Gotta Get ‘Em While They’re Young!

(Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series on UNC-Chapel Hill’s Social and Economic Justice program. Part II is located here.)

The college classroom is a major front in the growing culture war between right and left. Those on the right view much of what is taught in the humanities or social sciences as indoctrination. Those on the left—who dominate the academy—see little to complain about. They favor a definition of academic freedom that is so broad that it blurs the lines between scholarship and advocacy. After all, who is to say what is political activism and what is education? 

But the division between indoctrination and education is actually quite stark. Education presents an objective inquiry into a topic. It deliberately presents opposing perspectives, where they exist, and allows students to derive their own beliefs from the light of facts and logic. It does not demand that every issue have a single, definitive solution.

Indoctrination, on the other hand, seeks to convert the audience to a specific ideology, which cannot be contested. This is frequently accomplished through distortion of facts and the avoidance of alternate perceptions.

An academic program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the minor in Social and Economic Justice, illustrates the difference between education and indoctrination. While the program description claims that it is “designed for students who want to better understand how to think about issues of justice,” it is possible for a student to avoid any contact with meaningful intellectual discourse on justice. On the other hand, by a judicious selection of specific courses, it is equally possible for a student to come away with a deep and valuable intellectual experience.

This minor degree is the brainchild of sociology professor Judith Blau, and is housed in the sociology department. The very title, Social and Economic Justice, raises many red flags about the intent of the program. While it has had other meanings throughout history, the term social justice is increasingly identified with left-wing politics. For instance, former 1960s radical William Ayers, who describes himself as a “small ‘c’ communist,” is now an education professor who promotes “Teaching for Social Justice” (the title of one of his books). Furthermore, the use of the phrase “economic justice” clearly indicates that the program is concerned with wealth redistribution. Nobody on the right would use this term to describe the result of market forces. It is used solely by the left to describe the justice that results from government redistribution. It is, quite simply, a euphemism for socialism.

Four courses are required to complete the minor, and there is a “service learning” component, which can be satisfied several different ways.  Three of the courses are electives, to be selected from a wide array of 60 courses in the social sciences and humanities.

The fourth course must explicitly deal with “social and economic justice.” Students seeking the minor degree must take one of three courses to satisfy this requirement: Philosophy 273, Social and Economic Justice; Sociology 273, Social and Economic Justice; and African Studies 416, Social Justice Movements.

A review of the syllabi for the three required courses indicates tremendous differences in intent. Philosophy 273 starts out as everything a college course on social theory should be. It is organized around presenting the major—and often opposing—views of what justice is and how it should be implemented. Students should come away with a comprehensive understanding of the major schools of thought regarding what constitutes justice, fairness, and moral goodness.

The sociology and African studies courses, however, are quite simply blatant left-wing propaganda. If her own section of Sociology 273 is any indication, Dr. Blau clearly intended this program to be indoctrination. The intellectual content of Blau’s course is based primarily on her book Human Rights: Beyond the Liberal Vision (co-written with Spanish sociologist Alberto Moncada).

The book has two main themes. The first is a full-frontal assault on the United States and its foundations: capitalism, individualism, and the Protestant religion. The second is painting collectivism, and international organizations based on collective thought, on a moral plane, high above American traditions.

Blau and Moncado do not take very long to insinuate that the United States is “something of a rogue nation.” They do so by the second page of the introduction (and continue to do so throughout the book). On the same page, they begin their attack on capitalism as well, quoting journalist Thomas Friedman’s slap at the “Invisible Hand,” Adam Smith’s famous phrase for capitalism’s remarkable efficiency: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.”

The book frequently makes statements of questionable veracity to persuade readers to adopt anti-American or pro-collectivist attitudes. They include (in just the introduction and first chapter):

  • Americans are often kept in the dark about the devastating harm that the United States causes.
  • We add that neoliberal capitalism [Blau and Moncado generally use “liberal” in the classical, free-market sense, rather than as the modern political term] impoverishes populations boasting all the while of its spread of economic freedoms.
  • We might consider that individual religious freedoms in this tradition [American Protestant] are not freedoms at all but rather the denial of community and society.
  • …political liberalism in America grew out of a tradition of distrust in the ‘common man.’
  • Indeed, economic neoliberalism entails more egregious violations of community interests and people’s welfare than any other ideology in history.

Some, like the quotations above, are laughable to anybody with an understanding of history and current events. Ronald Reagan certainly meets the book’s definition of a neoliberal. In fact, he is probably “neoliberal globalization’s” seminal figure. Were his policies “more egregious violations” of “people’s welfare” than Hitler’s? Worse than Stalin’s? Than Mao’s? Really? And is their claim that “neoliberalism capitalism impoverishes populations really correct?” The facts beg to differ—according to the United Nation’s Human Development Index, the standard of living and quality of life have risen dramatically in almost every country during the period of neoliberal globalization from 1980 to 2007.

Yet callow nineteen- and twenty-year-olds might be inclined to take such nonsense seriously. In a saner world, any professor making the statements that Blau makes would be guilty of educational malpractice!

The authors’ apparent goal to convince students that a collective society is more just rests in a large part on the concept of “human rights.” The United States Constitution is based on civil rights, which protect citizens from the government and permit them to have a say in how they are governed. Human rights, as they are defined by the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and promoted by Blau and Moncado), establish as rights, on par with civil rights, such things as economic security, education, “the free development of his personality,” and even paid vacations.

Guaranteed economic rights are, by definition, socialism, since the income of those who do not work must be taken from the income or wealth of those who do. These so-called rights might appeal to young people who have not been forced by deep contemplation and experience to develop a more mature understanding of fairness. While such immature notions can be easily corrected by showing that the empirical evidence demonstrates without question that the welfare of people is much better under political systems that prize liberty over economic security, that is obviously not Blau’s intent.

On almost every page of Human Rights: Beyond the Liberal Vision, some monumental fallacy leaps at the reader. It leaves no question that Blau’s course—and the entire Social Justice minor—is intended to create true believers in her worldview, rather than deeper and more knowledgeable citizens.

The second section of Sociology 273, taught by graduate student Alexis Silver, continues the trend toward indoctrination. The focus on the international human rights movement is diminished, although there are several readings from Blau’s and Moncado’s Human Rights. Her emphasis is on inequality and abuses caused by global capitalism (using such leftwing authors as Barbara Ehrenrich and Jonathan Kozol) and illegal immigration (one selection is entitled Wasted Talent and Broken Dreams: The Lost Potential of Undocumented Students).

The final option to satisfy the social justice requirement, African Studies 416, is taught by African and African-American studies professor Eunice Sahle. It was last offered in the fall of 2009, with only 16 students signing up. It draws on the same human rights tradition as Blau’s course, with one reading assignment from her Human Rights. The primary texts are Michilline Ishay’s The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to The Globalization Era and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s and Francis Deng’s Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. The authors of both books are heavily involved in the global human rights movement. Given that all reading selections come from either these three books or were penned by other left-wing human rights advocates, it is unlikely that there is much criticism of the egalitarian human rights perspective. This course must also be placed in the “indoctrination” camp.

So what should a program on social justice look like? Or should there even be such a thing? And can anything be done to prevent professors from crossing the line between education and political activism? This program is hardly the only place in the university where this occurs–here are some descriptions of what goes on in the geography department and education school.

These questions and others will be approached in the next segment of the article, on Friday, May 7.