On Public Education and Social Justice

By Bernie Froese-Germain
October 27, 2014

The idea of recognizing and respecting the basic human rights of all people, as they are entrenched in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) and the more recent UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), is relatively new. Historically, rights have depended mostly on one’s social status and privilege, but these 20th-century instruments officially and universally acknowledged basic human rights – intrinsic to all human beings, including children – and gave social justice a whole new foundation.

According to Wikipedia, social justice “is based on the concepts of human rights and equality, and can be defined as ‘the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society’”. A just society is one that defends and promotes these rights and, among them, as unambiguously stated in the above instruments, the right to free quality education for all.

Education and social justice are interrelated in a number of important ways – in addition to being an expression of social justice, education can also lead to a better understanding of, and thus serve, social justice:

Education as a human right: This fundamental social justice principle – that every person has the right to free high quality public education – underlies the rationale for public education and informs the work that we do as teacher organizations.

Education about human rights: In addition to learning about the meaning of human rights and why they are important, one can learn about the history and evolution of struggles for human rights by different groups – women, Aboriginal people, sexual and gender minority groups, labour, etc.

Education for human rights: This is education that allows us to apply what we know about human rights for social activism.

The close relationship between education and social justice is also reinforced by the fact that social justice works in support of public education. What does this mean? We know for example about the negative impact that factors such as poverty, mental illness, homophobia, racism, bullying, etc. can have on a child’s ability to learn and develop. As an external (outside of school) factor, socio-economic status has the greatest influence on a child’s ability to succeed in school.

Sensoy and DiAngelo argue that, in order to actively work towards creating a more just society, we need to improve our understanding of social justice. In their book, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, they examine social justice education using a ‘critical social justice’ framework which they define in the following way:

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e. divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e. as structural), and actively seeks to change this. (p. xviii)

This approach, which attempts to understand and hence narrow the gap between the ideals of social justice (which arguably most of us support and value) and the practice of social justice, is informed by a number of principles (excerpted from Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. xviii):

  • All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.

  • These social groups are valued unequally in society.

  • Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.

  • Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.

  • Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice. This action requires a commitment to an ongoing and lifelong process.

Dr. Darren Lund, speaking at the recent CTF President’s Forum in Winnipeg, noted that there are many opportunities for educators to engage in social justice work with their students. They range from being aware of our everyday actions and words; responding to language that dehumanizes people; and opening up one’s practice to be more culturally humble (“cultural humility”), to confronting oppression in a systematic and collective way; interrogating oppressive structures, institutions and systems; and organizing politically to bring about systemic change.

And while there are risks involved in teaching “controversial” issues in our schools, there are also significant benefits and consequences for teachers of engaging in social justice initiatives. As Lund noted, these include:

  • making your school/community/work a better place.

  • becoming an ally with people who could use one.

  • honouring the experiences of your students and colleagues.

  • opening up your students’ worlds to new ideas (fostering a more open-minded world view).

  • linking school, community, and family experiences.

  • engaging a larger community that honours diversity.

  • educating (or losing) racist/sexist/homophobic friends.

  • opening difficult, awkward but important conversations on diversity.

One of the key messages in CTF President Dianne Woloschuk’s keynote address at the President’s Forum was that a nation’s true character can be revealed by how equitably income and wealth are distributed in society – in other words, a country’s commitment to social justice. Quoting Thomas Byrne Edsall, Woloschuk emphasized that “a democratic nation’s foundational political beliefs about justice and equity can be known by how the benefits and burdens of belonging to that country are shared among its citizens.”

However, in Canada and around the world, growing income inequality has emerged as one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time, one that justifiably concerns educators given its implications for student learning. There are a number of initiatives the federal government could undertake to reduce income inequality, for example restoring fairness to the tax system, which would provide much needed support for Canadian families and ultimately benefit our public education systems.


Lund, Darren (July 2014). “On being an engaged teacher: Equity and social justice at the heart of public education.” 2014 CTF President’s Forum.

Sensoy, Özlem, and DiAngelo, Robin (2012). Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Woloschuk, Dianne (July 2014). “Equity and social justice at the heart of public education.” 2014 CTF President’s Forum.'s%20Forum/Presentation-Dianne-Woloschuk-2014-en.pdf

Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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