Curriculum for Justice and Harmony
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Curriculum for Justice and Harmony

Deliberation, Knowledge, and Action in Social and Civic Education

Keith C. Barton, Li-Ching Ho

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Curriculum for Justice and Harmony

Deliberation, Knowledge, and Action in Social and Civic Education

Keith C. Barton, Li-Ching Ho

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About This Book

Barton and Ho present a global vision of social and civic education, one that reorients the field toward justice and harmony. Drawing from diverse philosophical and cultural traditions, as well as empirical research, they introduce curriculum principles designed to motivate and inform students' thoughtful and compassionate deliberation of public issues.

This book argues that the curriculum must prepare young people to take action on issues of justice and harmony—societal ideals that are central to all communities. Effective action depends on deliberation characterized by emotional commitment, collaborative problem-solving, and engagement with diverse perspectives and forms of expression.

Deliberation for public action also requires knowledge—of people's lives and experiences, their insights into social issues, and strategies for advancing justice and harmony. These curriculum principles are illustrated through case studies of public housing, food insecurity, climate change, gender bias, public health, exploitation of domestic workers, incarceration of racialized minorities, the impact of development and environmental change on Indigenous communities, and other pressing global concerns.

For additional resources and related information, please visit the authors' website,

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1 A Vision for Social and Civic Education

DOI: 10.4324/9781003010104-1
This book lays out a vision for the curriculum of social and civic education. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once suggested that life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” (M. L. King, 1963, p. 72). In our vision for social and civic education, students would be prepared to answer King’s question in direct and tangible ways. The curriculum would involve students in sustained deliberation of how to address pressing societal problems—poverty, racism, climate change, and the many other critical issues facing the world. It would engage them with concrete and specific knowledge of these issues, so that they could take wise action to make people’s lives better, locally, nationally, and globally. And because societal problems require public action, the curriculum would revolve around the institutions and practices that shape social, political, and economic life. In our vision, then, the curriculum would prepare students to work together to create a better world, one in which all people would flourish—culturally, socially, and materially—and in which everyone could be affirmed and respected within rich networks of social bonds. This would be a curriculum of justice and harmony.
The phrase social and civic education may sound cumbersome, but we use it to mean all the content and learning experiences aimed at preparing young people for a life of public participation. Although modern school systems may prioritize academic achievement or economic training, educators also recognize that they must prepare students for public life. They do this both by nurturing students’ commitment to purposes that extend beyond their own self-interest, and by developing their ability to pursue such ends. Sometimes, this takes place in subjects with names such as Civics, Civic Education, Citizenship, or Social Studies. Other times, social and civic goals may be part of subjects such as History, Geography, or Government, particularly when these are oriented toward understanding the nature and origin of current social issues. Schools also promote students’ participation in public life through more specialized courses and programs, such as character education, service learning, global education, peace education, ethnic studies, multicultural education, sustainability education, human rights education, and so on. And notably, the content of social and civic education is found not just in schools but also in the educational work of many museums, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. In this book, we are not concerned with the content of any particular course or curriculum, but with the underlying ideas that should guide all such efforts.
We have tried to make our recommendations applicable to a wide range of social and cultural settings, within and across countries. Most discussions of social and civic education are closely tied to particular national contexts, and this has inhibited development of more robust and internationally relevant principles for curriculum. The United States, for example, has a long and vibrant tradition of theorizing about social and civic education, but most of this work invokes U.S. ideals and political practices, U.S. Constitutional principles and legal protections, and the history of the U.S. political system. Although this approach can highlight concerns that transcend national boundaries—including civil rights, cultural diversity, and public participation—U.S. scholars often address these issues in ways that are so nation-specific that their relevance for educators in other countries is limited. Even U.S. work that emphasizes “global education” typically focuses on what U.S. students should be learning about the rest of the world, and not what students throughout the world should be learning in social and civic education.
Educators in other countries have made important contributions to curriculum theory for social and civic education as well, but they also frequently tie their work to the course content and social ideals of specific nations or regions. Even recent work on “global citizenship education,” which comes from a variety of countries and aims to transcend national boundaries, often is grounded in a Eurocentric framework that does not adequately reflect the values and concerns of other parts of the world. In this book, we hope to expand the range of perspectives underlying social and civic education, by explicitly drawing from diverse intellectual traditions, as well as by incorporating examples of content relevant to varied settings.

