Whither Social Justice? How Teachers in Elite Private Schools Embrace Privilege.

Year: 2019

Author: Variyan, George

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper highlights the importance of considering how teachers in elite private schools are mobilised and constrained, but also how their agency allows them to embrace privilege in spite of thorny questions around educational inequality. These findings are drawn from a multi-site study of teachers in elite private schools in Australia, where no similarly substantive research has been conducted for over three decades. This study utilises data from interviews, observations and field artefacts, which was theorised through a hybridisation of Foucauldian theory with socio-ecological thinking. Re-thinking Foucault through this socio-ecological lens problematises the bifurcations and antagonisms of his work, but crucially reinvigorates the ‘thinking otherwise’ that the endlessly resistant status quo demands.

However, while it is perhaps self-evident that progressive agendas in education still hope to mesh with, to energise, or be energised by the egalitarian values espoused in liberal western democracies, this civic commitment appears increasingly tenuous. In recent times, the Australian discourse of a ‘fair go’, has shown marked shift in imagining, which now appears to extend only to those who are entrepreneurial and/or diligent - those who ‘have a go’ - beyond which the weak, vulnerable, and the contrarian are no longer countenanced. This weaponising of values, runs parallel to how elite schools have been successfully able to repackage exclusivity as value,in the schooling market. This certainly makes questionable the ideal of equity in practice, yet it also challenges the easy-to-hand imperatives of social justice commonly taken up by critical scholars.

This paperthus attemptsa two-fold task: firstly, to think afreshhow social justice values are recirculated profitably in elite private schools, that is, by showing how teachers’ agency, their biographies, projects and creativity, allow them to embrace their elite institutions in spite of what critics would think; secondly, it seeks to raise questions as to whether normative standpoints around social justice can hope to be effective, which is especially salient when ethics and moralityare becoming reconfigured in the 'post-truth' political landscape.