There are many reasons for the downfall of our urban public schools, but beyond the undeniable corruption of those sucking the system dry for financial gain, the greatest destruction to our schools, and more importantly to the individual children in those schools, is the misguided and dishonest compassion of Social Justice.
Before going further, a distinction must be made between those who honestly believe in the Social Justice movement and those who use the movement for their own agenda, usually an agenda that leads to more power and profit in their hands and less in the hands of those they pretend to champion.
There is no point in addressing the latter group; they know who they are and they know full well what they are doing. No amount of argument will convince them to change their actions short of spiritual conversion. Neither is this essay aimed at those with scowling faces, voices raised in “righteous indignation,” and fists pumped ready to foment “civil unrest” based on false narratives manipulated by a dishonest media as exemplified in Beyoncé’s 50th Super Bowl half-time show.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
No, this essay is aimed at those who believe themselves authentic Catholic Social Justice warriors: the priest lecturing the congregation in his homily, the teacher inculcating in her marginalized students Social Justice values, the voter who believes that one more entitlement program, one more educational paradigm shift, or one last moment of empathy while ignoring the destructive behavior of others, will justly end poverty and crime ushering in a new Eden. Nor can we should not forget those who just wish to assuage their own “guilt” no matter the unintended consequences for those less able to recover from the Social Justice warriors’ so-called benevolent compassion.
As the daughter of an urban public school teacher and as a veteran urban public school teacher myself, I have seen first-hand the destruction caused by the Social Justice ideology in our schools over the past six decades. The following anecdote illustrates but one of many moments in which teachers or administrators, either on their own or forced by the system, do more harm than good to students.
In 2007, I had an exciting opportunity to work for a start-up Catholic high school whose mission was to help college-bound urban students. I had already spent a decade working at my district’s top college prep school, which achieved a 94 percent acceptance rate to 4-year colleges. I had first-rate experience teaching students who often lacked basic skills as freshman, but wanting to learn.
I looked forward to doing the same at a Catholic school where I would also be allowed to relate literature to God and a school where discipline and academics would be held to a higher standard. As good as my previous public school was, it never unlocked the students’ full potential because they were not held accountable to the academic or behavior standards that would allow them to fully blossom. However, just as the first quarter of the first year ended, it was clear that my new Catholic school would perpetuate the same destructive program mislabeled “Social Justice.”
Making Excuses for Bad Behavior
Here is the scenario. The first novel I assigned was Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying. Each student was given one character to follow. When it was time to write their first high school character analysis essay, I provided graphic organizers and models. Most of these students had never written an essay and they would need lots of assistance.
Only after each step of the writing process was taught, each student had received individual help with their assignment, and most students had completed graphic organizers, I brought 30 brand new laptops into the room for a week. Since this was a college prep high school, all essays had to be typed.
Additionally, the brand new computer lab was open before school, during lunch, and after school. Tutors were available after school if students needed more time or more help. Furthermore, the computer technology teacher allowed students to work on the essay during computer class time that week to help them with formatting and other computer issues. I had written the introductory and concluding paragraphs for them, so the students had almost 10 class hours and plenty of support to type three body paragraphs.
However, Tom and Tony, two cousins who entered ninth grade together, did none of the reading, none of the noting, and none of the planning. While others wrote on their laptops, I frequently found the cousins shopping for tennis shoes or playing solitaire, anything but typing an essay. Throughout the quarter, I repeatedly informed administrators, tutors, and parents these two, along with a few others, were far behind, but there was no change.
The academic dean came to me when the essay was more than three weeks past due, after the last late submission date, and with the quarter about to close. She wanted me to let the cousins submit hand-written essays. I said “No! Absolutely not! I made my expectations clear and I gave them plenty of time and support.” Her reply was, “But this is a matter of Social Justice! They don’t have a computer or the internet at home!”
I reminded her that I had provided the cousins multiple opportunities and that they had access to plenty of generous resources, resources that they had squandered, but she would not be swayed. In her mind, I lacked compassion because I would not allow them to turn in an essay more than three weeks past due and hand-written to boot. I still refused to give in knowing it would set a terrible example for other students.
Students Deliver When More is Expected
The students I teach are like people everywhere. If the door is opened to more excuses and work is easy to avoid, most people will take the easiest path. This is especially true when we no longer instill character, morals, or honor in our children. Push students to achieve and they generally rise to the challenge … shockingly, even urban black students … because it is human nature!
Urban students recognize those determined to fight for Social Justice from a mile away, and they know how to manipulate them. Urban students, like most students, grow to respect a teacher who holds them to higher standards, although at first they will struggle and fight and accuse that teacher of being a racist if she is white or evil if she is black. Eventually most realize that the Social Justice teacher is not really concerned about their education, while the latter is.
