of self in modern times. By wholeness of self I suggest a self that recognizes humanity in its intimacy and that views the world as a whole with herself as merely a part of this whole. The selves that are being created in modern education are perhaps socially efficient but are detached and removed from human interconnectedness on an intimate level. People may understand themselves as individuals but they do so as detached and separated from others; from the whole. Colleague Adrian McKerracher (2006) gives an eloquent voice to this idea saying “there’s a problem with the way we understand each other, or the way we don’t.. .we need to figure out what makes us pull a trigger or drop a bomb” (p. 30).

Perhaps both the greatest feat and defeat of democracy is the prominence of the individualism it embodies and inspires. (Warren, 1975; Mack, 2002 & Pinsky, 2002). Alexis de Tocqueville (1955) writes:

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendents and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.(p.27)

Tocqueville is referring to our democracy as a democracy of selves enjoying freedom and liberty as individuals, but we have developed as selves without regard to others - community. There is little understanding of the concept of selflessness and humanity (Warren, 1975). André Malraux helps to illuminate Tocqueville’s point in his essay titled D’une Jeunesse Européene by stating, as paraphrased by Scott (1976), “the prevalent condition proves to be one of men’s being so jailed into the solipsistic isolation of the individual ego as to be unable to recover any lively sense of their generic nature [Tocqueville might add, or ancestors]” (p. 55). The true self is someone who recognizes the intimate reality of others and it can only develop in a “vital relationship] between the unitary person and the group. That is, the self is possible only in a community - a community distinguished from a mere society, a mere functional organization” (Warren, 1975, p. 25). In other words, a self that does not recognize the intimate reality of others is not true or genuine, is not whole, but rather lacking in a fundamental way. A quote from author Pearl S. Buck elucidates this point. “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” (Johnson Lewis, 2007, np.). Aristotle may have made the claim most famously when he declared humans as political animals, zoon politiken, and claimed that we could never realize our nature in isolation from one another (Kingwell, 2000).

Soren Kierkegaard echoed such a belief stating that the individual needs social support for the self: “The real moment in time and the real situation of being simultaneous with real people each of whom is something- that is what helps to sustain the individual.” And that was what he claimed to be lacking in his modern world (as quoted in Warren, 1975, p. 62). One might argue that our world has merely exaggerated the problem. Warren asks “where can we find ‘real people each of whom is something’ and who may, therefore sustain us?” (p. 62). How can we develop or find our true selves in this world where ad hoc personas are merely purchased and consumed, often in utter disregard for others?

Throughout this book I will illustrate how by way of engagement with the literary arts, students are positioned to strengthen and foster various democratic virtues.


Excerpt out of 61 pages


The Social Justice Imagination
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
631 KB
Education, Citizenship Education, Social Justice, Imagination, English Language Arts, English Classroom, Michael Ernest Sweet, Social Justice Imagination, Canadian Education
Quote paper
Michael Ernest Sweet (Author), 2010, The Social Justice Imagination, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: The Social Justice Imagination

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free