Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Here We Go Again

Today the CSWE distributed to its membership a notice reporting that, once again, the National Association of Scholars has issued a Report objecting to the CSWE accreditation standards that require schools of social work to “pursue policies, services, and resources through advocacy and social or political actions, that promote social and economic justice.” Read the full report from NAS here.

I’ll try to find time for a longer post and a more comprehensive analysis of the Report, but it’s a rather intellectually dishonest sort of exercise, one full of Straw Men, and it’s hard to know where to begin. A few first thoughts:

Standard 6.01 of the NASW Code of Ethics is not, as the NAS claims, a “partisan declaration.” Here’s the text:
Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.
To insist that social workers respect the dignity of all people, and seek to find ways on the micro- and the macro-level to improve their clients’ lives, including (gasp!) through political action, is not a partisan declaration. Nor is, I would hope, an injunction against discrimination on the basis of race, or disability, or sexual orientation. Unless you believe that principles of equality, justice, fairness, and respect for human dignity and difference are the province only of one political party. Or that a call to engage in politics is subversive of democracy itself.

They complain about courses and instructors that “grant a privileged status to a single, arguable view, which is thereby placed above critical examination.” Set aside the clever trick of inserting the word “arguable” here. What they describe is indoctrination and hectoring, not teaching. We could with too little effort, alas, come up with examples of bad teaching, and the academy does not do enough to avoid that (in no small part because of pressures to save costs and reduce faculty power by off-loading courses to under-qualified, under-mentored adjuncts with too little experience in the classroom). But who do you know who celebrates this approach? Who walks into the classroom with the goal to cajole or convert? The plural of "anecdote" is not, contrary to an old saw, "data." Is bad teaching a problem in social work schools? Yes, as it is wherever it occurs. Are such practices widespread? They offer no evidence that it is.

NAS hauls out Nozick and Rawls to argue that ideas of “justice” are contested. Well, of course they are. But when a student in a social work classroom talks about a client who was evicted from her subsidized apartment with her two small children because she never received, and therefore never returned, the paperwork required to keep her there, I can assure you that the room will have little debate about whether this as unjust. Part of what our job is is to teach students how they can effectively intervene – first by making sure their client has shelter, and, perhaps, then by working at the agency, city, state or even national level to get such arbitrary policies changed. Is this ideological? Social Work students are not doctoral candidates in political philosophy, and while Rawls may have his uses, they are being trained to deal with a grim reality, not lofty abstractions. They are men and women who have, usually quite consciously, decided to sacrifice prestige and high wages in favor of making life a little less grueling for Americans with the least political and economic power. Is a determination to reduce misery and suffering partisan? I hope not.

The NAS approach, like the worst habits of “professional” journalism, seems also to imply a naive standard of “objectivity” that means that: there are two (and seldom more than two?) views to any issue; they are equally powerful as explanations; and that the educator’s job is to present divergent viewpoints and then leave it to students to pick among them. That’s more bad teaching, in part because not all viewpoints, not all explanations, and not all readings of the available data are equal. As a teacher of social policy, my task is to present any issue to students with as much complexity as time permits, and then help them to systematically evaluate competing explanations. And what any reputable social scientists will tell you is that some explanations are better than others. (Some disreputable ones might tell you this, too, for all I know.) This false objectivity (see here) is how we get notions that there is serious debate among climate (and other) scientists about whether global warming is occurring, and whether (to some non-trivial degree), humans are contributing to it. In the policy classroom, there’s little room for the deniers' arguments, since there is so little there there. (There’s plenty of room in a politics classroom, of courses, since the legitimation of propaganda is a fascinating and critical issue.)

It seems to me, finally (I know, it was meant to be a short post), that there’s a sub-text to the NAS Report: isn't the real objection that schools of social work (at their best) teach students to identify injustice and seek ways to ameliorate it? That’s the truly radical strain of the profession (one it has not often enough lived up to, arguably), and the real threat to any status quo, for any party in power.

UPDATE: As to their claim that social work is, and historically has been, a “liberal” profession, see Polsky (Rise of the Therapeutic State), Specht and Courtney (Unfaithful Angels), Piven and Cloward (Regulating the Poor), Wagner (What’s Love Got to Do with It?), Poppendieck (Sweet Charity?), Funicello (Tyranny of Kindness), Pimpare (The New Victorians), and even Reisch and Andrews (The Road Not Taken)

UPDATE II: Serendipity -- hot off the presses from the AAUP

UPDATE III: The indispensble Michael Berube on the AAUP Report

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