Modern Orthodoxies

Over the past few years, academic institutions have increasingly re-defined their goals to place students’ civic commitments at the center of their mission. Some regard this as a good, “progressive” step, but I do not.

Leading the way, the Core Commitments project of the Association of American Universities and Colleges, according to the AAUC website, “aims to reclaim and revitalize the academy’s role in fostering students’ development of personal and social responsibility.” One of the main avenues is through inculcating students with “civic engagement.”

Many academics agree with that goal.  My own experience, though, suggests that efforts to teach “social responsibility” through “engaged pedagogies” such as service learning are trying to program students into a doctrinal orthodoxy about the individual and society. 

Recently I asked the students in one of my classes how many of them had taken part in arranged play-dates when they were small. Almost all of them raised their hands. Then I asked them how many had spent their childhoods being taken to formally organized sports activities, dancing lessons, clubs, or other planned and scheduled programs. Again, most had. These children of the contemporary middle class had experienced lives that were almost completely plotted out for them. Decisions about their lives were imposed on them and channeled along accepted routines.

In college, those accepted routines include “service learning” courses and “community service.” They are higher education’s equivalent of play-dates, but the type of socialization promoted is more insidious than the planned time-use of my students’ earlier years. George Leef has given a good description of the service learning approach: “Service-learning is based on the idea that a student’s formal coursework can (and usually should) be enhanced by the addition of community service work. Its proponents say that blending in ‘service’ with the usual educational material of reading books, class lectures and discussions, papers and exams makes for a richer and even ‘transformative’ experience for students.”

I began hearing about these efforts to organize the lives and social attitudes of students in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, I remember meetings of departmental chairs and program directors in which our dean told us that the administration wanted us adopt more service learning courses where students would serve perceived community needs. There were a few objections from department chairs who did not see how history, philosophy, or mathematics could be pressed into community causes., but I do not remember hearing any of my colleagues point out that deciding what constituted a “community need” necessarily involved normative and political judgments. I wonder if anyone at my institution would have echoed Auburn University professor Robert Lawson’s characterization of service learning as “ideological indoctrination in the guise of academics.”

The channeling of students into institutionally defined forms of civic engagement began in earnest at my university, Tulane, in 2006. Although Hurricane Katrina damaged the buildings of the university, most of the campus lies in the part of New Orleans that received relatively little damage in the storm, and the organizational structure of Tulane also remained intact. The great challenge was not rebuilding, but getting families to send their college-age children to a university in a city  that was seen as a disaster zone.

The answer adopted by Tulane’s administration, supported enthusiastically by a small number of faculty activists, was to make the disaster a selling point. While calming the fears of parents, the small circle of top administrators seized on the national trend of service and engagement and pushed through a renewal plan that mandated service learning as a graduation requirement for all students. It officially re-defined “civic engagement” as central to the university’s mission. 

I agree with the idea that private universities, whether or not they’ve been hit by a hurricane, should do some niche marketing. Nor do I object to educational mandates. Our curricula have in many ways become too lax. However, mandating what students need to learn is different from telling them that they must march in a social crusade.

The social mandate contradicts the essence of liberal education. Those who go through childhoods of planned activities have little time for independent play. Students who go through college careers of planned commitments have little time for independent thought. Instead of urging them to stand aside and ponder the world, the camp counselors of civic involvement are calling them to form up in teams and play the games as directed. 

True, the pupils usually have to write “reflection papers” about their community service projects, but organizational directives guide their reflections in predetermined, institutionally acceptable patterns. The approved projects attempt to appeal to the ideals that their educational bureaucracies want to encourage. For example, the reflection essay guidelines of Tulane University’s “Community Service Scholar’s Program” direct students to write about how their experiences have influenced their “future involvement in service” and to “present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of your experiences and insight you’ve gained about service, New Orleans, and yourself.”

This is not education, but re-education, in which students are encouraged to develop the “right” set of attitudes and enthusiasms.  By promoting this agenda, academic authorities are moving beyond a curriculum of skills and knowledge. They are attempting to shape students’ thought and control their use of time. 

College students are old enough to decide for themselves what if any kinds of civic engagement they choose to participate in. If individual faculty members decide that some form of community involvement fits into their courses, that is acceptable. Let’s suppose that working with Habitat for Humanity suits the needs of some course I’m teaching. Students who want the program I’m peddling can sign up and grab their hammers. Others can go read Kant.

Even here, however, there is a problem. Under this arrangement, in spite of its respect for individual choice, the university has to decide whether my course will count for academic credit. In doing so, it decides what is or is not an acceptable form of public action. It’s appropriate for experts in a discipline or field to decide what constitutes worthwhile study, but administrators should not decide what kinds of public activity are worthy and constructive.  At Tulane, not only must all academic departments provide service learning courses (every mandate for students is necessarily a mandate for faculty), but those courses have to be certified by the university’s Center for Public Service.

When administrators proclaim civic engagement as a university goal, we don’t just have conformity to popular opinion; we have a hierarchically imposed conformity, with institutional leaders attempting to control and direct the values of the academic community. The campus becomes a church of a civic creed, promulgating commitment to the tenets of orthodoxy.

The most common form of this orthodoxy in the modern university goes under the banner of “social justice.” Professor Emerita of Psychology Barbara Moely, one of the advocates of Tulane’s civic engagement/service learning program, using the Civic Attitudes and Skills Questionnaire (CASQ), found that service learning was associated with an increase in the “social justice attitude” of students.

During Tulane’s “Week of Community Service” held in April of this year, the university gave out “Community Involvement Awards.” These included the “Trailblazer Award,” given to the student who “blazed a trail” in “volunteer engagement, philanthropy, social justice, advocacy and awareness, [or] social entrepreneurship.” Even more blatantly political, the “Social Justice Advocacy” Award “honor[ed] two individuals for outstanding activism and recognizes their commitment to principles that promote human and civil rights and social change. Nominees must have made significant efforts to increase awareness, mobilize communities, and catalyze social change to systemically address social inequities on a local, national, or global level.”  

What’s wrong with orthodoxy on our campuses, as long as we’re teaching the right set of beliefs?  That question has a two-part answer.

The first is that in a pluralistic society, people can take different views of civic virtue. Some may seek to transform social conditions and institutions according to some communitarian ideal.  Others believe in supporting laws that treat all individuals according to the same processes and do not impinge on individual rights.  Civic engagement emerges from these kinds of fundamentally political orientations.  When a university promotes civic engagement, it imposes on its students and faculty a definition of acceptable political orientation.

The second part of the answer concerns the unique role of the university as a place for seeking truth through the exchange of ideas.  At the University of Chicago in 1967, a committee of faculty members led by Harry Kalven, Jr. took up the issue of whether the university as an institution should take positions on social and political issues. The Kalven Report , one of the foundational documents of academic and intellectual freedom, argued that whenever a university takes an official position on any social or political question, it censures those who take another position. The only way a university can foster true freedom of inquiry, the report concluded, is to strive for institutional neutrality. 

I think that is right. When a university mandates “civic engagement,” it betrays fundamental values of higher education.