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College Preparation Program: IN FOCUS Seminar

How to Build a Just Society: Reading and Writing About Social Justice

What principles and what social practices and institutions are crucial for a just society? How can these take into account the impact of current and past injustices, such as those regarding race, economic standing, gender or the environment? In this seminar we'll examine these questions in the context of the United States.

We'll start with close readings of a few primary texts to identify key concepts and issues. Then we’ll deepen that inquiry with a broader range of texts that produce complications in thinking about social justice, including a few short stories and a film. Students will each write a short paper (2 pp.) in response to one of the readings and get feedback on their analyses.  We'll then work in groups of four or five to create short proposals for a just society, in which class members weigh in on one or more of the principles discussed in the seminar, and which they present at the end of the course, offering reasons and commentary on how they arrived at their proposals (and how they handled disagreements among group members).       


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  • Dates: July 23-Aug 3, 2018
  • Instructor: James O'Laughlin, Associate Professor of Instruction, Writing Program; Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Weinberg College Adviser 
  • Enrollment Capacity: 18


A mixture of brief, introductory lectures, large and small group discussions, readings, a film screening and a field trip, all to enable students to develop perspectives on the key issues and challenges in creating a just society.  


  • Students will become familiar with some contemporary arguments about social justice
  • Students will learn approaches for analyzing and supporting arguments about social justice
  • Students will learn some key challenges in coordinating priorities for social justice

A Typical Classroom Session

Most class sessions will be half days, but some days will be longer due to field trips, guest lectures, or other activities beyond the normal schedule.


Discussion of the topic/reading for the day




Small group work on specific questions (usually taken from large group discussion); sometimes beginning with short individual writing reflections on key topics


Small groups report out to the large group on insights from and challenges raised in their groups


Synthesis of discussion threads and questions raised; overview of some issues for the next class


Readings may include the following:

  1. John Rawls, selections from Justice as Fairness
  2. Charles Mills, selections from Black Rights/White Wrongs
  3. Peter Singer, from The Most Good You Can Do
  4. Martha Nussbaum, "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism"
  5. Martin Luther King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
  6. Carl Knight and Zofia Stemplowska, from Responsibility and Distributive Justice
  7. Thomas Nagel, from Equality and Partiality 8.
  8. Amartya Sen, from The Idea of Justice
  9. Amy Gutmann, "Democratic Citizenship"