Social Justice in the Curriculum

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

Social Justice and the College Experience

Liberal arts education is concerned with informing, forming, and transforming students with the intention of preparing individuals to fully participate in the democratic process and to exercise one's liberty in socially responsible ways (Chopp, Frost, & Weiss, 2014; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013; Schall, 2006). As social justice is concerned with equitable distribution of resources and privilege and with institutional fair treament of indiviudals, it finds its way into the college experience in at least three ways:

  • It is the subject of inquiry and an aspect of critical studies
  • It is an ideal against which instutioonal policies and practices are evaluated
  • It is a rationale for the immersion of students in communnity work

This tutorial will address:

What is Social Justice?

Why Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum?

Instructional Strategies to Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum


Additional Resources

What is Social Justice?

The concept of social justice is complex and dynamic. Miller (1976) has observed that there exists three principles of social justice that are often in conflict with each other: “To each according his rights; to each according to his deserts; and to each according to his needs.”

At the heart of modern conceptions of social justice is the idea that the state has an obligation to ensure a just distribution of resources. The idea that social justice is immediately concerned with the mitigation of poverty and deprivation reflect social justice’s theological and secular philosophical teachings on charity and benevolence that date back to antiquity (Jackson, 2005). The idea that social justice is chiefly the outcome of institutional activity is largely based on 19th century liberal interpretations of the duties of the modern state (Zajda, et. al., 2006; Fleischacker, 2004).

John Rawls (1971) opined that social justice refers to the ways rights and duties are assigned the basic social institutions, (such as governing agencies, courts, schools, and hospitals) and the principles that guide institutional decisions about how wealth, rights, and resources are distributed. Rawls asserted that the cardinal principles that distinguish social justice are respect for the right to liberty and the extent to which individuals have access to resources required to achieve economic prosperity. 

Rawls’ understanding of social justice is focused on the behavior of institutions rather than the individual’s moral conduct. This approach, as Miller (1999) observed, is predicated on three conditions:

  • There exists a society in which citizenship is clearly defined and citizens are bestowed certain rights
  • The existence of institutions that have the power and freedom to influence and determine the distribution of resources
  • The existence of a government or overarching authority empowered with the authority to compel institutions to adjust or reform their distribution of resources

In addition, Fleischacker (2004) states that modern social justice is also based on the modern liberal premises that individuals are innately good, deserve respect, have rights to resources, and that the obligation of the state to improve the equity of distribution is not dependent on theological doctrines of faith, but the philosophical assertion that wherein one is permitted to flourish, so too may all prosper.

Why Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum?

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007):

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

 Ferrall (2011) opined that liberal education is concerned with habits of mind that are directed toward preserving one’s freedoms while respect the liberty of others. Seifert, et. al. (2007) declared that liberal arts education aims to enhance the individual’s capacity for critically assessing the quality of one’s own thinking and how it may impact others.

San Francisco State has declared that the “commitment to its core values of equity and social justice” is articulated in “the diversity of its students and employees, the content and delivery of its academic programs and support systems, and the opportunities for both campus and external constituencies to engage in meaningful discourse and activity” (Commission on University Strategic Planning, 2005). This commitment reveals the institution’s awareness of higher education’s role in the improvement of society. 

The need for social justice is an enduring one. Many professors may recall, for example, that even in the latter half of the 20th century, women, Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and other minorities were victims of discrimination in hiring, membership to faculty and social clubs, access to certain schools, and entry to many vocations (Nussbaum, 1997). At present, people continue to suffer because of discrimination and because of inequities built into institutions and public services. One of the most provocative justifications for integrating social justice into the curriculum is economic conditions, whereas approximately 15% of Americans live in poverty, (National Poverty Center, 2013).

The integration of social justice into the curriculum raises students’ awareness of the world around them and may improve students’ analysis of social problems, their understanding of cause-effect relationships, and the potential long-and short-range consequences of their own values.

Instructional Strategies to Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum

The first step in integrating social justice into the curriculum is to reflect upon the course objective and student learning outcomes and to respond to some key questions, including:

  1. In what ways do the objectives and outcomes explicitly call upon instruction to teach about social justice and in what ways do they imply such instruction would enhance students’ understanding of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge embedded in the course?
  2. In the event that social justice is not an explicit or implied element in the course, how might student learning outcomes be adjusted to integrate it without compromising departmental requirements?

