Thursday, December 6, 2007

Herbert Croly and The Ideological Origins of The Social Justice Disposition Concept

Herbert Croly (1869-1930) was one of the chief Progressive-liberal authors. He was founder in 1914 of the New Republic magazine, and his 1909 book Promise of American Life is a bulwark of Progressivism. I am reading his later (1914) Progressive Democracy and noticed his emphasis on the concept of social justice. Arguably, the concept of social justice dispositions is rooted in Progressive Democracy. In the book, Croly's use of the term social justice is unabashedly ideological. In fact, Croly's aim is to refute nineteenth century ideological individualism to replace it with with an ideology of unlimited government and democratic power. Croly believed that the American population was better educated to participate in democracy in 1914 than in 1814 and that the legal constraints on the popular will that characterized the early stage of American democracy were no longer needed. Given subsequent European history, specifically Hitler and Stalin, the notion of unlimited government with democratic rationale sounds reactionary or atavistic (if argued by today's "new Progresives" such as Peter Levine) rather than progressive. In any case, Croly introduces the concept of social justice and a construct of the interplay between individual integrity and social welfare that is similar to the educationist notion of social justice disposition as part of his ideological argument. I would go so far as to argue that the concept of social justice disposition is explicitly part of Croly's ideological construction. Even if my strong claim is not true, it is clear that the concept of social justice disposition is rooted in liberal-Progressive ideology, not psychology.

About two years ago there was a controversy at Brooklyn College concerning Professor Priyar Parmar and her student Evan Goldwyn. Professor Parmar was interested in disciplining Goldwyn because he lacked what she considered to be social justice dispositions. As well, Steven Head was dismissed from the San Jose State University education school for disagreeing with a professor concerning a political question. As at Brooklyn College, SJSU's "Progressive" educators claimed that Head lacked a social justice disposition.

The far-fetched claim that social justice dispositions exist and that they are measurable was attributable in part to the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which dropped the use of social justice dispositions in its accreditation standards last year. However, universities can still apply standards involving social justice dispositions without NCATE's explicit encouragement. Doing so, however, raises legal First Amendment issues involving the 1943 case of West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette . According to that case, university programs are not permitted to require tests of belief. Thus, if social justice disposition is an ideological construct, universities are, if they mandate social justice dispositional requirements, violating legal standards. Thus, if social justice disposition is a purely ideological construct, for NCATE to properly address the issue of social justice dispositions, and to establish accreditation standards that accord with social justice, i.e., that do not violate the law, it needs to explicitly prohibit the use of social justice as an assessment criteria in any university that it accredits.

Social justice disposition advocates, such as Vernon C. Polite, claim that social justice is a neutral term and not ideological. However, a close reading of Croly suggests that the term social justice played a significant role in the Progressive-liberal framework. There is no pretense in Croly's book that it offers anything but an ideology or political belief system, a counter-argument to the laissez faire views of nineteenth century conservatives(pp. 148-9):

"The idea of individual justice is being supplemented by the idea of social justice. When our constitutions were written, the traditions of English law, the contemporary political philosophy and the economic situation of the American democracy all conspired to embody in them and their interpretation an extremely individualistic conception of justice--a conception which practically confided social welfare to the free expression of individual interests and good intentions. Now the tendency is to conceive the social welfare not as an end which cannot be left to the happy harmonizing of individual interests, but as an end which must be consciously willed by society and efficiently realized. Society, that is, has become a moral ideal, not independent of the individual but supplementary to him, an ideal which must be pursued less by regulating individual excesses than by the active conscious encouragement of socializing tendencies and purposes "(my emphasis)...

"(p. 199) The individual has the best chance of giving integrity to his life in a society which is being informed by the social ideal...Although an advance towards social salvation will be accelerated by increasing individual integrity, society will never be saved as a consequence of the regeneration of individualism...The two ideals (individual and social welfare) cannot become sufficiently interdependent without retaining a large measure of independence."

The inculcation of social justice dispositions is part of Croly's ideological programme. Central to Croly's ideology is his belief that society should be consciously created through state intervention, which in turn he claims is an expression of the popular will. This is an ideological position, not a psychological model. He argues that a "social ideal" is needed for an individual to give integrity to his life. He also argues that individual integrity is necessary for the social ideal. This intersection of the social and individual is precisely the notion of disposition to which the advocates of dispositional assessment allude.

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