Social Work Education's Good Intentions

Michael Sherr

We recently received a short essay from Dr. Michael E. Sherr, assistant professor of Social Work and Christianity at Baylor University, in which he takes issue with some aspects of NAS’s report The Scandal of Social Work EducationDr. Sherr originally submitted his essay to the Washington Post in October, on the occasion of George Will’s Washington Post article Code of Coercion, in which Will praised the NAS report. Though WaPo declined to print it, we think it deserves some attention. 

Dr. Sherr’s piece expresses dismay at the individual cases cited in the report, on NAS’s website, and in recent news; but he argues that our characterization of social work as a discipline is too broad and he defends the field’s pursuit of social justice as part of its educational mission. We welcome Dr. Sherr’s remarks, which seem in both tone and substance, aimed at advancing the debate. We are also intrigued by his mention of the National Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW). We print his editorial below, and invite the rest of our readers to respond to it and our report. Extended comments may be submitted to nasonweb@nas.org

Revised Editorial I sent to Washington Post

 Originally Submitted on October 17, 2007

 Michael E. Sherr, PhD, LCSW

Assistant Professor of Social Work
Baylor University

Given the recent attention on social work education that has arisen from the study by the National Association of Scholars and Mr. Will’s editorial, I want to share my perspective on the topic as an Evangelical Christian, social work educator, and staunch conservative. I am not speaking for Baylor University.

I became a social worker to live out my understanding of James 1:27, which says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I know from experience that many Christians in social work also see their work as living out their beliefs. I am also aware of people from other religious backgrounds who choose social work in order to live out their religious beliefs. Although large groups of social workers consider themselves politically liberal, there also is a solid contingent of social workers that considersthemselves politically conservative. Even as a member of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW), the primary organization for Christians in social work, I find that, except for our identity as people of Christian faith, the organization consists of members who represent very different political and ideological perspectives.

In other words, it is important not to cast all social workers and all social work education in the same net. Regardless of religious or political leanings, most social work educators share a desire to prepare students for effective and ethical practice. Most social work educators also share a desire to teach students to interact with organizations and communities in order to effect change that will enhance the well-being of the most disenfranchised individuals in our society. Call it social justice, economic justice, or any other label, butintervening with organizations and communities in such a manner is a distinctive part of social work education that equips students to be critical thinkers, holistic service providers, and active participants in the democratic process. This is the intent of social work education, the intent of CSWE accrediting standards, and the intent of the NASW code of ethics. There is no room for indoctrination at that level of delivering social work education.

The NAS report and Mr. Will’s editorial, however, does provide the social work community an opportunity to ensure that the educational intent of social work remains so at the level of individual social work programs and individual faculty. I am horrified by Emily Brooker’s experience at Missouri State University, the incident at Florida International University, and Andre Massena’s experience at SUNY Binghamton. I am certain other social work educators are equally disturbed. Coercion of beliefs, regardless of their bent or justification, is never acceptable – and as a former student and current practitioner and social work educator, I have seen the scythe cut both ways. 

The complexity of social issues such as poverty, homelessness, child abuse, neglect, famine, and health care costs demand that social workers and other helping professionals are able to critically assess and intervene in the most effective ways. Often assessment and intervention in social work justifiably focus on policy analysis, social institutions, and community change. Helping students to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are necessary in this profession requires an appreciation for different perspectives, a core value of the NASW code of ethics.

Social work is a diverse profession filled with people who share a desire to enhance the well-being of all people in every society. It is a profession too diverse to be described universally by the right or left. It is also a profession too diverse– and too important – for social work education to ignore or chastise those who have opposing perspectives that might contribute to the well-being of all of us.

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