Social Justice and Higher Ground Programming

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on July 7, 2021

The purpose of this memo is to assess the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice standards (TTSJ), a well-developed framework on applying social justice principles to education.

Higher Ground Education first encountered the TTSJ standards in use at a school we acquired. In judging whether to continue their use, we had to assess them in relation to our own pedagogical principles. To the extent these particular standards can be taken as representative of a broader mandate to integrate social justice principles into educational programming and outcomes, our assessment here can be extended to that broader mandate.

Our starting point at Higher Ground, widely but not universally shared, is that the bedrock purpose of an educator is to support the human development and maturation of each individual learner under her care. A good education is one structured, designed and curated to support students in their efforts to acquire the means—the knowledge, skills, experiences, character, voice, inspiration, guidance, etc.—to actively and independently choose and pursue whatever goals and values that come to give their lives meaning.

If the purpose of education is to help individual students actualize their full and varied potential as human beings, the question we are exploring is whether that purpose is well-served by the adoption of a social justice pedagogical framework.

A social justice pedagogical framework has many elements, including, most generally, that education is to be thematically oriented around issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. At its root is the idea that education ought to take the ideological perspective of social justice: that we live in a society permeated by unjustly prejudiced biases and power structures, and that the reduction of prejudicial biases and alteration of prejudicial power structures are moral and political imperatives.

Higher Ground’s position is that, while there is a lot to learn from such a framework, and while there are elements that speak deeply to the needs of particular children, social justice represents a very specific ideological perspective on education. It categorically sees the best interest of students through a deeply socio-political lens.

There is a direct parallel here to a religious education that understands how to serve the interests of students through an ideological lens—of say the theological/moral health of their souls. Higher Ground has respect for many (and even partnerships with some) theologically oriented Christian or Jewish or Islamic schools. But the scope of these partnerships is defined by the fact that they represent a fundamentally different pedagogy than our pedagogy at HGE, one that however much it also values students' agency, we believe in principle subordinates student agency to a different agenda. I think the same is true of social justice in this context. There is a subordination, or at least a tradeoff, of student agency to a political conception of social health. (Subordination does not mean elimination.)

Higher Ground takes the minority and increasingly unpopular position that Montessori is incompatible with social justice approaches to education insofar as such approaches implicitly or explicitly elevate a socio-political standard above or equal to the standard of the individual life fully lived. (This is a minority position because many Montessorians take the approach that Montessori is or should become integrated with a social justice approach to education.)

The TTSJ standards under consideration allow us to see this issue in practice.

There is much in these standards that is synergistic with our approach. In particular, the standards have an excellent framing of the issue of diversity. It is incredibly important to be able to mutually exchange deep values with someone who is very different from you along multiple dimensions. That means at minimum an authentic capacity for respecting and empathizing with those different from oneself, as articulated by these standards. Appreciating diversity is an important aspect of being able to offer and gain value from social relationships more generally. There is a large variance in how well adults do this, and that corresponds with how much those adults get out of life. The people who are better at getting value from a more diverse range of people are just on fundamentally surer footing in their lives irrespective of their specific personal identity, and it’s definitely something we are committed to imparting to children.

But also under the heading of Identity and Diversity, there is potential dissonance in how much emphasis is placed on group belonging. The standards are ambiguous in how personal identity relates to social/group identities, and do not proactively sensitize educators to the full range of ways that individual students may engage with various social identities and expectations as they are forming themselves, including outright rejecting them. There is for example no room for the individual who chooses over time not to identify with a particular group identity.

It is in the second two headings, Justice and Action, that the more significant differences between approaches are surfaced. However sympathetic we might be to the overall spirit of the approach, as framed we regard them as too specific and ideologically prescriptive for the context of education and development.

Standard 14, for example, reads:

“Students will recognize that power and privilege influence relationships on interpersonal, intergroup and institutional levels and consider how they have been affected by those dynamics.”

