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Unfriendly visitors

Schools of social work demand a conformity that lasts beyond graduation

Unfriendly visitors

(Alliance Defense Fund)

Mrs. B. is an appreciative person, with a good knowledge of how to use canned beef."

"Girl has not fallen but is on the brink."

So a turn-of-the-century social worker, known as a "friendly visitor," described her clients after making her rounds in the crowded slums. Presumably kindhearted, she could also be testy: "Visitor absolutely disgusted and tells [client] for all she cares they can starve if unwilling to follow good advice."

But that was then. A recent report from the National Association of Scholars titled "The Scandal of Social Work Education" makes the case that the days of sharing advice and canned beef recipes are long gone. The profession now aims at raising and maintaining an army of activists, a goal that subverts the very purpose of higher education: "Advocacy can sometimes be welcomed as a passenger," states the report, "but has no right to take the wheel."

Emily Brooker (pictured) was a senior at Missouri State University when she enrolled in "Social Welfare Policy and Services II," a class required for her social work degree. Then she learned that the entire class would be working on a single advocacy project: to craft a case for homosexual foster homes and adoption and to petition the Missouri legislature.

Brooker objected on religious grounds, and though her professor eventually (and grudgingly) eased the course requirements, Brooker herself had to endure a hearing before seven faculty members about her violation of discrimination standards. After being hectored for over two hours about her beliefs, she was told to write a paper about "lessening the gap" between personal convictions and professional duties, and to sign a contract pledging to conform to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Otherwise, no degree.

The NASW Code, first adopted in 1960, was overhauled in 1997 to reflect the leftward drift of the profession-and to make explicit its commitment to "social change," "social justice," and "diversity." The Code's rationale is supplied by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the only accrediting organization for the discipline, which expects all U.S. social work graduates to understand "the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and apply strategies of advocacy and social change that advance social and economic justice."

Unpacking CSWE mission statements is like watching the tiny Volkswagen at the circus cough up a dozen clowns: The assumptions just keep on coming. The claim that all poverty and all forms of discrimination are caused by systematic oppression on a global scale is at least debatable. As are the only proposed solutions, such as "distributive justice." But debate is not part of the syllabus, as Emily Brooker discovered.

She wrote the paper, signed the pledge, and graduated in the spring of 2006. Then she sued the university on the grounds of "unlawful retaliation" for her exercise of free speech. Her story ended surprisingly well: Not only did MSU clear her record and compensate her for losses, but also it commissioned an outside evaluation of its social work program.

Brooker was rightly praised for speaking out, but the "scandal" of social work education runs deeper than one university: It's built into the national accreditation standards and professional codes. A history major can cheerfully ditch his liberal professor's bias on his way out the door, but a social worker is expected to conform to the biases inherent in the system.

William Felkner, seeking a master's in social work at Rhode Island College, is in his fourth year of a two-year program. Not because of laziness or other obligations, but because the welfare-reform projects he has chosen to complete his degree do not jibe: The faculty will not approve them. His attempts to find work as a policy researcher in the state have not led even to an interview-possibly a result of word getting around. Last December he filed a lawsuit against the school, but time will tell if this story ends happily.

Social justice, anyone?

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