Two contrasting views of “social justice” are at work in today’s debates about K–12 education. One, frequently invoked by progressives, is geared toward activism. The other, more traditional and modest, is often implicit in conservative approaches to school-reform issues. These divergent frameworks underlie the simmering tensions that beset contemporary education policy, and much else besides.

The first variety of “social justice” implies that much of society’s architecture is fundamentally flawed or even purposely unjust. It sees many relationships as premised on unfair distributions of power and holds that our economic order systematically privileges the advantaged and exploits the vulnerable. Because this worldview is so severe, it often leads to uncompromising proposals to remedy society’s ills and dramatic, militant rhetoric.

Yuval Levin calls this the “rhetoric of cataclysm,” which can be employed by those on the political left or right. Implicit in this rhetoric is the idea that social and political problems are “immediate and utterly apocalyptic dangers,” rather than challenges that may be addressed through normal, deliberative, gradual political processes. This “tendency to catastrophize” amounts to “a failure of civic prudence.”

Though such rhetoric is often meant to motivate the like-minded by framing problems in stark terms, it can also divide us, by undermining public trust in our institutions and shared traditions and norms. It can separate individuals into factions — e.g., the haves and the have nots, the privileged and the unprivileged — who then see themselves perpetually at odds instead of partners in a joint social enterprise. It can make judiciousness and civility seem like part of the problem, leaving zealotry as the only apparent way to fix our broken system.

What typically follow are policy “solutions” that are brash, swift, and uniform. They aim to solve a problem in total, as quickly as possible, in a way that aligns with the “correct” vision of justice. Left out of this equation are the possibilities that this vision of justice might be incorrect or incomplete; that some measure of local differences of opinion are legitimate and healthy; that democratic deliberation can contribute to social cohesion and a sense of community agency; that compromise can strengthen interpersonal bonds; or that a series of incremental changes may lead to sounder results than massive, sudden change.

Framing a problem as a “social justice” issue, in this progressive sense of the term, can thus become a cudgel to force progressive interventions, usually by faraway government. This is evident in K–12 education over the last couple of decades, as Uncle Sam and state governments have mandated large-scale, one-size-fits-all “fixes” to a host of problems.

Frederick Hayek, a Nobel laureate whose mid-20th century work in economics and social thought helped transform discussions of how knowledge is collected, how power should be distributed, and much more, was troubled by this understanding of social justice. In “The Mirage of Social Justice,” he notes that appeals to social justice typically imply a worrying level of centralized political power and government intervention. For him, justice relates primarily to virtuous actions by individuals, not an abstract, utopian goal imposed by the state.

Hayek’s understanding is consonant in some ways with the more traditional understanding of social justice. In “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” Michael Novak and Paul Adams explain the term’s roots in ancient philosophy and Catholic social teaching. They describe the evolution of the concept, from Aristotle through major Church documents from late 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to industrialization and the centralization of governmental power.

According to Novak and Adams, though concepts of justice had been debated for millennia, the inclusion of “social” in the definition reflected both the need to think in terms of the common good and the social practices necessary to bring it about. Central here are the forming of associations, civic participation, and cooperation. Novak and Adams argue that social justice entails two or more persons acting in association to benefit “the City.” Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that a socially just society “provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.”

This understanding of social justice is helpful in thinking about economic and social affairs, including how we think about schools, in at least two ways. First, it encourages and empowers individuals to become activists working with others to form voluntary associations and mediating institutions — organizations that structure social life so committed citizens can engage collectively to solve a common challenge. Second, it is directed toward the common good, understood not only at a national or international level but also — first and foremost — at the level of the neighborhood, town, state, and county. That is, it asks that our collective efforts be directed toward shared goals, not private interests, but in such a way that respects individuals and allows societies and the institutions on which they rely to thrive. In terms of education, this view of social justice seeks to catalyze and elevate parents, groups of families, teams of practitioners, and voluntary, local associations.

This traditional view of social justice seems to imply that there is no single common good that can be defined by a central power. Although certain principles are of course sacrosanct — e.g., natural rights, the dignity of individuals, equality — this view respects the prerogatives of groups of individuals acting in concert. It appreciates that different beliefs, priorities, and approaches will naturally emerge. It presupposes that experimentation by different groups — experiments that are informed by practical considerations and shaped by deliberation and cooperation — will help us understand and pursue the common good. Social justice, on this view, is not a fixed, uniform stance, but an integrated set of micro-movements.

In practice, this would mean partiality to small, democratically controlled, local school districts; independent, self-governing charter schools; networks of charter management organizations; and the wide array of private schools that reflect different approaches to education and different conceptions of the good life. It would mean skepticism about state or federal government attempts to homogenize school options, approaches to instruction, or assessments of what constitutes effective schooling and student success. It would mean appreciating that complicated, sensitive social issues might not have unitary answers that could be enforced by a central authority, and that communities — using local traditions and public deliberation — can reach different but equally sound conclusions. It would mean using large financial investments (whether governmental or philanthropic) not merely to scale strategies preferred by “experts” but to encourage new and different strategies crafted by parents, practitioners, and community leaders.

Two associated notions from Catholic social teaching bolster this approach. The first is subsidiarity. This principle describes a way of preserving the dignity and authority of individuals and groups while ensuring they take their responsibilities seriously. It protects the rights and powers of smaller groups — families, towns, and community groups — from the encroachment of larger entities while requiring that various groups collaborate and support one another. It is a way of decentralizing authority and organizing multiple communities to assist one another in the task of pursuing common goods.

The second is the principle of solidarity, which requires that, despite our differences, we seek the common good, as bearers of a shared humanity. Though power can be decentralized and differences in traditions and priorities are legitimate, solidarity keeps us from splintering into hostile factions by asking that we care for another, especially the most vulnerable. Social justice thus requires that we practice “social charity,” as well as respect, cooperation, and tolerance.

This humble approach to social justice might appear a poor fit for our tumultuous times. But it might also be precisely what’s needed. When people are so frustrated and polarized and political language has become so radioactive, we could use a little more modesty, trust, and accommodation. In a similar vein, Levin recommends “lowering the stakes and the temperature of our politics a little, and coming to appreciate the resources, strengths, and wellsprings of resilience our society has as well as the challenges it faces.” His advice: “Don’t panic. Just worry.”

We have been involved in school reform efforts for some time. We see many school reform issues, e.g., the necessity of helping low-income students assigned to ineffective schools find alternatives, in moral terms. So, we appreciate the fervor behind today’s social justice-minded progressives. But we believe that the alternative understanding of social justice articulated here can both complement the progressive understanding of the term and help us engage more productively in much of the practical, day-to-day work of school reform.

Because both approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is a great deal of overlap. But the understanding we’re advocating explicitly encourages the formation of a variety of groups aspiring to protect the common good and recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It respects the right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding such groups responsible for living up to their obligations. And it expects from all of us a high degree of civic participation, restraint, and collaboration.

Such an approach is not simply a framework for school reform but, perhaps, a much-needed strategy for counteracting the alienation and polarization that pervades our overheated politics.

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