I am very proud to see Swarthmore faculty and students coming together to increase student awareness about the pressing issues of our time. I largely agree with the basic premise of the social justice requirement they are proposing: That an education that does not encompass the pressing issues of our time is incomplete. However, the organizers and I differ on the best way to remedy this problem.
When deciding as a community whether or not a social justice requirement of this nature is right for our college, we must first ask the question: Will this requirement help who its proponents say it will?
Proponents of the requirement argue that students who are not minorities will greatly benefit from its application. Many of these students are likely to have limited personal exposure to issues such as racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. The uncomfortable but necessary dialogues that classes regarding these topics would create could be eye-opening. While we would all benefit from a broader understanding of these topics, many students would be less engaged in a class they have to take compared to a class they chose of their own volition.
It is not hard to imagine that the students who have the most to gain from being around different perspectives and viewpoints on issues they have little personal connection to would simply not invest in the class. If forced to take any course, they are likely to view it as only a graduation requirement and simply go through the academic motions necessary for a good grade instead of taking the time to delve deeper into the material as they would for a class they truly cared about. Even worse, some students are likely to be resentful of a social justice requirement they had no say in implementing and could leave the course more embittered and more skeptical towards future social justice related initiatives.
We must also consider the impact a social justice graduation requirement would have on our Liberal Arts values. While a key part of our values is an interdisciplinary, socially conscious education, an equally important value is that of a unique, personalized academic journey. A course requirement would limit the personal intellectual freedom when making academic decisions that is essential to a liberal arts education. Students already have to meet three divisional requirements, a writing requirement, a P.E. requirement, a lab requirement, a foreign language requirement, and the requirements set by their major in order to graduate. This means that with the social justice requirement, students majoring in certain fields such as pre-med or engineering could effectively have only one class they would be able to freely choose to take for intellectual curiosity.
A course/divisional requirement could also hinder another Swarthmore academic trademark: small class sizes. A mandatory course requirement of any kind is likely to overload certain classes and departments and increase class sizes, which is not conducive to an intimate, personalized educational experience.
There are also practical matters to take into account. Unlike the divisional requirements, the social justice requirement is narrower, based on a subject and not an academic category, and cannot be fulfilled by a high school AP credit. Since it is hard to measure competence in social justice and since this is such a politically charged subject, requiring students to take a class on social justice for a grade poses a significant risk for students to feel pressure against challenging the material taught in class and in some cases could be tantamount to indoctrination.
Additionally, many of the issues this requirement sets out to tackle — racism, poverty, environmental awareness, sexism, etc — have limited applications in a classroom setting and require real-world exposure for full understanding. The personal, emotionally charged discussions that are necessary for full awareness on these sensitive issues are not discussions that should be had for the sake of a grade.
More broadly, I see several ethical downsides of a mandatory social justice component. It is somewhat alarming to see my peers express such enthusiasm for dictating what courses other students should have to take. While I personally believe that social justice and current events are very important topics, I am not in favor of requiring other students to feel the same way. Students pay increasingly high amounts of tuition or receive large amounts of scholarships and aid in order to attend Swarthmore, and making them pay for an extra class they have little to no interest in is rubbing salt in an already tender financial wound. Additionally, call me naive but I do not believe that any current Swarthmore student is intentionally close-minded. Ultimately, we can convince people to expand their knowledge voluntarily rather than forcing them to do so.
Most of the arguments I have made here are contingent on the structure of the requirement. We have yet to see if it will be proposed as one class or many, as interdivisional or independent, if it will incorporate old courses or create entirely new ones. Since we are at such an early stage in developing the social justice initiative, I have five proposals for the organizers that I hope they will consider:
- Identify current courses that already cover social justice themes and distinguish them as such
- Work hard to publicize, promote and support these classes
- Drum up student interest and enrollment in these classes through persuasion and engagement
- Hold campus-wide academic and community workshops on contemporary issues and support off-campus initiatives that deal with social justice since we learn about these topics primarily through first-hand experience and not in the confines of classroom walls
- If your hearts are absolutely set on creating a requirement, then either work with academic departments to make these courses requirements for certain majors/minors and not for graduation or put the question of an academic requirement up to a vote by the student body so that they can have a direct say in what path their education and the education of their future peers will take.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, all of the principal organizers of this initiative (Bobby Zipp ’18 , Andrés Cordero ’17, Killian McGinnis ’19 , Abby Saul ’19) are amazing, talented individuals whom I admire greatly and I hope that they, and you, will take into consideration the arguments I have outlined here. We are all equally important parts of this vibrant community, and I hope this article is another step towards open, productive dialogue on this matter.
Featured image courtesy of www.swarthmore.edu.