These two cousins learned that excuses worked at this school and especially with this dean. They did not grow at all. They spent the rest of the year doing nothing or disrupting class. They failed out of the school that first year. No one knows where they ended up, but it was not in a school that provided as many opportunities as ours.
Other students witnessed such moments and learned that they could run to the dean and others who claimed to have compassion for their lives full of “Social Injustice.” The school enabled them to fail. Many did succeed, but fewer succeeded than might have if standards had been respected. It is not compassionate to tell struggling students that they will not be held accountable on one hand while promising them a pathway to college on the other. Neither is it compassionate to spend time making excuses for failing students while utterly ignoring the needs of students with the potential to excel, as this school often did.
A major fault of the Social Justice movement, especially for Catholics, is that it does not seek justice for individuals, but collectives. The cousins, seen as individuals, might have been held accountable. Then they might have been given the tools to succeed in school. As teachers and parents, we know that children must often be pushed to do what they do not want to do in order to grow and that they must be held accountable. Had that happened in this case, the boys might have grown, or not, but the school should have tried.
However, they were seen as victims of Social Injustice, not as Tom and Tony, two individual young men with hopes and dreams and possibilities. That is how it is possible for Social Justice warriors to neglect individuals while at the same time claiming they are uplifting people. Social Justice cares not about lifting individuals, but about lifting groups of “helpless victims.” The expedient sacrifice of a few individuals along the way is acceptable as long as the agenda is preserved.
False Compassion is Everywhere
This false compassion is not limited to urban systems. It is affecting the suburban world too: the trophy-for-everyone, the best team kicked out of competition to give other teams a chance, the end of honors classes, remedial classes, and vocational classes. The top students in suburbia learn that hard work does not pay. Struggling students do not receive the help they desperately need lest they feel left out of “regular” classes. This is not compassion, but self-serving indifference disguised as compassion.
Catholics are not called to be Social Justice warriors. Jesus says, “Get up and walk,” not “You’re a cripple, so we will give you a ‘best bed sitter’ award to increase your self-esteem,” or, “You’re black. I can’t expect you to behave any better.” This is not to say that we should not feel compassion for the crippled man or the poor single mother or the struggling urban student; but we should expect and help the cripple to be independent, to walk if possible, even if it hurts. We should expect and help the poor mother or the struggling student to push themselves to their highest level of achievement, even if they fail sometimes. And we should be willing to tell them when they are failing, not lie to them to make ourselves feel better.
A better example than “Social Justice” for the truly compassionate Catholic is found in a beautiful short film The Butterfly Circus directed by Joshua Weigel. Set in the dark times of the Depression, this “short” is about Will, a man born with no arms and no legs, found in a sideshow by Mr. Mendez. In the sideshow, Will is taunted by the audience and the sideshow barker who introduces Will as, “…a perversion of nature, a man, if you can even call him that, a man who God himself has turned His back on!” Mr. Mendez tells Will he is “magnificent,” but Will, believing Mendez to be mocking him, spits in his face.
Will later finds out that Mr. Mendez is the ringleader of the famous and respected Butterfly Circus. He finds a way to stow away in the circus’s truck. The somewhat odd troupe of performers welcomes Will, but he is left struggling to find a satisfactory role in a circus that has no sideshow. Mr. Mendez encourages him saying, “The greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph!”
One day the troupe finds a refreshing river pool and stops for a swim, but Will gets stranded on the rocks on the other side. He calls for help. No one seems to hear. Mr. Mendez walks right past him, saying, “I think you’ll manage” when Will demands his help. In his struggle to get to the others, Will falls into the water, a potentially deadly baptism. Instead of dying, he discovers he can swim. With this discovery, he finds his role in the circus. He becomes a high diver into the classic small pool of water.
Unlike the Social Justice crowd, no one makes excuses for Will, no one rewards him just for being crippled. Rather, they celebrate his triumph, a triumph he would never have experienced if the troupe made excuses for him instead of challenging him. Mr. Mendez, the Christ-like figure, sees Will as “magnificent” just as he is, but also sees the potential for his butterfly-like metamorphosis into something more triumphant, much as our Lord sees us.
The Social Justice movement has been working steadily and stealthily causing destruction in our society for decades, crippling further those already crippled physically or psychologically and those already struggling to find their own triumphs. As Catholics, if we keep our brothers and sisters helpless cripples or turn them into faceless Social Justice projects, we are perpetuating something evil. As Catholics, our job is not to force Social Justice policies into our schools, our churches, or our laws, but to seek justice in our own hearts and beauty in our fellow man, and when possible, to help our fellow man achieve magnificence and triumph on his own, one person at a time.