Politics and Policy in the Pursuit of a Social Work Degree

Wheelock College Social Work degree program classroom It’s over. The election is long past and the “post mortem” is practically finished, too. The high stakes and intense feelings around this last presidential campaign led to lots of discussion in our social work degree program classes and among our social work faculty. Those discussions forced yet another: how do we keep politics out of the classroom or, rather, should we even try to keep politics out of the classroom. What is our responsibility towards our students; do we keep our political thoughts to ourselves, or do we share them in hopes of promoting discussion?

Social Work faculty teaching in BSW and MSW programs do not face this issue every four years; we face it every class. After all, our task is the development of professional social workers whose practice is based on the principles of human rights and social justice and our Mission at Wheelock is “to improve the lives of children and families.” Can we do that without a life-long commitment to following and trying to shape the emerging policies that will profoundly impact the everyday lives of our co-workers and, especially, our clients? Don’t we have to use any background we have in economics, political science, history, and ethical values to inform our thinking about Social Welfare Policy, not just as a course in the curriculum, but as a standard for judging our support for the people who create and implement that policy?

The social worker’s clientele—individuals and families, groups, organizations and communities—are facing issues that demonstrate our inability as a society to meet everyone’s basic human needs. We encourage our students to see that clientele not beset by problems, but as victims of our society’s willingness to underserve its most vulnerable members. Who and what can challenge that societal neglect, if not the political system and the political process. Logic, therefore, suggests that we look there for the means that might rectify the situation. We approach politics and the political process with a certain bias, then. We expect positive action that will support our work. That bias has implications as we consider which candidates for whom we will vote and which party platforms we will support.

We know that local, state, and nation legislators and members of the executive branch at all levels formulate and implement social welfare policy. We know that those two branches of government are responsible for choosing and approving the judiciary that so often determines the fair and equitable execution of the law. We tend to be liberal, obviously, and we tend to be outspoken about it. Indeed, some of us wonder if it is possible to be be a conservative social worker and we’ve looked, in vain to this point, for a rightwing trending social work textbook. None of this is to say that we restrict discussion or action on the part of our students. Indeed, we need to encourage students to push back and to celebrate the right of students and colleagues to disagree with us and debate us.

Yes, the election is over and the “post mortem” is coming to an end, but the discussion they prompt needs to continue. How do we best turn our commitment to human rights and social justice into action? On whom can we rely for support?