In thinking about these questions, instructors consider the institutional roles and professions for which they are preparing students, and how people in those roles and professions may influence the distribution of resources and the representation of marginalized groups, the poor, and the vulnerable. This potential influence is the foundation for academic exercises in which students may:

  • Explore data related to the current distribution of resources and services and assess the equity and consequences of the distribution
  • Conduct case studies of those served by institutions and agencies to understand the experiences of those served and to evaluate whether human needs are being met
  • Rehearse their skills in drafting policies that impact the distribution of resources and that regard the impact the policy will have on all stakeholders
  • Conduct an analysis of current practices in a given public agency to determine the extent to which the agency is equitable in its public service
  • Keep a journal of their experiences in field work that speaks to their awareness of how practices in a given agency or institution maintain equity in their services or have the need to improve the equity of their services
  • Compose a review of the literature on a particular social issue that professionals in the discipline are likely to confront and describe the context in which the issues “live” and the conditions that are likely to sustain or mitigate them
  • Compare and contrast secular philosophies of social justice with theological teachings on social justice and assess their impact

In assessing student work, instructors may remain objective by focusing on how well students:

  1. Understand the issues
  2. Understand diverse perspectives
  3. Provide evidence for their assertions
  4. Link assertions to scholarly understandings of the concept of social justice
  5. Devote special attention to marginalized, poor, and vulnerable populations
  6. Clearly demonstrate the existence of alternative courses of action and that there exists a measure of freedom to choose among options


Academic Planning and Development (2013). WASC educational effectiveness Report. San Francisco State University. [pages 3-14]

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American Association for Colleges and Universities. (2007). College learning for the new global century.

Bennett, D. C., Cornwell, G. H., Al-Lail, H. J. & Schenk, C. (2012). An education for the twenty-first century: Stewardship fo the global commons. Liberal Education, 98(4).

Chopp, R., Frost, S., & Weiss, D. H. (Eds.) (2014). Remaking college: Innovation and the liberal arts.Baltimore, MD: The Johns hopkins University Press.

Commission on University Strategic Planning. (2005). A bridge to opportunity. University strategic plan, 2005-2010. San Francisco State University.

Ferrall, V. E. Jr. (2011). Liberal arts at the brink. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fleischacker, S. (2004). A short history of distributive justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hart Research Associates. (2015) Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success

Jackson, B. (2005). The conceptual history of social justice. Political Studies Review, 3, 356-373.

Miller, D. (1979). Social justice. Oxford University Press. P. 27.

Miller, D. (1999). The principles of social justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

National Poverty Center. (2013). Poverty in the United States. Retrieved from:

Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of social justice. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Seifert, T. A., Goodman, K. M., Lindsay, N., Jorgensen, J. D., Wolniak, G. C., Pascarella, E. T., & Blaich, C. (2008). The effects of liberal arts experiences on liberal arts outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 49(2), 107-125.

Zajda, J., Majahnovich, S., & Rust, V. (2006). Introduction: Education and social justice. Review of Education, 52(9), 9-22.

Additional Resources

A life against death: The work of Sister Helen Prejean. [Author of Dead Man Walking, and anti-death penalty activist]

Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (1997). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ayers, W., Hunt, J. A., & Quinn, T. (1998) Teaching for social justice: A democracy and education reader. New York, NY: The New Press.

Cornell West on Social Justice. Andrea Neves and Barton Evans Social justice Series. Sonoma State University. July 22,2013.

Exler, L. & Messinger, R. (2012). We have sinned: T'Shuvah in a globalized world. In We have sinned: Sin and Confession in Judasism. Ashamu and Al Chet. Jewish Lights.

Jacobs, J. (2009). There shall be no needy: Pursing social justice through Jewish law and tradition. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Jansson. (2008). Becoming an effective policy advocate: From policy practice to social justice. CengageBrain. com.

Keown, D. (1998). Are There Human Rights in Buddhism?. Buddhism and Human Rights, 2, 15.

King, M. L., Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Research and Education Institute.Stanford University.

Leung, Kwok, and Walter G. Stephan. "Social justice from a cultural perspective." The handbook of culture and psychology (2001): 375-410.

Nussbaum, M. (2013). Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Radbound Universities.YouTube.

Perkins, J. (2008). Confessions of an economic hit man. [YouTube lecture in which former CIA operant explores the global economic and political power of the American empire and its implications]

Schall, J. V. (2006). Liberal educaiton & social justice. Liberal Education, 92(4).

Schwartz, S. (2008). Judaism and Justice: The Jewish passion to repair the world. Jewish Lights Publishing.

Singh, N. K. (1998). Social Justice and Human Rights in Islam. Gyan Books.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Conversations on Compassion. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University. November 10, 2013.

United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

United States Catholic Bishops conference. (1999). Economic justice for all.