Educating for Justice: Liberal Education and the Development of Just Members of Society

The Third Annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts

Janurary 31 - February 1, 2003




Conversation Overview


Academic institutions have long been centers of concern for justice. But with few exceptions, this concern was not built into their educational goals. Education itself was expected to be “value-free.” Recently there has been a significant shift away form this expectation. Colleges and universities now widely announce that ethical judgment, character, and good citizenship are among their educational goals. Yet the theoretical foundations and the practical strategies for pursuing value-laden educational goals have remained murky. It is all too easy for institutions to go on largely as before while concern for ethical goals remains at the o3convolevel of institutional rhetoric.

In an effort to bridge this gap, some sixty faculty members and academic administrators from thirty colleges and universities across the country gathered at the third annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts at Westmont College. The institutions represented ranged from small liberal arts colleges, to larger comprehensive universities, to major research universities. Some were private, others public, some religious, others not. But what these diverse institutions all had in common was a commitment to a liberal arts education as the heart of their undergraduate program. Together we considered whether fostering justice in our students is the job of higher education, whether we can do this in a society with competing conceptions of justice, and how, exactly, a liberal education is supposed to develop justice in students.

Two major results came from our conversations. First, the presenters offered concrete accounts of both the theoretical foundations and practical strategies for pursuing a value-laden educational goal, justice, without either imposing a set of values on students or retreating to a position of value-neutrality. Second, the conversations sparked by the panelists’ presentations revealed a deeply-felt frustration with the ways that institutional structure and ethos inhibit educating for justice. With faculty isolated from their peers in other departments and encouraged to narrowly specialize, with accrediting agencies looking for measurable outcomes, with students focused on vocational goals, how can we think about working together to foster the virtue of justice in our students?

This latter question remained an open one as we concluded our time together and we invite you to join our ongoing conversation by subscribing to the Institute’s online discussion forum. You can do so by entering your email address in the space to the left. You can view the conference program, the papers delivered, and the list of participants by following the links above. The papers are available in print in volume two of Liberal Arts, the proceedings of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. With the growing awareness of deep injustices both within our own society and across the globe, and with the growing concern throughout our society for attending to the ethical dimension of education, we’re sure this collection of papers will be of tremendous value.