Social Justice Must Be Action: Obligatory Duty and the Institutionalizing of Activism in Schools

Debbie Sonu


In this paper, I present pieces from a larger qualitative study on social justice at one public high school in New York City. By examining how students reflect upon, respond to, and reclaim an advisory curriculum dedicated to civic responsibility and activism, I argue that schools may have inadvertently standardized the non-standard of "justice" by applying upon it the complicities of power/knowledge, authority, behavior, and control. I draw from an attempted juxtaposition of critical theory and poststructuralist thought, more specifically Foucault's concept of docility-utility, to then argue that the containment of justice as a teach-able and learn-able objective may inhibit students from seeing themselves as already engaged in the world, as just individuals, on their own terms and circumstances. A reconceptualization of social justice may require a shift away from "social justice-oriented content" towards greater acknowledgment of "just encounters" among students and teachers in schools.

About the Author

Debbie Sonu completed doctoral work at Teachers College, Columbia University and is working as an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at Hunter College in New York City. Her interests include ethics and justice in urban schools, critical theory and poststructuralism, as well as issues related to youth, subjectivity, and race. Debbie Sonu can be contacted at

Full Text:


JCT: Journal of Curriculum Theorizing is an interdisciplinary journal of curriculum studies. It offers an academic forum for scholarly discussions of curriculum. Historically aligned with the "reconceptualist" movement in curriculum theorizing and oriented toward informing and affecting classroom practice, JCT presents compelling pieces within forms that challenge disciplinary, genre, and textual boundaries.

The journal is published by the Foundation for Curriculum Theory and is associated with the Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice, held in the autumn of each year. JCT is indexed in The Education Index.

NOTICE: As of December 2008, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing (Volume 24, Issue 1) and all future issues
are available freely and exclusively online to all individuals and institutions. More Information...

Contributors to the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing retain copyright to their work.

All other content: Copyright © Foundation for Curriculum Theory. All rights reserved.

ISSN: 1942-2563