Social justice, clarified

11 Oct

The subject line of the e-mail in my inbox read: “Did you see this?”

The body of the e-mail was just a url and one line: “I am disgusted!!”

What was so disgusting and necessary to pass on? This article from Tuesday’s NY Times: “Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School” about doctors who are “outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money—not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance” (

What?? you may be thinking.

The arguments for medical professionals prescribing Adderall to kids without ADHD (whose side effects include hypertension, suppressed growth and psychotic episodes–but rest assured, that last side effect is only “in rare cases”) include a precedent set by wealthy families, schools that won’t adapt or evolve, and… social justice.

I repeat, what??

It is absolutely true that schools serve some kids and behaviors better than others, that our solution to the age-old square peg-round hole problem is often to pound that peg until it fits (even if that peg is a child, and there are lots of them), and that there’s a disparity of access to resources and support for struggling students based on financial resources. But how does off-label pill prescription qualify as social justice?

As Dr. Michael Anderson, one of the Adderall prescribing pediatricians sees it:

[He is] a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.

Now, I get that Anderson is trying to help kids in an unfair system. And I am not a doctor. But I like to think I know a few things about social justice, so here goes…

Social justice is not trading one disadvantage for another: here, risking children’s health so they can get a leg up in school. Social justice is not mindlessly mimicking the behaviors of privileged groups, as if to say that anything privileged people do must be good and right. And social justice is certainly not just trying to get individuals to succeed in an unfair system.

Social justice does attend to the immediate needs of those who are disadvantaged, excluded and in need, while striving for change in the systems that unfairly penalize some folks and privilege others. Social justice strives to serve the whole individual, just as it strives to serve the whole community: not just providing charity for some, but opening more opportunities to thrive for everyone. And social justice, recognizing that privileged does not mean right, thus strives for equality that doesn’t bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator (as in, creating over-dependence on prescription meds), but rather encourages everyone to rise to their best thinking, action and being.

So I hope Dr. Anderson and his fellow “social justice thinkers” keep thinking. Because it’s not social justice action to relent and go about shaving the edges off kids so that they fit into those unyielding round holes.

* Thanks to my colleague SK for the article.

One Response to “Social justice, clarified”

  1. Laura @PublicAllies October 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    This should be an op-ed in the Times…!

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