Why Must Social Workers Believe in Leftist Shibboleths?

A once-useful discipline has become obsessed with ideological purity.

At nearly all American colleges and universities, the “soft” disciplines have been overrun by “progressives” who insist that their beliefs alone must be taught, whether or not they’re pertinent to the subject. They are determined to turn students into ideological clones of themselves. Will this indoctrination help students succeed after graduation? That question never arises.

My recent Martin Center article about a lawsuit brought by a professor in UNC’s School of Social Work prompts a look into the politicization of that field. Part of the background to that case was the School’s overwrought reaction to the death of George Floyd in 2020. On June 19, 2020, Dean Gary Bowen published an “Anti-Racism Task Force Letter” announcing the creation of an Anti-Racism Task Force and a Reconciliation Standing Committee.

The upshot of this was a determination to “uproot racism” throughout the School. Had anyone previously detected even the slightest trace of racism in this bastion of modern liberalism? No, but for Dean Bowen, this was a made-to-order opportunity for virtue signaling.

A veteran professor of social work has written an article that dares to criticize her field’s obsession with “social justice.”He also published a “Recommitment to Social Justice Letter,” asserting that “social justice is our cornerstone as social workers and people of conscience. We must be leaders and focus our efforts on combating all aspects of individual and structural racism in our nation and our world.” He expressed shame that the School hadn’t done better in fighting “patterns of oppression” that block people of color. That is an article of faith among leftists—society’s built-in oppression is the barrier to racial justice. It’s true everywhere, even in UNC’s School of Social Work.

A veteran professor of social work has just written an article that dares to criticize her field’s obsession with “social justice.” Naomi Farber is an associate professor in the University of South Carolina College of Social Work, and her piece “The Dystopian World of Social Work Education” gives us an insider’s view of the way leftist theories are shoving aside practical instruction.

Farber writes, “The calls to ‘decenter whiteness’ and ‘decolonize curricula’ are ubiquitous among schools of social work, including those at the most prestigious and hence most influential universities.” She continues, “The changes that have occurred already threaten the value of a once-respectable profession as successive cohorts of social workers enter the field prepared to act more as social justice warriors than trustworthy providers of important services to vulnerable people.”

Once social work education was lodged in colleges and universities, it became one of the weakest academic fields, seeking to impress people with a superficial appearance of scientific rigor but in fact falling for intellectual fads. I can’t resist adding that education suffered exactly the same fate.

At one time, social work students were taught to see people as unique individuals with personal agency, some of whom needed help in dealing with their problems. Unfortunately, the infusion of leftist theory changed that focus. “Now,” Farber states, “social work students learn to parse and judge people’s location within the system of oppression—victim or perpetrator—by virtue of their identities.” That, of course, is the essence of Critical Race Theory. Students have to absorb it even though it is nothing more than a set of far-fetched opinions rather than a testable theory.

Professor Farber gives us an historical overview of this lamentable development. Accreditation plays a villainous role. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) began wandering into the ideological swamp back in the 1960s, and its latest standards call for students being competent to “advance human rights and social, racial, economic, and environmental justice, anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

A university school of social work can’t maintain its accreditation unless it falls perfectly in line with the far left.In other words, a university school of social work can’t maintain its accreditation with CSWE unless it falls perfectly in line with the socioeconomic beliefs of the far left. Students must learn that America’s problems are rooted in white privilege, institutional racism, and similar notions. It didn’t seem to me that such “knowledge” would enable social workers to do their best in helping people, so I emailed Professor Farber to further explore her views.

I asked what she regarded as a sound education for social workers, and she replied that they need to learn “basic research methods (to conduct evaluations, read professional literature, etc.); [as well as] various approaches to intervention with individuals, families, [and] small groups.” The key point is to have the knowledge necessary to figure out how best to help struggling people improve their wellbeing.

Then I asked Professor Farber if she thought that the heavy emphasis on leftist socioeconomic theories was valuable to the social worker. She replied that it is not, because it removes the “traditional and distinctive valuing of the individual as such.” Precisely! Individual Americans face problems that sometimes call for outside help, but the social-justice/DEI catechism paints everything as calling for sweeping societal reforms. A person trying to deal with depression won’t be helped by a social worker who has been trained to look at every problem as a manifestation of racism or white privilege.

In fact, that focus, Professor Farber worries, might lead to some people being treated with less concern because they aren’t in a group regarded as oppressed in the Left’s “intersectionality” calculus.

I asked what she thought a solid education for a social worker should entail, and she answered that it would “move students from being generally well-meaning people to the stage of strongly self-aware application of knowledge about the human condition and skills in helping other people—clients—achieve greater wellbeing, wellbeing as defined by the client.” That goal, however, is obscured by the continual harping on DEI themes.

At UC Berkeley, for example (returning to Prof. Farber’s article), the mission of the master’s in social work program is to educate students “to advance the pursuit of social and economic justice through anti-oppressive and anti-racist practices.” Since we already have huge numbers of leftist politicians and activists doing that, why must social workers climb aboard the bandwagon?

The people who now run schools of social work seem to be incapable of setting their ideology aside.And how does it help a person who has a problem with, say, drugs to be told that America needs to strive for racial equity? Even if you fervently believe the DEI concepts, you should realize that they don’t do any good for troubled individuals. Unfortunately, the people who now run schools of social work seem to be incapable of setting their ideology aside.

That’s clearly the case with the National Association of Social Workers, a professional organization that calls for all social work students to be provided with (quoting from Prof. Farber) “a consistent anti-racist orientation to the profession; expanded field placement and course options to include community activist organizations; and ensuring that faculty recruitment, retention and development reflect DEI commitments.”

Farber’s observation about that is devastating. It serves, she writes, “as a noose around the neck of the profession, pulling it farther and farther from the liberal humanism that animated its mission to serve the well-being of people in need.”

How very sad that social work education, like quite a few other once-useful disciplines, has become obsessed with ideological purity.

George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.