Dr. Teresa Smith of Towson University Reacts to The Social Justice Syllabus Project
Published Sep 19, 2013  printer-friendly

          Below is an invitation I sent to Dr. Teresa Smith of Towson University. It is the same invitation I sent to several hundred OT professors across the country. I was asking them to visit my table for The Social Justice Syllabus Project at the San Diego conference in the Spring of 2013 and to invite their students as well.

          Dr. Smith responded with a curt message stating that she was offended by the books and articles I mentioned would be available at my table. She then suggested I get out of occupational therapy and find another profession.

          It should be noted that my project is a READING PROJECT. It merely points members of the profession to authors who are currently neglected in the field of occupational therapy. When a professor responds to a student’s invitation to a reading project by telling the student to get out of the profession, it indicates a serious problem with regards to that professor’s attitude towards those with points of view that differ from hers.  But this should not be a surprise by now. I have been cataloguing the hostility to non-leftist viewpoints on the part of the occupational therapy professorate since 2011. I believe that if OT professors actually read some of the material they find offensive with an eye towards understanding the moral, practical and theoretical reasons why these authors hold the views they hold, OT professors would become better professors, and their students, if also exposed to the material with an eye towards understanding the same things, would become better thinkers in the areas of public policy and political philosophy.

          The problem of liberals not understanding the point of view of others was revealed by the research of social psychologist and Democratic activist Jonathan Haidt in his recent book, The Righteous Mind (2012). Note, Haidt is a liberal.

          Much of the work on political views by psychologists is not very helpful because it is done by leftists who do not recognize how their own ideology produces biased studies. What makes Haidt’s study better than others is that he recognized a varied approach to moral values, rather than holding left-wing egalitarian redistributionism as the absolute standard of morality. His schema allowed him to test which side of the political divide better understood how political opponents thought about issues. He found that when describing the thinking of political foes:

          “Liberals were the least accurate” (Haidt, 2012, p. 287).

          And what should be a wake-up call for occupational therapy professors, particularly the senior faculty, is that he found that among liberals, the worst ones at describing how political foes thought were:

          “those who described themselves as ‘very liberal’” (Haidt, 2012, p. 287).

          This is a very liberal man, and accomplished scholar, saying that the very liberal are the worst at understanding how others think. He now says he is much less liberal as a result of taking the time to understand how his political opponents think about morality and justice.

          The biggest errors for liberals in Haidt's research came on questions of justice (Haidt, 2012, p. 287). This is the precise issue my Social Justice Syllabus Project deals with.

          At a conference for social psychologists in 2011, Haidt warned about the preponderance of liberals in the field. It was bad for the profession of social psychology, he said, because it was very easy for professors to become trapped in a bubble of like-minded flatterers, which encourages left-wing taboos against conservative thinking, something that would blind them to biases in their own research (see “Social Scientists Sees Bias Within,”, accessed Oct. 27, 2012).

          Haidt suggested that to protect themselves from their liberal bias, social psychologists needed to start reading thinkers on the right. As a side note, that any group of professors would need to be told this speaks to the habits of mind of the professors in that group. And social psychologists aren’t the only group of professors who need to heed such advice.

          One of the authors recommended by Haidt to improve his profession's understanding of others was Thomas Sowell. This was one of the authors mentioned in my letter to Dr. Smith. My Social Justice Syllabus Project is merely a manifestion of the advice Haidt was giving to improve his own profession. Undoubtedly, there are many occupational therapy professors today who do not want our profession improved in this way. Nonetheless, our profession does need improving on this score. This is something addressed by occupational therapy professor Dr. Diane Powers Dirette in her article "Trading in our Paradigm Shifts for a Staircase." There she mentions the problem of close-mindedness in occupational therapy, where different points of view are not really debated. Instead, she writes of a bandwagon culture, where the entire profession merely jumps on whatever happens to be the new in thing and excludes the thing that was previously considered the in thing.

          Below is the invitation I emailed Dr. Smith:   

On Feb 28, 2013, at 9:44 PM, <> wrote:

Dear Dr. Smith,

           I am a student at the University of Southern California’s MA program. I write to tell you about the Social Justice Syllabus Project (“The Project”).The Project was created to promote the study of authors and perspectives typically neglected in the occupational therapy literature. The hope is to create a culture of reading and learning in occupational therapy that meets the standard set up by the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill in his classic, On Liberty (1859). There Mill wrote that:

          “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.

           What Mill is saying is that to be educated on an issue one must understand the various perspectives used to approach that issue. Furthermore, it is not simply a matter of hearing that there are other perspectives. What is supremely important is how one is exposed to those different perspectives. On this point, Mill wrote:

          “Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or to bring them into to real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them: who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form

          In other words, students should hear arguments from those who actually support the perspective being argued for. It is by weighing the strongest evidence and the strongest arguments from varying perspectives that forces one to engage in real thinking and real decision-making over which perspective is better or worse.  

          Towards establishing a culture that meets Mill’s standard, The Project has set up a table at this year’s ATOA conference in San Diego. AOTA members will be welcomed to a folder of articles from various authors. Those who would like to sign up for the website’s mailing list (still under construction) will also be  given a free book of their choice. Some of the books that will be available are The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999) by Thomas Sowell, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976) by F.A. Hayek, Egalitarian Envy: The Political Foundations of Social Justice (1987) by Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora and many others. I invite you to please stop by if you are attending, and ask if you could please forward this invitation to your students.

          As a sample of some of the articles that will be available in the conference packet, there is one titled “Selective Justice” by Dr. Sudha Shenoy (see, which describes social justice as a form of bigotry against the financially successful, “The Injustice of Social Justice” by Ben O’Neill (see, which addresses the nature of political rights and how social justice principles can violate them, and “A Degree in Agitprop” by Peter Wood (see, which discusses the divisive nature of the concept on college campuses.

          I hope you find these articles thought provoking and I also hope that we get a chance to meet at the conference.



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