Sunday, October 14, 2007
The Isms Game
George Will weighs in on the liberal bias of graduate schools of social work and describes a conservative's nightmare:
Schools' mission statements, student manuals and course descriptions are clotted with the vocabulary of "progressive" cant -- "diversity," "inclusion," "classism," "ethnocentrism," "racism," "sexism," "heterosexism," "ageism," "white privilege," "ableism," "contextualizes subjects," "cultural imperialism," "social identities and positionalities," "biopsychosocial" problems, "a just share of society's resources," and on and on.
The thing is, I worked as a non-degreed social worker for a few years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and later in Santa Cruz, CA. I also read quite a bit of the course materials when my ex-wife got her MSW. And Will's description is pretty accurate. As discipline's go, academic social work has got a pretty radical worldview which could almost be described as advocating for a society free from normative behavior. It's pretty satisfying from a theoretical point of view. The trouble arises, as usual, when theory meets practice.
Because while it's true that normative values often contribute to adaptive disorders, I'm just not sure how a society can really structure itself in their absence. The goal of recognizing the equality of each individual's inherent value is a noble one. But inherent value is not the same as utility value, and a society wherein everyone is free to assume any identity they choose is not likely to achieve the greatest possible advantage from its members. I'm quite certain I'd have led a much happier and fulfilled (to say nothing of wealthier) life, for instance, if the culture of professional basketball weren't so ridden with "heightism", "strengthism", "speedism" and "talentism". Fans of professional basketball, on the other hand, were probably better off for it. This dynamic explains why, not surprisingly, social work as a profession often consists of helping people find practical solutions for harmonizing their needs with the social mechanisms that frame their lives.
By contrast, the goal of eliminating discriminatory normative values (ie. biases) is not only noble, it's also very practical. To the extent that racism, sexism, and classism keep ethnic minorities, women and underprivileged individuals from developing their full potential, it's not just the victims that suffer but the society at large as well. We'll never know how many diseases might have been cured, mathematic problems solved and new technologies developed by the individuals who were denied access to those fields based on historically discriminatory codes of behavior.
Will's correct in claiming that social work as it's often taught represents an ideology as much as an academic discipline. As a wing of progressivism, it probably represents the left's mirror image of the religious right: atheist, non-normative, post-modern and full of jargon that South Park could have a field day with. But if you look closely at his list of offending terms, it's hard to see which one of the "isms" he'd want to argue for.
Update: I revised this post to make a distinction between academic and practical social work.