Ian Cross: Why should schools combat social injustice?

Why should schools combat social injustice?

Before answering the question of ‘how can schools combat social injustice?’ - which is a matter of methods and means, there is a deeper ontological question about the purpose of education in the supposition that schools should combat social injustice at all. I will argue that this is not as axiomatic as would first appear and at the root of ‘how can schools combat social injustice?’ is the requirement to untangle the ideas and histories that originate from those antithetical viewpoints.

In the origins of Graeco-Roman history there are arguments for justice but this is only extended to citizens, there is no great requirement for social justice beyond membership of these elites. Plato discusses Social Contract theory in his Republic but never holds a formal discussion on slavery for example (Vlastos, 1941). Neither in Asian traditions, characterised by beliefs of cycles of birth and re-birth, are there greater demands for social justice: there are ‘copious inscriptional and documentary evidence for the institutional monastic ownership of slaves from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Korea, China, and Japan’ (Buswell, 2004). Whilst the idea of karma and conceptions of personal identity were borne out in the discrimination against burakumin (‘outcastes’) in Japan and the roots of hierarchy and caste strictures in general (Ujike, 1985, Miyasaka, 1995, Bodiford, 1996, Hayashi, 1997). Similarly in Feudal Christian societies the divine right1 of elites was regarded as God’s blessing and maintaining the status quo of power distribution was therefore the Lord’s work. It is arguably the Protestant reformation, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and the French Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, who was a deist and in his ‘Discourse on Inequality’ proposed ‘the idea of "the state of nature", an original form of human life in which "natural compassion" held sway, ensuring fundamental equality,’ (Hobson, 2014) which give birth to the notion of human rights and with them social justice through the equality of all people. This memorably finds expression in Thomas Jefferson’s American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” (US, 1776) But not so equal as to prevent slavery, segregation and the overt racism which continues in America to this day.

The idea that things ought to be a certain way (as opposed to accepting things as they are) is particularly Judaeo-Christian; the restitution of creation being God’s ultimate aim for humanity (The Bible: Isaiah 65:17 & 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). In ‘Mere Christianity’ CS Lewis expounded his idea of Moral Law: that acknowledging that things ought to be a way is to assert that a moral judgement can be made over them, and that this therefore infers an innate objective morality (Lewis, 1998). Even potentially atheistic Humanists purporting to care for social justice emerge through the context of the Judaeo-Christian privileging of homo sapiens over all other species (Harari, 2015)

Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (The Bible: Genesis 1:26)

So if we accept that humans have no special privilege amongst species, then animal welfare becomes as important a concept of social justice as any human concerns.

One early advocate of animal rights was the founder of modern Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. He argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, should be what he called the "insuperable line”; that if reason alone were the criterion by which we judge who ought to have rights, human infants and certain disabled adults might also be excluded. His economic ideas influenced the development of the welfare state and he advocated for equal rights for women, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, the decriminalising of homosexual acts, the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. Incidentally he repudiated the natural law arguments of the American Independence movement, bought shares in the new University College London and was a staunch atheist (Rosen, 2014). He in turn was friends with the abolitionist James Hill, father of the Christian Socialist Octavia Hill who was influential in developing social housing and one of the founders of the National Trust. From Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, The Cadbury family, and Lord Shaftesbury to Josephine Butler it seems many of the Victorian social reformers were driven by strong Christian convictions, whilst occupying positions of privilege and prestige themselves.

Having then been denied a religious justification for maintaining their status through 'natural law’ and ‘divine right’ by the atheism and reason of the enlightenment thinkers, elites who cared not a fig for human infants and certain disabled adults, turned instead towards Biology and particularly Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection to justify the rampant exploitation of labour through the Industrial Revolution.

