Bryn Mawr, Haverford have already tried social justice requirement

10 mins read

As the debate about introducing a social justice requirement at the college continues, a comparison of the course offerings within the Tri-College consortium reveals that Byrn Mawr and Haverford offer more social justice related courses and programs than Swarthmore does. In addition, the current debate at Swarthmore echoes discussions from the late 2000s at Byrn Mawr and Haverford as Haverford ended its social justice requirement and Byrn Mawr introduced one.

Each college in the tri-co emphasizes social justice in their admissions materials and curriculums, reflecting the schools’ common Quaker heritage of social concern. Byrn Mawr women go on to become “positive, powerful agents of change in communities all over the world,” according to their college website. Our website says that Swarthmore gives students “the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good. ”From 1990 to 2008 Haverford had a social justice graduation requirement. All the schools in the tri-co offer a Peace And Conflict Studies program. Despite these similarities, many more social justice courses and programs are offered at Byrn Mawr and Haverford than at Swarthmore.

Differences in course offerings within certain departments show the disparity in social justice course offerings. While Swarthmore’s Philosophy department only offers about one ethics class a year, Byrn Mawr’s offers several a semester, including a general ethics class, which Swarthmore does not offer, and classes like Science and Morality in Modernity, Global Ethical Issues, and Environmental Ethics. Bryn Mawr offered 20 Gender and Sexuality courses this semester, while Swarthmore offered 14, excluding seminars only open to a small number of students. This difference is despite the fact that the three schools have about an equal number of students pursuing a minor or concentration in that field. Byrn Marw and Haverford offered 20 Black Studies classes, while Swarthmore offered 17.

Beyond course offerings Byrn Mawr has several social justice related programs that Swarthmore does not. Byrn Mawr offers an International Studies program with a “global social justice” track. The track has a stated purpose of allowing “students to explore issues of social and political change in the context of economic and political transition in the globalized world. In addition, Byrn Mawr requires students to take a class that fulfills a “cross cultural analysis” requirement, which is meant to “encourage the student’s engagement with communities and cultures removed from her own.”

Though opportunities to take courses related to social justice appear to be greater at Bryn Mawr and Haverford than at Swarthmore, some bi-co students still feel discontent with these course offerings.

Isabella Nugent, BMC ’18, says she feels Byrn Marw’s degree requirements actually do not emphasize social justice enough.

“I really wouldn’t consider the Cross-Cultural Requirement a social justice requirement at all. It seems like a stretch as many classes (such as anthropology and archaeology) compare cultures but do not focus on social justice issues.”

Nugen also feels there should be more classes related to social justice.

“As an international studies major with a global social justice track, I believe that courses focused specifically on social movements are relatively limited at Bryn Mawr. I have taken the majority of my social justice courses for my concentration through Haverford’s Peace, Justice, and Human Rights department.”

Although students and faculty have recently organized to talk about instituting a social justice requirement because of dissatisfaction with the course offerings, some students at Swarthmore feel that such a requirement would be unworkable and unnecessary.

“There are a lot of courses in humanities and social sciences that deal with social justice and I would be fine with the college organizing an interdisciplinary social justice program to bring them all together, but to force students to take these classes against their will just seems un-swarthmore,” said Evan Shoaf ’18.

Shoaf felt such a requirement would change little about the student body.

“I’m against it because I think the effect will be minimal at best. Swarthmore forces you to be in contact with social justice constantly (orientation, all campus events, etc) – we don’t need to force people to take certain classes to hammer in details.”

Other members of the campus community felt that introducing a social justice requirement could be easily implemented and that it would be very beneficial to the college.

“Last February, some of the students organizing for the Social Justice requirement invited me to a meeting with students, faculty, and staff. It was heartwarming to see the Intercultural Center full with students from all walks of life, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their commitment to such an addition to our curriculum. As an alum and faculty member, I agree with them that this would be a wise move for the College,” said Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan ’06.

Atshan cited similar changes nationally, specifically Georgetown University’s recent decision to add a social justice requirement, as further reason he believed Swarthmore should also introduce such a requirement. He felt a social justice requirement would enhance Swarthmore’s existing curriculum.

“We have the capacity here at Swarthmore to build upon existing resources so that students could fulfill the Social Justice requirement as a distributional one, where they select from already developed courses. I think that it is essential for Swatties to take one course before graduation that exposes them to social justices issues (taking power and inequality into account) from a rigorous analytical and academic vantage point,” said Atshan ’06.

Student and faculty opinion about introducing a social justice requirement reflect debate that occurred in the bi-co in the late 2000s. In 2008, Haverford eliminated its social justice requirement. During the same period, Byrn Mawr was considering introducing one, but instead in 2010 introduced its cross-cultural analysis requirement.

Some at Haverford felt the requirement insufficiently addressed the issue of social justice while at the same time imposing an onerous requirement on students.

Former professor of Political Science at Haverford Cristina Beltran, quoted in a story run by the Bi-College news in 2008, said “It never made any intellectual sense. It felt like a one-size-fits-all solution to a richer question. The people who were most unhappy with the requirement were the ones who taught the requirement.”

The Bi-Co news article continued to note that some at Haverford felt that the social justice requirement was vital to maintaining the school’s identity as an institution.

Dean of Multicultural Affairs Sunni Tolbert  was quoted as saying “Social justice is one of those things that reflects the values of the institution.” “The one way for us to send a message [about Haverford’s commitment to social justice] is to say, ‘There is an academic foundation to the learning about multiculturalism and diversity.’

Haverford student Isabel Clarke about a social justice requirement in a 2007 article for the Bi-Co news concluded that many students felt the requirement had lost its meaning.

“Concerns that the Social Justice Requirement is losing its focus and purpose are expressed by many students on campus who say they don’t mind having to fulfill the requirement, but also do not appreciate the class for the “social justice” aspect, rather as just another class needed to graduate,” she said.

As the college continues to debate whether to introduce a social justice requirement it seems important to consider if Swarthmore offers enough relevant courses and programs to support and sustain such a requirement.


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