College Didn’t Create Today’s Social Justice Warriors; Middle and High School Did.
In a nutshell, 30 years ago we started focusing on skills in primary and secondary schools. Which left a void, because you can’t teach any skill without content. Hammering nails is a skill. Building a house is content. So is making cabinets and chairs. Hammering nails is something everyone can learn; the same can’t be said of making a decent chair.
But you can’t just teach people how to hammer nails any more than you can simply teach kids how to read and count. They’ve got to read and count something. Which isn’t to say we haven’t tried. The attempt to teach counting as a skill is the driving force behind every kid needing to take academic math courses like calculus in order to graduate. Trying to teach reading only as a skill has produced generations of Social Justice Warriors.
Prioritizing skills began reasonably enough as education reform, because most problems stem from content. How does an education system leave ‘no child behind’ if aspects of education related to content guarantee leaving some behind? How does a nation create accountability in its entire curriculum if every kid is unique? How do we test reading and math if every kid reads something different or will end up using math in a near infinite variety of ways?
That’s the fundamental issue with content. Content separates and divides, cleaves us all into unique experiences, interests, and abilities. If we teach a certain book to an entire class, someone is inevitably going to do worse than others. They may not like the book. They may not have background knowledge of others. They may not have parents who read similar books. They may speak a different dialect than the book uses, may have different cultural traditions, may simply not like reading fiction, or fantasy, or anything else particular to that text. Conversely, anyone who does share something with the book will have an advantage.
When it comes to accountability, how do we guarantee fairness and equity when content is so particular? Our national education system is tragically uneven and unequal, with minorities and the poor somehow always benefiting the least, or even seeing actual negative outcomes. Forcing the content of successful schools upon less successful ones reeks of a peculiar prejudice, one that will derail this entire essay if I choose to follow it. Suffice to say, it’s far easier to reject content altogether and focus on the specific skills successful students seem to have. It’s not the books successful people read, it’s the ability to read them in the first place that matters.
And how do you measure a student’s ability if content screws up the results? If what I have read or not read in the past influences a measurement of my ability to read, then how can we ever guarantee a fair assessment? Unless we actually try to eliminate the effects of content altogether.
So a few decades ago, the American public education system began prioritizing ‘skills’ over ‘content’. While not an unreasonable development, the consequences have been unexpectedly profound. Among the results we face today: an over-emphasis on college-specific academics, a reduction in electives and trades, and an erosion of Civics as a class. But perhaps the least recognized effect has been the push towards ‘Social Justice’, not merely as a concern, but as a Duty or Mission or Purpose.
The roots of our Social Justice movement are neither entirely moral nor social; they are curricular. Much of today’s Social Justice began as a response to an ever-shrinking library of content public schools use to teach reading.
In a country that sanctifies individuality the way Americans do, moving away from specific content in public education has a necessary feel. After all, what distinguishes one person from another is not the skill of reading, a tool everyone must have in a modern society, but the specific books one reads. My ability to read tells you nothing; that I read The Wall Street Journal, or cookbooks, or science fiction, or the Bible, or nothing at all is far more revealing.
Of course, schools have never been terribly interested in giving students choice at all. They are more interested in avoiding conflicts and lawsuits. What a person reads does more than reveal, it shapes, and parents have a justified interest in how their children are being molded by their schools. For a school, it’s far easier to deny than produce. Any book a parent wants their child to read can be provided at home, while anything they don’t want their children exposed to demands far more careful vigilance. Again, the easy answer is to eliminate the ‘what’ altogether. Forget specific books; the job is to teach kids how to read, not what to read.
There’s just one wrinkle.
You can’t teach anything without content. Humans are not machines. The ‘skill’ of reading is not some mechanical multipurpose tool that can be programmed into every human being. Neither is number sense.
We’ve tried, and it’s a nightmare. In classrooms across the country right now are decontextualized texts being thrust on kids, works and work deliberately created to ‘teach’ skills instead of content. Paragraphs yanked from longer works like organs from living bodies, or mechanical, frictionless pieces followed by questions about author’s purpose or vocabulary context clues. The skill of reading like hammering nails.
No, we need content. Human beings need to care. Nobody cares about ‘reading’ — they care about what they read. People — and students are very much people — demand reasons. In fiction, they want conflict, characters, drama. In other works, they need to know why this or that matters to them.
So we’ve had to build libraries of material, to give to kids, to teach to whole classes, that somehow elude the multiple complications of content yet still inspire passion and care. Old white guys are out. Traditional works, nope. Religion? Hell, no! So many reasons to reject works. The language is too difficult, or the history too fraught, the author controversial, the themes objectionable. Some works, like Shakespeare, demand such a specialized reading skill that reading them demands a ‘skill’ that serves no practical purpose in the first place, so don’t even bother bringing up potential sexism or anti-Semitism.
Except stories that confront bullying and prejudice. Nobody can object to that. The injustice of judgement, yes! Kids love that stuff. Thwarted individuality? Perfect.
So 30 years later we have generations of the best students going to college completely fired up about Social Justice. They were all raised entirely on a diet of it.
And then many of them, being good students, go into education, back down into secondary and primary school, even more fired up. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Conflict rarely begins in the same place the blows are struck. Whether place or time or both, the source of most disputes is distant, often only dimly even related.
Today’s social justice movements, sharpening the edge of Cancel Culture (among others), began in an earlier time and different place: the nation’s primary and secondary schools, through an unwavering focus on skills over content. This is not to deny the very real injustices being fought, or a reason to reject the struggle. The themes of the content schools have settled upon are still valid (if myopic). But many of the inconsistencies and contradictions and frustrations within the social justice movements can be better understood, perhaps even resolved, through recognizing one of its more significant sources.
We’re actually struggling with numerous consequences, most still evolving, from the skills over content displacement in our schools. Take a hard look at most standardized exams under this lens. Or examine our unrelenting focus on college academics over all else. Or question the steady erosion of any class not directly related to Reading and Math.
But perhaps the most important question to ask is if it’s worked? Are schools more equitable? Is the system fairer? Have schools improved?
In some ways, a generation or three of American students devoted to a fairer nation isn’t objectionable, however dimly related to the origin. This is certainly worth keeping in mind if we ever decide to move back towards content in schools.