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Karen L. Suyemoto  
Grace S. Kim  
Roxanne A. Donovan  

Highlighting SPSSI Teaching Award Winners

What is the Purpose of Education? Education for Social Justice and Transformation

Karen L. Suyemoto, Professor, Department of Psychology, Asian American Studies and Critical Ethnic and Community Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Winner, 2021 Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring Award

Grace S. Kim, Clinical Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, Boston University
Roxanne A. Donovan, Professor of Psychology, Kennesaw State University

Based on an abridged and edited excerpt from Chapter 2 in Kim, G.S., Suyemoto, K.L., & Donovan, R.A., Teaching Diversity Relationally: Engaging Emotions and Embracing Possibilities. This book focuses on developing skills and strategies for successfully teaching diversity courses from a transformative education lens through centering emotional and relational dynamics. Forthcoming in summer, 2022 from Routledge Press. (

Education is inherently related to the culture and values of the society which it serves. Once we recognize this, we can begin to question how education reflects, serves, or challenges those values, and consider how we, as educators, want to shape our courses in line with our philosophical stance on the purpose of education and the values and practices embedded in our society. The question is not whether we choose to convey values and socialize our students through education, but how we do so.

Traditional models of education in the U.S. have been oriented toward objectivity and abstraction and the separation of intellect from emotion using metrics of external, content-based, cognitive internalization of pre-defined abstract content areas. These models reflect primary goals of imparting canons of information and fostering skills for application to vocational needs in order to run and maintain societal systems more efficiently. However, one may also see the goal of education differently, focusing on the ways that education can develop skills for students to think critically more broadly, questioning or even challenging and changing the canons, cultures, and institutions. Chomsky (2012) distinguishes between education for indoctrination (to fit people into an established framework) and education for enlightenment (to develop abilities to question past and present, to explore, to create possible futures). Although many educators would like to see themselves as providing education for enlightenment, traditional models of education and recent trends towards commodification and commercialization of education have a strong influence on education for indoctrination.

Transformative Education (TE) is education for enlightenment, defined by its focus on developing foundational shifts in personal meanings and in critical consciousness related to social and political conditions of justice and equity. Our meaning of TE draws from several bodies of theoretical and research literature about education, psychological processes of change, and the relation of these to justice and liberation. For us, the primary foundation of TE comes from literature on conscientization, education, and critical pedagogy (e.g., Freire, 1993; hooks, 1994, Banks, 2020, Nieto & Bode, 2018). Simultaneously, as clinical psychologists, our meaning of TE also emphasizes how students’ experiences of TE involve individual psychological change process, drawing from transformational learning (e.g., building on the work and expansion of Jack Mezirow, see Taylor & Cranston, 2012), and integrating psychological theories of Transtheoretical Change (Krebs et al., 2018; Norcross et al. 2011) and group process and change (Alle-Corliss & Alle-Corliss, 2009; Yalom & Leszcz, 2020), as well as racial identity theory in courses related specifically to diversity.

TE aims to enable students to engage in critical analysis and questioning, not only of disciplinary concepts, but also of the ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and being that a given society takes for granted—those ways that are assumed to be “normal” and therefore “right” and often universal. Of particular interest are those concepts, and ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and being that relate to the maintenance of or resistance to systemic hierarchies of privilege and oppression.

In teaching from these TE goals and values, we enact specific teaching strategies, including:

  • Centering issues of diversity and social justice in teaching content, including knowledge and perspectives that are marginalized or misrepresented. This practice is in contrast to a model that sees diversity and social justice related issues as “add-ons” or issues to be supplemental. It also ensures that usually marginalized knowledge and perspectives are presented in complex, nuanced, strength-based ways rather than oversimplified and/or presented in ways that focus on deficiency, comparison, pathology, or implicitly stereotypical ways.
  • Fostering a critical analysis of power, privilege, and oppression, including questioning established knowledge that is typically taken for granted. An example is analyzing the power dynamics of privilege and oppression that are embedded in defining and maintaining the concept of race rather than simply talking about race as an established concept or comparative variable. Examining how and why “seemingly simple” concepts such as race have been and continue to be created and maintained in sociocultural, political, and economic contexts even in the face of contradictory research evidence challenges the idea of neutral “truths” and emphasizes the functions and effects of knowledge.
  •  Exploring epistemological questions about knowledge production and dissemination, which includes evaluating the epistemological basis, or how we know what we know, and why (on what basis) we privilege some knowledge, perspectives, and ways of thinking as “true,” “unbiased,” “objectively factual,” and “central (or canonic)” while ignoring or discounting others as “false,” “biased,” “subjective,” or unworthy of attention. Because the bases and consequences of these epistemological stances are related to structural hierarchies of oppression, TE aims to foster critical consciousness about how power, privilege, and oppression are reflected in, maintained by, or challenged through knowledge creation and dissemination, including education.
  • Examining the effects of socially constructed concepts, policies, practices, and norms on opportunities and resources (economic, political, legal, etc.) and on people’s worldviews and lived experiences more generally, including their view of themselves, others, and their relationships. Who benefits from the maintenance and dominance of these beliefs? What kinds of opportunities and benefits or opportunities, or challenges and harm are differentially experienced?
  • Disrupting oppressive power relations through the analyses above, through how we enact power in the classroom, and through fostering agency and skills for students to bring their understandings into the world.

Furthermore, the purpose of TE is more than cognitive understanding, even critical understanding. Instead, TE aims to link that understanding to empowerment, intentionality, skills, and praxis so that students may contribute to shaping the society in which they live. Our conceptualization of TE reflects an understanding that the problems of social injustice are created by system and institution level norms, policies, and practices. However, because these systems and norms are created and maintained by people, the responsibility for challenging or changing those problems also lies in individuals.

Teaching from TE goals and values therefore means engaging the whole student (and the whole faculty), including intersecting positionalities, personal histories, specific contexts, and messy emotions. Our teaching invites students to consider how they personally fit into social structures of oppression and inequity and how they might want to contribute to or challenge their existence. How are they, themselves, affected by these systems? What have they been socialized to believe, and how have they, personally, been socialized to accept information, sometimes even without questioning? Are these beliefs (and their functions and social consequences) congruent with who they want to be and the values they espouse and cherish? What are the relational and practical skills they need to practice their values and reach their goals?

Without the ability to critically question and reflect on themselves (not only on the concepts), students fall into maintaining the status quo, not because they have assessed it and believe that it is good to act in alignment, but because they have no path to consider questioning it and no skills to challenge it.

Reflection Questions for Educators

  • What are your values as an educator, and how do they fit with values and goals of TE?
  • In what ways, if any, does your teaching challenge the status quo and critically examine processes and content of socialization?
  • What contributes to people’s ability to make changes to how they think, feel, or act?  To influence other people or make social changes? What creates barriers to making those changes?  How does this understanding relate to what you do in your classes?
  • How do you bring your whole self to teaching? What is your current self-care like? What do you need to take care of yourself so you can be more present in your teaching?

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