By Duane Swacker
Justice Concerns and Educational Malpractices
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Historically in Western thought justice along with fortitude, prudence and temperance has been considered one of the four cardinal virtues. Comte-Sponville considers it the only cardinal virtue “that is an absolute good in itself.” The other virtues can be considered good only in certain contexts; for where is the prudence in being so cautious as to not venture forth in the world for fear of calamity, in being courageous (fortitude) in a cause that is evil such as a suicide bomber who kills innocent people, or in temperance in being so ascetic with satisfying bodily desires–eating, drinking, making love so as to deny ourselves those simple pleasures?
The two components or types of justice are: justice as agreement and compliance with the law and justice as equity and fairness. I concur only with justice being a “good in itself” when it is concerned with fairness and equity (a difficult state to determine) but not when the justice of what we are dealing with is the law and the law is itself unjust in fairness and equity. Aristotle said “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” For ancient Greeks like Aristotle and Socrates whatever the law dictated was what was just, so much so that Socrates refused help to escape his sentence to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. He believed that fulfilling the social contract, the law of the time in carrying out the death sentence was the only course of justice. Was justice really served by his legal execution, even if self-inflicted? I leave the answer to others as it is beyond the scope of this book to delve into all the justice concerns involved with Socrates death.
Ideally laws would satisfy and ensure equity and fairness concerns obtain. But it doesn’t take much to realize that many laws are not just in equity and fairness concerns. Mankind, as noble as Aristotle may have wished, can indeed be less than noble than animals in the application of laws. But we humans do judge, especially in regards to issues of educational practices.
Aristotle also said “The just, then is the lawful and fair, the unjust the unlawful and unfair.” True justice therefore consists of laws, rules, policies and practices that promote the most equity and highest degree of fairness. Aristotle’s definition serves well as a starting point in analyzing, and in judging whether an educational practice is just with the caveat that, as Comte-Sponville notes, “morality and justice come before legality, at least where the essentials are concerned. . . . And what is essential? Freedom for all, the dignity of the individual and the rights of others.”
Combining our justice concerns with the fundamental purposes of education as described above we can establish a guiding principle with which to judge educational practices and outcomes: An educational policy and/or practice is just when it promotes the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.
Furthermore we must keep in mind as Comte-Sponville notes that “justice is superior to and more valuable than well-being or efficiency; it cannot be sacrificed to them, not even for the happiness of the greatest number.” For example educational practices such as grading, the testing and selection criterion for entry to “magnet schools” or select public schools, or standardized tests like the ACT when mandated as compulsory by the state and whose results are used by post-secondary institutions to sort and separate and therefore reward and punish students either through selection or denial of admittance should be rejected as being unjust due to the inherent discriminatory nature of those practices even if they are valuable for efficiency in selection for various institutions.
Continuing with Comte-Sponville’s thoughts in his chapter on justice: “without justice there would be no legitimacy or illegitimacy. . . without justice, values would be nothing more than interests or motives; they would cease to be values or would become values without worth.” In other words there can be no promoting of the welfare of, the well-being of the student as outlined in our fundamental purpose of public education without the entirety of justice being considered. Without justice considerations public education quickly devolves into a “what’s best for me” scenario in a Spencerian atmosphere of dog eat dog rule of the jungle.
Although both types of justice, as law and as equity and fairness are important in this study of educational malpractices it is the latter that are more applicable and important. The blind and uncompromising application of the law, of educational directives of federal, state or local origin can be viewed as a corruption of justice. Aristotle states that “the equitable is just” while also stating that equitable justice is “but a correction of legal justice.” Or as Comte-Sponville makes clear “Let us say that equity, which is not different from justice but a form of it, is applied justice, living justice, concrete justice—true justice. . . Justice does not make just people, people make justice.”
So where does that leave us when educational practices are found to be conceptually error filled resulting in invalid outcomes that by definition are unjust, that end up discriminating against many students? Lamentably, the vast majority of educators choose expediency-legal justice over justice as equity and slough off justice as equity concerns. A brave few though have challenged the unjust malpractices of the status quo usually paying a heavy price in personal health, welfare in family and professional life. Those brave souls have followed a perhaps not well known American tradition, that of civil disobedience. Let us finish up our discussion of justice with the words of an American author and philosopher who knew well the deprivations (time spent in prison) of civil disobedience:
“The mass of men [and women] serves the state [education powers that be] thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus, [bureaucrats, administrators and teachers], etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.”– Henry David Thoreau [my additions]
And one last thought from Mahatma Gandhi “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.” Mahatma Gandhi.
For a complete discussion of Justice see Comte-Sponville’s “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues” Chapter 6 Justice.