Charles Darwin shared an interest in Thomas Malthus’ theories of population growth with both Alfred Wallace (Bonar, 1885), who simultaneously came up with the theory of evolution independently to Darwin, and Charles Dickens’ fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge who sounds frighteningly contemporary when he says:

“I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there… If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." (Dickens, 1911)

Darwin and Wallace’s ideas were vivaciously supported by the pre-eminent2 biologist (and grandfather to Aldous Huxley) T H Huxley, who in his embittered article ‘The Struggle for Existence in Human Society’ (Huxley, 1888) argued that nature is a gladiatorial contest in which the weak go to the wall, and woe betide us if we fail to apply this maxim to human society for we shall sink under the burden of supporting those unfit to live (Newman, 2015). 'Huxley spent much of the 1860s and ’70s immersed in educational reform and institution building.’ (Desmond, 2019)

To relate this back to why schools should combat social injustice at all, in this context the Biological arguments have become politicised - the political Right taking the view that anything that can infer advantage to their offspring is not only preferable but also natural. If schools are integral to the endowment of advantage then maintaining social division is simply a consequence of Darwinian struggle. We cannot say that this social division is an ‘injustice’ since it has been derived through means of natural selection and is therefore in fact justified. I would argue that a great many people subscribe to these views in some form or other and the maxim that schools themselves should be made to compete in a market place for students for their own survival has become the established norm.

Huxley was not without criticism from within the scientific community and his ideas expressed in ‘The Struggle for Existence in Human Society’ were rebutted by the Russian naturalist, anarchist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his essays collected together as ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’. Kropotkin explored the role of mutually-beneficial cooperation and reciprocity rather than conflict as the chief factor in the evolution of species (Kropotkin, 1904). ‘Providing abundant examples, he showed that sociability is a dominant feature at every level of the animal world. Among humans, too, he found that mutual aid has been the rule rather than the exception’ (Avrich and Miller, 2019). As one of the philosophical architects of the Russian Revolution, inevitably Kropotkin’s ideas about Mutual Aid over Struggle for Existence are deeply associated with the political Left. To achieve an integrated society Kropotkin 'called for education that would cultivate both mental and manual skills. Due emphasis was to be placed on the humanities and on mathematics and science, but, instead of being taught from books alone, children were to receive an active outdoor education and to learn by doing and observing firsthand.’ (Avrich and Miller, 2019).

Whilst Huxley did much to popularise and promote the Sciences in the 19th Century, he also nationalised the Darwinian struggle (Desmond, 2019) - he saw industrial powers as competing for resources and land, so in his nationalism, support for empire and overt racism I believe we can see the emerging origins of the Holocaust, not in 20th century Germany but in 19th Century Britain.

During this time and drawing on these ideas Charles Darwin’s half cousin, the polymath Sir Francis Galton was inventing Psychometrics and developing ‘a set of beliefs and practices that aim[ed] to improve the genetic quality of a human population by excluding… certain genetic groups judged to be inferior, and promoting other genetic groups judged to be superior’ (en.wikipedia.org, 2019) which he termed ‘Eugenics’. Galton was interested in the heritability of intelligence, the standard deviation of which, however it was measured, determined that humans certainly were not all equal and undoubtedly influenced the young (Sir) Cyril Burt who routinely visited him as a child with his father.

Sir Cyril Burt was the first the first educational psychologist appointed by a governmental body in Britain, President of the British Psychological Society, member of the British Eugenics Society, honorary president of Mensa and the first Psychologist to be knighted. Graduating from Oxford with a second class degree, he became Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool University, where in 1909 he used Charles Spearman's model of general intelligence (Spearman was the originator of the IQ test) to analyse his data on the performance of schoolchildren in a series of tests.

This first research project was to define Burt's life's work in quantitative intelligence testing, eugenics, and the inheritance of intelligence. One of the conclusions in his 1909 paper was that upper-class children in private preparatory schools did better in the tests than those in the ordinary elementary schools, and that the difference was innate. (en.wikipedia.org, 2019)

In support of this inheritability of intelligence, he claimed that the IQs of fathers and sons were very similar, but provided no parental test scores. “When questioned 50 years later about how he had measured parental intelligence, it emerged that Burt hadn't--he had merely assumed it from their social standing!” (Parrington, 1996)

Nevertheless he was made the official psychologist of the London County Council, responsible for the administration and interpretation of mental tests in London's schools and where ‘to initiate and supervise research’ was one of his core duties’. (Keir, 1952) In 1931 he was appointed Professor and Chair of Psychology at University College London, succeeding Charles Spearman himself.

