New Civics: a Red-Hot Crucible for Radicalizing Academe
Over the past 15 years, numerous scholarly organizations have lamented the severe decline of civic education in U.S. colleges and secondary schools. Their reports cite reams of depressing evidence of students’ appalling ignorance of our heritage and system of government.
One example suggests a precipitous generational decline in civic knowledge: In an American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) study, less than one-third of college graduates ages 25–34 knew how to amend the Constitution, while 76.7 percent of college graduates over 65 grasped that basic information.
These studies criticize leaders of academe for letting the study of civics and American history lapse from required courses to elective to now virtually non-existent. However, these analyses have failed to pick up on something darker at work within higher education: the repurposing of civics to advance a radical progressive agenda camouflaged as civic engagement or service learning.
An otherwise strong report in January 2016 from ACTA hinted at the problem in noting some colleges would want to supplement required civics with “engaged citizenship programs.”
“Such outreach programs should be encouraged – but they must supplement requirements for coursework in U.S. government and history,” ACTA stated. “They cannot replace the academic study and understanding of the institutions of American government.”
Ah, but that is the rub: As a January 2017 analysis by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) documents in more than 500 pages of detail, the goal of academe’s architects of New Civics is to replace the study of the basics of representative government with political activism on behalf of left-wing causes. They have won over many colleges that now award degree credits for learning how to organize protests, which are frequently used to shut down conservative or libertarian speakers.
The study, authored by David Randall, NAS director of communications, found the New Civics agenda for societal transformation includes “de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity-group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international ‘norms’ over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals.”
But surely, in great universities dedicated to a free exchange of ideas, fair-minded faculty and administrators would let students earn their “learning by doing” credits by working within the constitutional framework bequeathed to us by the Founders, right?
Unfortunately, Randall says that is not the case. He alleges, “so far as we can tell, not one of the millions of hours spent by students each year on community service, service-learning, and civic engagement has included service for organizations that forward (for example) Second Amendment rights, pro-life advocacy, or traditional marriage.”
The trend toward New Civics began in the 1970s when universities allowed increasingly larger chunks of service learning—social activism in the community—to take the place of genuine academic study of U.S. history and civic knowledge. But the movement really took off in 2012 with President Barack Obama’s endorsement of “A Crucible Moment,” a manifesto by the Association of American Colleges and Universities calling for the tenets of New Civics to be suffused throughout the entire curriculum. “Crucible” was a perfect match with Obama’s stated goal of creating a “radical transformation” of the United States. Funding came from the U.S. Department of Education and the epistle debuted at the White House to great fanfare.
Among the case studies in NAS’ analysis, the University of Colorado-Boulder exemplifies an institution where radicalized civics is now dominant. NAS counted at least 60 courses with New Civics components and only 11 with vestiges of traditional civics. Even more startling are some of the permanent bureaucracies at CU-Boulder that propagate radicalized civics. A prime example is the International and National Voluntary Service Training (INVST) program, which Randall describes as “the equivalent of a major in progressive activism.” According to its mission statement, INVST proudly engages in “anti-oppressive education” while assailing “the privileged.”
Americans who pay taxes and tuition and donate money as alumni or friends of higher education have a right to oppose citadels of learning being turned into bastions of radical indoctrination. NAS joins other scholarly organizations in urging public colleges to restore traditional civics as a graduation requirement, but it goes further in calling for a public oversight body to ensure that such a course truly teaches U.S. history and the tools of self-government.
Additionally, classroom instruction alone would suffice to meet the civics requirement. So-called “service learning” and the like could not be a “substitute, supplement, or alternative.” Indeed, the NAS report calls for an end to funding of service learning and civic engagement programs and bureaucracies.
Protests that such measures would violate “academic freedom” will ring hollow if emanating from those who seek to deny the blessings of liberty except to those who march in lockstep for their progressive causes.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute.