Politics & Policy

Buying the Circus

Social-work education in America.

In 1947, Preston Sturges lured the silent comedian Harold Lloyd out of retirement to make a new film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. The Lloyd character, fired from a dead-end job after 22 years of sobriety, goes on a bender. When he sobers up he discovers he’s bought a circus — hungry lions, trapeze artists, bearded lady, and all.

Surveying higher education today, I have to wonder when we’re going to wake up and discover that we’ve bought the circus.

Several months ago, I said goodbye to my academic career in the strict sense to take a position as executive director of the National Association of Scholars. NAS has a hard-earned reputation for waging a 20-year fight against the ravages of post-modernism, multiculturalism, and the whole PC bestiary in American higher education. I expect most readers of National Review Online have heard of it. Out there under the Big Top, however, it has a tenuous standing.

NAS repeatedly calls professors, college presidents, and trustees to their obligations to promote rational inquiry, and to preserve the free institutions of our society from the anti-rational politics-is-everything vogue that swept through the universities in recent decades. In this, NAS is like the man outside the circus tent trying to have an earnest conversation about human dignity. Meanwhile the human cannonball whizzes past and little children cry, “Mommy, look at the giraffes!”

I was reminded of this last week when NAS issued a report it has been working on for about eight months — arguably a major study — and it slipped by unnoticed in the mainstream press. Even the trade newspaper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, ignored it. CHE, however, ran a nifty story about the “Professor Avatar,” on how six professors are using the Second Life website in classes.

Well, O.K., the NAS report wasn’t very sexy. It was a study of how university-based schools of social work have, to use the technical term, flipped out. Schools of social work, of course, were always at the liberal end of the spectrum, but it seems after President Clinton signed into law the “end of welfare as we know it,” the social work profession went over the edge. It switched from teaching social workers how to be good at helping their “clients” — the poor, the destitute, the hapless, and the truly rotten — to indoctrinating students in a revolutionary world view.

Let me be the first to admit: I’m simplifying. I’m exaggerating. But I’m trying right now to explain something to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I need those stilts. If you want the sober-sided version for men of little merriment, go read the report itself at the NAS website. Stay here and I’ll give you the entertaining version.

Picture, if you can, “the global interconnectedness of oppression.” Step this way and you’re your own strategy of “empowerment practice.” Can you swing the sledgehammer and ring the bell that challenges “oppressive structures?” For 25¢ we’ll show you a glimpse of “political advocacy as a form of mobilization.”

Actually, it won’t cost you a thing. The tax payers, of course, will pay for all that advocacy against oppressive structures. It’s cool when you think of it. Students will attend tax-payer subsidized public university social work programs to get the credentials for tax-payer-funded jobs, in which they get to advocate political action to punish those taxpayers for their oppressive generosity.

Or so it is if they have graduated from a public CSWE accredited school of social work. CSWE is the Council on Social Work Education and its stamp of approval is needed on schools of social work in 49 states. In Idaho, apparently, you can slip by with skimpier knowledge of the “forms and mechanisms of oppression” in American life. God bless Idaho.

The NAS report, “The Scandal of Social Work Education,” tracks the ideological requirements for becoming a licensed social worker. You may have thought social work was about helping the unfortunate. No; up-to-date social work is about combating “poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism” by advocating “social and economic justice.”

“Please, sir, can I have a little more gruel?” “No, but you can have a nice steaming pile of social justice.”

Today’s social-work curriculum presumably sits well with those still lamenting the fall of the Berlin Wall, but is hard cheese for traditionally religious types. Moral reservations about abortion? Doubts about gay adoption? Emily Brooker, a traditional Christian student, sued Missouri State University in 2006 after it brought her up on charges for refusing to lobby the state legislature in favor of homosexual adoption. Who has ever heard of a course requirement that forces students to lobby on behalf of a teacher’s pet project? Missouri State wisely settled.

Another student, Sandra Fuiten, was told by her social work program at the University of Illinois that she would have to choose between becoming a social worker and opposing abortion. She chose her conscience, and quit.

Schools of social work force students to take loyalty oaths to fringe political claims, march through a gauntlet of down-on-America courses, and carry out assignments that seem like hazing rituals aimed at weeding out any conservatives that snuck through the admissions process. Go to the University of Washington school of social work and you may be required to write about the effects of “cultural imperialism on Muslim communities, both within the United States and abroad.” Take “Words Beyond Walls” at the University of Texas school of social work and you’ll be required to submit your writing for review to prisoners serving life terms. The University of Michigan’s social work program will teach you how to challenge “oppressive structures” through “political action.”

In the gauntlet of courses, “social justice” gets in a poke, kick, or punch about every other sentence. When justice becomes “social,” it’s not because it has suddenly become gregarious. “Social justice” is code for “I’m not to blame. It’s the system, man!”

Well, maybe sometimes it is the system. But people who want to go into politics should run for office, rather than pose as professional social workers. By and large these are folks who were marooned by Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform. Rather than re-tool, they decided to turn social work education into one long tantrum against the unfairness of life.

Personally, I’d like to distribute some justice to the oppressed students who are victims of advocacy-ism. I’d start by empowering the Emily Brookers and Sandra Fuitens to resist the cultural imperialism of crusading faculty members. Then we could all write letters to the Massachusetts Supreme Court supporting heterosexual marriage and celibacy-on-demand. OK, I’m kidding. But it wouldn’t be any more outlandish than what our schools of social work are doing right now.

Harold Diddlebock, the man who accidentally bought a circus, succeeded in selling his circus to Barnum & Bailey, and walked away with a tidy profit and the girl. Hollywood loves a happy ending, but I’m afraid, for the moment, we’re stuck with our circus.

Peter Wood is author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.




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