Burt’s studies convinced him that intelligence was primarily hereditary in origin… His data seemed to demonstrate that occupational levels (and hence social class) are determined mainly by innate, hereditary levels of intelligence. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019)

The influence of Sir Cyril Burt cannot be overstated:

Burt’s massive scholarship and research status gave him a position of great strategic influence in shaping policy and practice, not only at education authority level but also at national level. Hearnshaw (1979) details his key contribution at every level of the education system – infant and nursery schools, primary education and secondary education. The reports which shaped the reconstruction of the education system after the war ‘depended much on the evidence of the psychologists, and in particular on that of Professor Cyril Burt’ (Van der Eyken, 1973, cited in Hearnshaw, 1979). (MacKay, 2013)

The reconstruction of the education system after the war implemented the Hadow report of 1926 whose main recommendations included the introduction of the 11+, grammar schools and that in non-selective secondary schools there should be an emphasis on practical work related to 'living interests’. (Gillard, 2015)

Burt’s later research was into identical twins separated at birth and educated and raised separately, by comparing the correlations between their scores on intelligence tests Burt was able to assert extremely high heritability scores for intelligence. Burt seemed to find a surprisingly large number of families with identical twins who had decided that two was too many and yet this did not ring alarm bells amongst the peer reviewers and co-authors Margaret Howard and Jane Conway who only appeared in the historical record as reviewers of Burt's work in the Journal of Statistical Psychology at a time when the journal was edited by Burt. It took until the year of Burt’s death in 1971 for an American academic Leon Kamin to observe that Burt had reported correlation coefficients correct to three decimal places in his twin studies of 1943, 1955 and 1966. The probability of this being mathematically correct was virtually impossible and so further scrutiny ensued, culminating in a series of damning articles by Dr. Oliver Gillie, the medical correspondent to the London Sunday Times who concluded that not only was Burt’s data made up but his co-authors Margaret Howard and Jane Conway had also been concocted. Prominent followers of Burt such as Hans Eysenck of London University and US psychologist Arthur Jenson scrambled to his defence, but notably Ms Howard and Ms Conway remained silent. Because of Burt’s critical importance in establishing selective education, what became known as ‘the Burt affair’ has been highly politicised; supporters of Burt aligning with the political Right and providing sufficient obfuscation and doubt, whilst opponents of Burt aligning with the political Left and damning him. Between them the confirmation-bias is palpable! At best we can say the historical basis for selective education is uncertain and at worst it is based on a criminal fraud. The legacy of Grammar schools with their hierarchy of Classics, Sciences (thanks to TH Huxley) and Humanities versus the non-selective ‘practical work’ can still be found in the nonsense labelling of ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ subjects.

In conclusion therefore, combatting social justice is important if you believe in the goodness of mankind like Rousseau or Moral Law like CS Lewis. And combatting social injustice is important if you believe elites aren’t ordained by God unlike Richard I, or inherently biologically superior unlike TH Huxley and Cyril Burt. Social justice is important because when we help each other and our environment we are perhaps best placed to live social, rich, pleasant, peaceful and long lives. Perhaps one way schools could combat social injustice would be by teaching the history of ideas to show students that the way things are is not inevitable or fixed but open to debate, interpretation and realignment, provided they know the reasons why.


1 Richard I at his trial during the diet at Speyer in 1193 was supposed to have said: "I am born in a rank which recognises no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions” (Duncan, 1839) and it was Richard who first used the motto "Dieu et mon droit" ("God and my right") which is still the motto of the Monarch of the United Kingdom.

2 Huxley also served as president of the Geological Society (1869–71), the Ethnological Society (1868–71), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1870), the Marine Biological Association (1884–90), and the Royal Society (1883–85). With seats on 10 Royal Commissions, deliberating on everything from fisheries to diseases to vivisection, he had clearly penetrated the labyrinthine corridors of power. (Desmond, 2019)


Avrich, P. and Miller, M. (2019). Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin | Russian revolutionary. [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Alekseyevich-Kropotkin [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Bodiford, W. 1996. Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice: Efforts to Reform a Tradition of Social Discrimination. The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 23: 1-27.

Bonar, J, 1852-1941. Malthus And His Work. London: Macmillan and co., 1885.

Buswell, R. (2004). Encyclopaedia of buddhism. New York: Macmillan Reference, pp.785-786.

Desmond, A. (2019). Thomas Henry Huxley | Biography & Facts. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Henry-Huxley [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Dickens, C. A Christmas carol. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911 Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/47037729/>

Duncan, J (1839). The dukes of Normandy, from the times of Rolls to the expulsion of king John. London:: Joseph Rickerby, and Harvey & Darton. pp. 290, 291.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Sir Cyril Burt | British psychologist. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyril-Burt [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Eugenics. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Gillard, D. (2015). Board of Education Report of the Consultative Committee onThe Education of the Adolescent ‘The Hadow Report’ 1926 - full text. [online] Educationengland.org.uk. Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/hadow1926/hadow1926.html [Accessed 10 June. 2019].

Gillie, O. (1976). Crucial data was faked by eminent psychologist. Sunday Times, 24 October.

Hayashi, H. 1997. Bukkyō ni miru sabetsu no kongen: sendara, etori hōshi no gogen (Tokyo: Akashi Shoten).

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens : a Brief History of Humankind. New York :Harper, 2015.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Hobson, T 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/27/rousseau-humanity-divine-not-reason accessed 10th June 2019

Huxley, T. (2019). The Struggle for Existence in Human Society (1888). [online] Mathcs.clarku.edu. Available at: https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE9/str.html [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Jefferson, T. (2019). Declaration of Independence. [S.l.]: VERSO.

Jensen, A.R. (1969). How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 39, 1–123.

Joynson, R.B. (1989). The Burt affair. London: Routledge.

Miyasaka, Y. 1995. Indogaku Mikkyōgaku Ronkō [Indian and Tantric Studies] (Kyoto: Hozokan).

Kamin, L. (1974). The science and politics of IQ. Potomac, MD: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Keir, G. (1952). Symposium on psychologists and psychiatrists in the child guidance service: III – A history of child guidance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 22(1), pp.5–29.

Kropotkin, P. (1904). Mutual aid. London: Heinemann.

Lewis, C. (1998). Mere Christianity. London: HarperCollins.

MacKay, T. (2013). The foundations of educational psychology: The legacy of Cyril Burt. Educational and Child Psychology, [online] 30(3), pp.37-45. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287270517 [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Newman, R. (2015). The Encyclopaedia of Evolution. Glasgow: Freight Books.

Parrington, J. (1996). The intelligence fraud. Socialist Review, [online] (196). Available at: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr196/parrington.htm [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

Rosen, F. (2014). “Bentham, Jeremy". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2153

The Holy Bible. NIV. (2012). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Ujike, K. 1985. Bukkyō kyōten ni okeru sendara no yōrei (oboegaki) [A Note on caāla (outcastes) in the Buddhist Canons]. Kōyasan Daigaku Ronsō 20: 1-21

Vlastos, G. (1941). Slavery in Plato's Thought. The Philosophical Review, [online] 50(3), p.289. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2180538 [Accessed 10 Jun. 2019].

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

“All changed, changed utterly.” W.B Yeates When lockdown first began, the nation fell silent. The roads deserted, the occasional passing car became an intrusion into the silence of nature (which as we

If you have ever engaged with The Conversation, either reading the magazine, listening to the podcast, on twitter, instagram or YouTube, could you spare a few moments and fill in a feedback form for u

Issue 6 of The Conversation has just been released. (Find it on the Issues page of this website). As you can see, if you have read any of the previous issues, the style has changed. This issue is desi