Social justice remains a critical challenge for any democratic space. It is a term that is often employed in the educational literature as a catch-all expression and a political call to action for those seeking the amelioration of any number of social problems relating to, for example, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and cultural identity. The alleviation of inequity, powerlessness, and discrimination has long been the goal, although, as will become evident to readers of this Handbook, the pursuit of social justice in music education implies more than just recognition of difference and allowing for greater diversity and inclusivity in the classroom and other educational spaces. Social justice is a complicated endeavor involving, among other things, adjudication of conflicting values and interests, political action, and a concern for the welfare of the public, but especially of those who have been marginalized or oppressed.
If self-righteousness and oversimplification are to be avoided, speaking about and working toward social justice must start from the recognition of the complexity of lived and shared experience, coupled with a concern for humanity as a whole, and not just this or that group. Ultimately, as philosopher John Dewey (1921) expressed it, the goal should be the creation of more equitable environments where growth is feasible and the capacity for communicative acts can revitalize democratic communities; otherwise the pursuit of social justice might only benefit a fortunate few, possibly at the expense of others suffering equally compelling claims to injustices. One need only look around the world today to realize that justice for some can all too easily result in, or be perceived as, injustice for others.
Among the many problems with which researchers, teachers, and community practitioners must grapple if they are to be successful in creating more equitable educational environments is that the term “social justice” (as well as social injustice) is itself vague and conceptually fleeting. Its practical dynamics can also make effective implementation and sustainability remarkably challenging. Social justice can be pursued and experienced in many different ways and settings, and can be triggered by a range of factors. Nor for many of the same reasons is there much in the way of common understanding of the concept of social justice—it is often defined differently by particular individuals, groups, policies, and laws. Moreover, the social justice ideal is itself sometimes appropriated by hegemonic groups as a rhetorical device (including governments and religious factions), and unfortunately can be used to mask the perpetuation of social injustice and inequality. Such tensions, then, place a premium on defining social justice as a form of moral and ethical agency while locating it—as an ideal, a set of dispositions, and tangible practices—at the center of any educational endeavor. As the authors in this Handbook help to explain and illustrate, only through an understanding of social justice in all of its conceptual, political, ethical, practical, and pedagogical complexity can there be much hope of ensuring that educative action (be it scientific, vocational, or artistic) contributes to a more just and humane society.