This is clearly drawing on the “racism = power + privilege” framework. An adult can reach the complex socio-political conclusion that racism is inherently an issue of power and privilege, but to independently draw that conclusion requires knowledge of history, ethics, political theory, and more. It is not something easily evidenced to a child, just as the view about, say, the moral status of the choice to have an abortion would not be self-evident to a child.

Further, and more importantly, even if this and other ideas can be evidenced in a way a student could grapple with them, the standard is not saying that students should be grappling with them. It is not saying the learner should be supported in her capacity to independently evaluate this framework, so that she understands the strongest arguments for and against. It is not saying, for example, that a student should be given a curated data set that helps her think about fundamental issues and arguments, so that she can, as she grows, develop an evidence-based approach to her conclusions. It is not encouraging reflection, debate, and discussion on the issue. It is not counseling tolerance towards the student working to figure out her own views, and all the messiness that involves. It is not even saying that since we as adults ought to believe certain conclusions, our own beliefs should lead us to take certain approaches to children.

To the contrary, the TTSJ standards stipulate that a certain complex adult view should be treated as an article of faith in our approach to children. The guidance is that students should be assessed as to whether they exhibit acceptance of that view.

Here’s another example that illustrates the same point. Standard 20 reads:

“Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.”

This outcome is explicitly framed in terms of a political collective action plan. It is a call to action, somewhat nebulous, but clearly intended as activism.

The problem with this approach is clear if you contemplate whether and how it would generalize across the full range of student interests and values. What about the students, for example, that basically agree with the TTSJ orientation but who just aren’t activists in their chosen life goals—who are passionate about something else, who would rather not engage in activism and don’t as of yet see the reason to do so? What about students who come to disagree with this approach—who come to see racism as solvable by cultural innovation (e.g. the creation of art, a different approach to education) as opposed to collective action (protests, voting, etc.)? What about students who think that this might be less important of an issue than the adults in their lives think—that empathy and mutual respect can be achieved more easily or by other means? What about students who are just skeptical of the prescriptions of the adults around them, and who would rather play sports or study science or get out into the world and travel than help fight social injustice? Or what about intellectually active students who start to consider that there might be something is wrong with this whole framing? What, say, about the student who encounters Marxist ideas, and who subsequently decides that what is important politically is a matter primarily of economic class as against race, and thus that other dimensions of diversity are basically morally and politically epiphenomenal (or deliberate distractions for the bourgeoisie)? What about the student who reads libertarian critiques and decides that these are fundamentally issues of individual rights and not of privilege, collective action, etc.? What about the student that feels in her own life more oppressed by parental expectations than issues of social identity?

An educator might think that some or all of these students are just fundamentally mistaken, and that, ideally, students should be motivated to “plan and carry out” collective action, as called upon in these standards. But as educators, should that really be our goal? Is our job to convince a student of what we think is right, or is it to empower her to independently bring her full faculties to bear on these issues?

Higher Ground takes the view that to fully support our students’ growth, part of what is demanded of us is a certain neutrality around the issues themselves, especially potentially controversial normative issues. It’s not that educators should not be opinionated; it’s rather that underneath our particular opinions is the conviction that in order to help with the more fundamental aspects of development, and particularly those focused on nurturing intellectual and moral agency, it is in the best interest of the student to recuse oneself from other more down-stream issues.

To take an example, one of our educators was once asked by an 11-year-old student if adults should live and sleep together before they get married. The educator had a strong, unambiguous view—not only did he think it was acceptable, he thought it to be necessary and healthy. But because he held the view that his purpose was to help a student develop his own capacity to reach conclusions, he did not think it was his place to give this student his own fully-formed conclusion. His goal was to ensure that his student had the means to think through the issue. So he encouraged the student to talk to a broad cross-section of people, to read up on different answers, and to think about the specific evidence and arguments. He encouraged him to consider people he respected, in life and literature, and try to project what they would say and why. He tried to hint at the underlying issues that might inform one’s view on this issue. In the whole exercise, the last thing he cared about was his immediate conclusion—and his hope was that the student could not even guess at his own conclusion. What the educator wanted to ensure was that his student was thinking independently about the issue.