Public Action

Beyond the vague goal of preparing young people for public participation, social and civic educators show little agreement on what students should be learning or what it means to take part in public life. Should students learn to treat each other fairly and with compassion? To be accepting of cultural differences? To be informed voters? To support the government? To evaluate society through a critical lens? To become part of the political process through lobbying, protesting, or other forms of direct political action? Sometimes, museums and foundations develop curricula that focus on a small number of specific goals, but few school systems take a consistent or exclusive approach grounded in any one of these perspectives. Often, the curriculum of social and civic education is a hodge-podge of disjointed content. Connections across subjects and topics—or consistency with overarching educational goals—rarely live up to the rhetoric of public engagement. We think students deserve better than this, and in this book we aim to restart the conversation on how to prepare students for civic life. Curriculum planners—whether in classrooms, in government agencies, or working for independent organizations and nonprofit foundations—need a consistent set of principles for bringing young people into the world of public action. We hope to provide those principles.
We should make it clear at the outset, however, that by public action we mean collective engagement with matters of public concern. This involves acting to improve the world by addressing poverty, violence, discrimination, and other societal issues, or working to preserve important elements of the world we already have, such as Indigenous languages or the environment. Such action necessarily involves public policy and social institutions, and our focus is on how to prepare students to engage with these—and not on developing their values, character, or interpersonal behaviors. Some approaches to social and civic education aim to make students better people—fairer, more tolerant, more peaceful, and so on. These are no doubt important goals, and schools should play a role in promoting such traits.
Developing character and improving interpersonal relationships, however, should not be the primary focus of social and civic education. Character and human relationships develop as part of a wide range of social and cultural forces—families, peers, religion, the media, and other influences. This process is too complex for any curriculum to address comprehensively, and placing the burden for character development on school subjects is likely to be disappointing. It can also detract from other goals that might more reasonably be accomplished. The focus of this book, then, is on preparing students to take action on matters of public concern, by addressing the policies, institutions, and practices that affect collective well-being and that require collective effort. While individual character and interpersonal behaviors are important, we believe social and civic education should focus on public, societal issues, at local, national, and global levels.
Taking action is a complex enterprise, and preparing students for the task cannot be a narrow or simplistic mission. When some people hear the phrase “taking action,” they may think of direct and immediate behaviors, such as donating to charity and volunteering in the community, or—from a different orientation—joining street protests or participating in a boycott. These certainly are examples of action, and depending on setting and circumstance, they may be the most appropriate outcomes of social and civic education. But students need to be prepared for the many forms of public engagement that shape civic life. They should be developing opinions on policy issues, which will inform their support for candidates and issues, their attempts to persuade government officials and other members of the public, and eventually their own voting. They should be learning about the work of a variety of community groups in civil society (not only “service” organizations but social, cultural, and political ones) and learning how to both join them and guide their policies. And they should be prepared for informal civic action, such as reading media critically and taking part in discussions about public affairs. To prepare for all these formal and informal activities, students need to learn to investigate issues, use evidence to reach conclusions, consider a range of options and their consequences, and work with others to make a difference in the world. Public action is too important to be reduced to cleaning up the neighborhood or joining a protest, and students need a rich and varied curriculum to prepare for the variety of forms it can take.

