Trustees | Civic Literacy

SUNY to Require Social Justice but Not Civic Education

REALCLEAR EDUCATION   |  February 17, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff and Steven McGuire

Will every State University of New York (SUNY) student be compelled to absorb fashionable social justice theories,without being required to learn the basics of American history or government? Is the whole of the American experience less important than a narrow slice of it?

SUNY reported this week that it has added a new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice general education requirement, placing it alongside existing ones in communication, mathematics, and natural science. A foundational course in U.S. history and civic engagement, by contrast, is required at only one institution in the system, Buffalo State College, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report shows.

It is, of course, important to teach students about the ugly history of racism and other forms of discrimination in America. It is also appropriate to invite them to think about questions of justice and equality in relation to race, class, and gender. The problem with the requirement is that it is designed to advance an ideological perspective on those issues and compel all students in the SUNY system to adopt it, at least temporarily, to graduate.

The learning outcomes for the requirement say that students will “describe the historical and contemporary societal factors that shape the development of individual and group identity involving race, class, and gender” and “analyze the role that complex networks of social structures and systems play in the creation and perpetuation of the dynamics of power, privilege, oppression, and opportunity.” 

Will students be allowed to question the premises of these intended outcomes? For example, will they be encouraged to interrogate the concept of “identity,” about which there is significant philosophical, psychological, and sociological disagreement? Will they be permitted to consider whether “privilege” is a politically loaded term carrying debatable judgments about the origins and illegitimacy of inequality? Students should be allowed to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” as Yale University’s 1974 Woodward Report puts it, but SUNY’srequirement seems designed to provide them with certain answers, rather than teaching them how to ask better questions and think more deeply.

The most troubling expectation is that students will have to “apply the principles of rights, access, equity, and autonomous participation to past, current, or future social justice action.” Requiring students to apply a particular ideological perspective to political questions, especially if they are not given opportunities to apply other competing perspectives, is a violation of the duty of teachers, as articulated in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors. These principles state that faculty should “set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.”

SUNY faculty, however, insist that there are certain orthodoxies that must not be questioned, stating that approved “courses must explicitly address how institutional and societal structures lead to inequities across groups. Further, students must be given opportunities to apply a social justice framework to the analysis of the questions of identity and equity that arise from the first two learning outcomes.” The faculty need to be reminded that, according to the same 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom, a teacher’s “business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.”

The activist intentions behind the requirement are illuminated by a new “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Fellows” initiative, which invites SUNY faculty to apply for one-year fellowships paying $15,000 to help other faculty develop courses that will meet the requirement. The preferred qualifications for these positions include “a commitment to social justice.” Excluding faculty capable of teaching about social justice but who question the merits of the currently popular vision of it is a violation of academic freedom.

Universities must make hard choices about how to use limited resources and space in the curriculum. Given that we know how poorly Americans fare in civics—in the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 24% of students demonstrate proficiency—public university systems like SUNY should be requiring their students to study American history and government. This would be especially advantageous amid deep political polarization and declining trust in our system of government; civic education can help reduce these threats to our democracy.

Instead, by adding an ideologically stilted requirement, SUNY is likely to deepen these problems rather than mitigate them. At the same time, the university is violating its sacred trust to provide students with an education grounded in inquiry rather than dogma.

This article originally appeared in RealClear Education on February 17, 2023.


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