One thing that the TTSJ standards get right is that educators should be thinking deeply about the underlying issues the standards address. The referenced social justice prescriptions represent an attempt, truly one of the only meaningful attempts in our culture, to grapple with very fundamental, critical concerns that properly demand attention. They indicate very deep and important contours in societal trends, ones that we at Higher Ground do want to address systematically in our curriculum and program. We agree that educators should be highly concerned with prejudice, with bias, with cultural contextualization, and as a result, should strive to develop thoughtful pedagogical approaches on how to guide our students to explore and understand these issues. We also think that certain aspects of the social justice orientation are deeply right. Students should be treating each other with respect, empathizing deeply, exhibiting benevolent curiosity about the human variation around them, and forming deep friendships across differences.

We should be struggling mightily with the challenge of determining which values are local to a particular people or a particular time, and which are universal to the human experience. We should be considering fully the black experience in America, the female experience, the gay experience, intersectional experiences, and all of the other points of focus for social justice. We should be trying to identify and uproot biases in our own thinking, and how they may be impacting the children we serve. The TTSJ standards offer great opportunities for study, discussion, and reflection, and should be part of the context that develops our thinking as educators.

But as actual standards—as defined learning outcomes—the TTSJ standards, particularly the Justice and Action standards, are just too ideological to be coming from adults. There might be some way to recover some of them if they were offered in the context of critical thinking, of study, of alternatives. As presented, however, they are the equivalent of the conventional approach of memorizing facts about history or science without understanding, just applied to the domain of social norms. They represent a return to traditional education, with all the errors of such an approach.

At Higher Ground, our goal is that our students don’t just accept what their teachers tell them, and we tune our pedagogy accordingly. We want them to become adults who are able to actually come to their own understanding and conclusions about this whole cluster of issues. Is America fundamentally built on the principle of individual freedom, or was it built on the backs of slaves and by exploitation, or both, or neither? How should one think about advances of “the human race” that were only advances for some? Was Baldwin’s critique of Faulkner’s tepid approach to desegregation right? Is there something to the conservative critique of the transition from first to second to third-wave feminism? How do I (the student) want to relate to my skin color, my religion, my family, my sex, my country? Can I (the student) reject the identity of my tribe(s), if I so choose, or is it inescapably part of who I am? What do I (the student) think about how others relate to the cross-sections of humanity to which they belong by default? And why? What are the reasons for different positions, and do they make sense to me (the student) independent of my authority figures' beliefs?

It is incredibly important to sensitize our students to explore these types of issues, and to empower them to think effectively about them. At Higher Ground, we see it as an expression of a broader goal to help students achieve informed agency.

This perspective, in our view, is not the goal of the Teach for Tolerance Social Justice Standards, or of social justice frameworks more generally. Whatever the secondary appreciation of critical thinking, the goal is oriented towards securing compliance to a set of pre-selected outcomes, and in some cases quite narrow political outcomes. For example, while it’s not inconceivable to me that a 3rd grader would rally students around labor activism with their parents (the top anti-bias scenario on p. 7), having that as a paradigmatic example for a high-level standard is very narrow. It is treating a sophisticated political stance as a learning outcome.

A core feature of our pedagogy is that importing that sort of adult sophistication too early—in any subject, not just social-moral-political ones—is not good for students. It short-circuits the development of their independent thinking, and their overall ability to deal with the world.

There is much more to say about this topic—about how it applies differently to younger children than adolescents, about how it applies to topics like science and literature, about the difference between our approach to students and to staff on these issues, about how to consider what parents want in a way that does not betray the developmental needs of the child, and more.

And there is much more to discover and to learn, both in general and at particular schools or with particular educators or families who have been motivated to shift to a social justice framework. More broadly, there’s much to learn about the history of the social justice movement, the history of issues of equity in education, the ethical frameworks that have supported different views—the whole intellectual backdrop to this suite of issues.

There is a lot for all of us to learn, and the world needs quality thinking in this area. This memo is meant to provide a framework for evaluating these issues from within our highly individualistic, Montessori, agency-centric approach, without intending to be the final word on either any particular standard or the family of surrounding issues.

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.