Justice and Harmony

Principles for social and civic education must begin with a clear sense of the field’s purpose. The curriculum, that is, cannot and should not be neutral about the goals of addressing public issues, as though the purpose were simply to teach students to make decisions and stand up for what they believe in, or to support their positions when taking part in dialogue with others. As important as these may be, they are not adequate goals for the curriculum—or perhaps more accurately, they can only be proximate goals, not ultimate ones. Students’ choices and positions, after all, could be completely self-serving—oriented toward their own interests (or those of groups to which they belong), with no regard for the consequences these hold for others. Social and civic education must do more than point students toward taking a position or reaching agreement; it must help them consider what these are for. In short, social and civic education must stand for something. It must orient students toward the kind of society they should be working toward, even while recognizing the diverse backgrounds and beliefs that characterize any society.
What ideals are fundamental enough, and yet sufficiently flexible, to form the foundation for such a curriculum—a curriculum that states without reservation that all students should learn to work toward common goals? Walter Parker (2003) has characterized the central civic question of our time as, in part, “How can we live together justly?” (p. 20). Living together justly. The two parts of this simple phrase correspond to ideals that should be at the heart of the curriculum: harmony and justice. Justice has long been a part of Western philosophical traditions and continues to play a central role in questions of public policy throughout the world: What rights do people have, and what do we do when those rights come into conflict? How can conditions of oppression be removed? How can social and material benefits and burdens be distributed fairly, and how can we ensure that everyone has the resources necessary to develop and flourish? From an early age, students are faced with such questions in their own experiences, and they will continue to grapple with them throughout their lives, particularly once they begin to take part in public life—in their schools, their communities, and society at large.
We are hardly the first to place justice at the heart of social and civic education. Many educators—particularly those concerned with inequality and oppression—assume that the curriculum should focus directly on questions of justice, usually framed more specifically as social justice (e.g., Banks, 2004; Tyson & Park, 2008; Zembylas & Keet, 2019). They argue that students must learn about the history of oppression and its current manifestations, and they must learn to act against that oppression. This perspective clearly stands for something: It is not neutral with regard to the ends of public action, as though racists and anti-racists could sit down and come to a mutually agreeable solution. Our work is wholly in line with that of educators working toward these goals of social justice. However, this work rarely presents a systematic vision of what justice means, apart from fairness or equity. Despite its many clear and insightful analyses of specific issues and educational approaches, social justice education is not often grounded in an overarching theory of justice that could form a comprehensive foundation for curriculum, either within or across national borders. One of the aims of this book is to address that gap by presenting a flexible but theoretically grounded perspective on the nature of justice, and on how this perspective can provide a foundation for social and civic education.
In Chapter 2, we explain how Amartya Sen’s comparative perspective on justice (A. Sen, 2009), combined with the capabilities approach to human development advanced by Sen, Martha Nussbaum (2011), and others, provides a foundation for considering issues of justice in social and civic education. Unlike many political philosophies, a comparative perspective does not aim to establish universal principles of justice or create a perfectly just society. Rather, it calls attention to how manifest examples of injustice can be alleviated in concrete circumstances. Sen argues that while the diverse peoples and traditions of the world always will differ on the nature of an ideal society, they are much more likely to agree on how to make the world better. The capabilities component of this perspective begins with the premise that social policy should advance the ability of all people to choose the lives they have reason to value, by ensuring access to material goods, providing avenues for cultural expression, addressing obstacles to public participation, and removing discrimination based on individual characteristics or group membership. This is a particularly useful foundation for social and civic education, because it ensures that students will consider the most important social issues facing the world—poverty, health care, racism, gender inequality, environmental change, and so on—yet it guides them to reach decisions about pragmatic ways of addressing these in specific circumstances, rather than presenting idealized or unrealistic visions that afford little space for meaningful action.
Issues of justice, however, are not the only ones that students must learn to address. Although justice has been the dominant focus of Western political philosophy, in other parts of the world harmony has long been the central goal of public life—the living together part of Parker’s phrase. As we explain in Chapter 3, harmony is a key element of Confucian philosophy, which is concerned with maintaining relationships within the social order. How can people best fulfill their obligations to others? How can bonds among groups and individuals be strengthened, so that all people’s lives are richer and more fulfilling? How can differences be respected, and how can they serve as a source of growth? How can conflict and tension be resolved productively? How can balance be achieved among a society’s differing and discordant voices, and among people and the environment? These too are questions that students face from an early age, and that they will continue to tackle throughout their lives.
In order to advance harmony, students need to consider not just how to protect the rights of people of differing backgrounds and identities—justice-oriented questions—but also how to afford all people meaningful roles in society. They must explore how productive connections and interactions can be established and maintained among differing groups and individuals. They must consider whose voices should be given prominence, and when. They must struggle with questions of how to promote civility in public life—and when incivility might be a better means for bringing about social progress. And they must examine how social and economic practices can be made environmentally sustainable. Although harmony is already central to social and civic education in some countries, it deserves to be part of the curriculum everywhere.
Often, though, harmony is associated with conformity, dominance, and hierarchy. And indeed, the idea of harmony can be used by those in power to justify authoritarian, patriarchal, and elitist practices. These, we believe, are abuses and misunderstandings of the idea of harmony, and they certainly are not attitudes that should be supported in social and civic education. Drawing on the work of contemporary philosophers such as Chenyang Li (2014), Sungmoon Kim (2014), and Sor-hoon Tan (2003), we argue for the importance of critical harmony. Critical harmony retains a concern for relationships and the orderly functioning of society, but it recognizes that these can best be promoted by embracing conflict and tension in order to improve society; by valuing difference and diversity, even in radical forms, in order to achieve a more integrated whole; and by maintaining balance (but not neutrality) among experiences and perspectives, in order to recognize diverse insights without perpetuating dominance.

Deliberatively Informed Action

Helping students learn to advance justice and harmony is the starting point of social and civic education, but deliberatively informed action should be its central practice. As we explain in Chapter 4, at the core of our view of public participation is the position that deliberation, or public reasoning, is necessary to decide on the actions needed to address societal issues. Social and civic education has traditionally sought to help students reach individual decisions, in hope that they wou...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Endorsement Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. Preface
  8. 1 A Vision for Social and Civic Education
  9. 2 Justice and Capabilities
  10. 3 Critical Harmony
  11. 4 Deliberatively Informed Action
  12. 5 Curriculum for Deliberatively Informed Action
  13. 6 Extending Benevolence
  14. 7 Listening to Distant Voices
  15. 8 Taking Wise Action
  16. 9 Civil Society
  17. 10 Civility and Incivility
  18. 11 Environmental Justice and Harmony
  19. References
Citation styles for Curriculum for Justice and Harmony

APA 6 Citation

Barton, K., & Ho, L.-C. (2021). Curriculum for Justice and Harmony (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Barton, Keith, and Li-Ching Ho. (2021) 2021. Curriculum for Justice and Harmony. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Barton, K. and Ho, L.-C. (2021) Curriculum for Justice and Harmony. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Barton, Keith, and Li-Ching Ho. Curriculum for Justice and Harmony. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.