Universities inherently mold students. An education is meant to serve students past graduation, producing better informed, more participative citizens in society. As such, it is imperative that the University ensures students receive not just quality education, but also responsible education. In the past months, our campus has confronted various acts of bias, prejudice and violence. The Assembly for Justice has proposed that Cornell add a University-wide social justice requirement to its curriculum. In order to effect cultural change, the administration should affirm social justice as a core value and an integral part of a university education. A social justice requirement course is a potential way to achieve this.
The University’s mission statement alludes to social justice: “Cornell ... aims ... to enhance the lives and livelihoods of our students, the people of New York, and others around the world.” In order to fulfill this mission, we must understand the world in which we live — one full of persistent social inequality.
In a country as diverse as the United States, many people still grow up in predominantly homogeneous environments. Though perhaps unconsciously and unintentionally, many never think about social justice or their own cultural identities in a political and social context. A social justice course would introduce students to thinking about themselves in a wider context, a necessary thought process to begin to break down bias and prejudice.
While some may argue students will meet an additional distribution requirement begrudgingly and with resentment, we feel that it is possible to implement this requirement in a way that does not unreasonably restrict students. Further, others will argue that a simple course that falls under the category of “social justice” will not solve bias or create social justice. And this is true; we do not believe that a social justice requirement is a cure-all for bias, racism and injustice. However, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
A potential model for such a requirement is the human diversity requirement in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The list of approved courses that fulfill this requirement is expansive and provides students with ample opportunity to find a course that appeals to their interests. Of course, this also poses the risk that students might stay within their realm of comfort.
Curriculums designed with an eye toward social justice and diversity expose students not just to various cultures and identities, but to different and often new ways of thinking. This intellectual diversity prevents groupthink and encourages the expression of individual thought. Rather than imposing a specific school of thought, a social diversity requirement validates many intellectual frames. The ability to analyze material through various perspectives creates not only more socially aware students, but also better critical thinkers. The requirement would enhance any general education, and it is the University’s responsibility to provide students with the best education that it can.
Although the bias and harassment incidents this past year may not have all been committed by Cornell students, issues of bias still exist within our University. We hope that the administration will develop this requirement as a step toward affirming social justice as an academic and moral priority on our campus. It may serve as a way to grant all students the opportunity to broaden their perspectives and become better-educated, more well-rounded citizens.