There was no way I could anticipate the appalling reaction I received from some college students when I returned their assignments. Some of the papers were cogent and informative, while others were illogical and full of grammatical errors. The well-written papers received As, while the poorly written ones received Cs. The C students erupted in outrage and demanded an A “for the sake of justice,” yet it was obvious to me that they did not understand the nature of A work.
As I contemplated the incident, I realized that these students grew up in a generation where everyone received a trophy just for showing up to the soccer game. I also realized why the term social justice has become controversial today. For many decades, I’ve been a strong proponent of social justice. However, it’s obvious from the students’ reactions that the concept of social justice—if I may let my backbone slip for a moment—just “ain’t what it used to be.”
“Today’s social justice is not concerned with the runners’ preparation or distance from the finish line. Its main concern is to ensure that all the runners cross the line at the same time.”—Carl Ellis
I now make a distinction between historic social justice and today’s social justice. I remain a strong advocate of the historic version yet oppose today’s variety. I illustrate the differences by use of a foot-race paradigm.
Historic social justice would demand that all the runners have equal access to preparation, start at the same distance from the finish line, and that the outcomes would be fair. However, the order in which the runners cross the finish line is not within the power of the officials to predetermine or dictate. Today’s social justice is not concerned with the runners’ preparation or distance from the finish line. Its main concern is to ensure that all the runners cross the line at the same time; to do this they have to hold the faster runners back and push the slower ones forward.
Consider the Atlanta school system scandal, where a large number of unscrupulous teachers adjusted students’ standardized test scores, effectively “cheating” in the No Child Left Behind program. This may appear to have spared the self-esteem of the slower students, but, in the long run, these students will, no doubt, be crushed to find that their so-called education was worthless. Moreover, the students who did achieve academically will similarly be crushed to find their diploma worthless, as their hard-earned grades now live under the shadow of the adults’ cheating. Such handicaps in the footrace do not yield historic social justice; they simply give us malevolent manipulation in disguise that accomplishes justice for no one.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on May 13, 2012, on Dr. Ellis’s personal blog.