The Spread of “New Civics” Is Cause for Alarm

One of the ways the college curriculum has changed for the worse in recent decades is the rise of what David Randall terms “the New Civics” in a hefty report published in January by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). This is a development that should alarm Americans who care about the integrity of higher education, not to say the future of the country.

Randall, Director of Communications for NAS, observes that the old education in civics for Americans consisted of high school courses in which students learned the basics of citizenship, followed usually by a course or two in college that deepened their understanding of our law and governmental institutions.

The old civics, however, has eroded badly since the 1960s.

High school civics has mostly been replaced with mushy “social studies” classes that are often geared toward degrading everything about the U.S. And few colleges retain any core courses covering the old civics. A student who wanted such a course might have trouble finding one in the catalogue.

What has moved in to fill the old civics void at many colleges is “the New Civics.” Rather than informing students about civics, the New Civics has an entirely different purpose—turning students into activists. The main goal, the report states, “is getting students to engage in coordinated social action.” Sometimes that entails direct political action (such as the recent marches against Trump’s immigration order), but mostly it involves pushing students into volunteering for projects that promote leftist causes.

Randall emphasizes that the faculty and administrators behind New Civics are only interested in fostering one variety of civic engagement among students, namely “progressive.” Volunteer work and protest that does not advance the collectivistic goals of the progressive movement doesn’t count and is even discouraged, as Bill Felkner discovered when he tried to avoid left-wing engagement in his studies at Rhode Island College. (I wrote about his case here.)

The report devotes many pages to the history of New Civics. It began in the 1970s with the advent of “service learning” courses, which substituted larger and larger amounts of student activism in the community for real academic study.

Students who didn’t want to have to do a lot of reading and write serious papers could sign up for these courses and get high grades just for showing up and submitting a “reflection paper” about their feelings on their community work. That was consistent with the theories of John Dewey and Paolo Freire that it is better to have students do things that will help implant leftist beliefs than to teach them bodies of knowledge through books and lectures.

With that beachhead established, New Civics expanded steadily. Friendly administrators allowed it to colonize “residence life” programs, so that students were getting large doses of progressive ideology thrown at them even out of class. They also went along with the idea that certain amounts of “volunteerism” should be mandatory for graduation. Advocates for the New Civics have succeeded in diverting more and more money from other parts of the college budget into their programs.

In 2012, New Civics received a huge boost when the Association of American Colleges and Universities published a document entitled A Crucible Moment. It outlined and supported the objectives of New Civics by advocating that its courses be mandatory, requiring that all courses have some “civic” component, and ensuring that every faculty member is to some degree “civically engaged.”

Out of a sense of ideological solidarity, many college and university leaders have happily gone along with the program laid out in A Crucible Moment. Numerous “strategic plans” now speak about the importance of “infusing civic engagement” throughout the curriculum and campus life. By adroit use of Saul Alinsky’s tactics, New Civics is making progress toward a transformation of American higher education—away from the pursuit of knowledge and toward political indoctrination.

Much of the report consists of case studies at four public universities: the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, North Colorado University, and the University of Wyoming. These cases demonstrate how successful New Civics advocates have been.

At CU-Boulder, by Randall’s estimate, more than $25 million annually is spent on New Civics. At least sixty courses have service-learning or civic engagement components while only eleven courses teach any of the old civics material. Randall’s evaluation of the university’s curriculum is ominous: “CU-Boulder’s distribution requirements conceal the insertion of a new core curriculum formed around progressive advocacy rather than around Western civilization or civic literacy.”

Students must complete the “Contemporary Societies” requirement, for example, which is “marbled throughout” with progressive advocacy courses, as well as the “Human Diversity” requirement, which has few courses that aren’t suffused with ideology.

The most glaring instance of New Civics at CU-Boulder is the International & National Voluntary Service Training program (INVST). It is, Randall writes, “the equivalent of a major in progressive activism,” and provides “vocational training to a dedicated corps of New Civics advocates”—around 200 students each year.

How bad is INVST? Listen to a bit of its Inclusion Statement and you’ll see. INVST is determined to advance “anti-oppressive education” by attacking “the privileged” and the idea that “information is unbiased.” It has a revealing list of “Campus Allies,” including the Ethnic Studies Department, the Environmental Studies Department, the Sociology Department, and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. Two of the courses in the program give students academic credit for designing and working on their own community service projects.

Another New Civics initiative at the school is the CU Dialogues program whereby leftist speakers are invited into a wide range of classes to “generate open discussion.” Through these “dialogues,” New Civics advocacy is spread into subjects where there is actually some body of knowledge (such as history and economics) and others where there isn’t (such as film studies and women’s studies). The point of this, Randall writes, is to “give progressive activists privileged access to for-credit classes.”

And, far as New Civics has gotten at CU-Boulder, there is more to come. The university’s planning document, Flagship 2030, declares, “By 2030, CU-Boulder will require at least two semester-long experiences tailored to complement academic coursework and cocurricular activities.”

The case studies at Colorado State and Northern Colorado show that New Civics has become well established at both, with progressive faculty and administrators pushing for more money and control. At Wyoming, New Civics has a foothold, but hasn’t spread nearly as far as at the Colorado schools.

What should be done?

The report recommends that colleges and universities restore a true civics curriculum including courses on Western Civilization, American history with emphasis on the Founding, and a course on The American Debate, which would introduce students to the big questions we have debated since 1787.

Equally important, schools should stop supporting New Civics in all its forms. Among the recommendations in this vein is that legislators prohibit giving academic credit for volunteer activity and that no public funds may be used to support community organizing or political activism.

Anticipating the objection that any move against New Civics is contrary to academic freedom, Randall correctly responds, “Academic freedom does not wall off existing courses or non-academic programs from external review, de-funding, and possible elimination.”

Getting back to the old civics and getting rid of the New Civics is an important part of the bigger project of restoring our colleges and universities to places of learning. In that, there is no room for courses or programs that “recruit students to political causes, create partisan resentments, or treat the ideals of any political movements as though they are the civic virtues themselves.”

That’s why New Civics must be uprooted.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    With fewer and fewer voters turning out for important elections, it is no wonder “civic engagement” has emerged from the “service learning” crowd. If the decline continues, there won’t be any reason to teach “social studies,” and the teachers will be out of jobs. Think of this as self-preservation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout

    When the author of “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein tells an audience of college students, “You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the speaker of the U.S. House is,” a voice in the crowd tells him: ” ‘American Idol’ IS more important.”

    Even in this context, Saul Alinsky’s tactics would be a good idea. But anyone familiar with his approach to political change (I once trained with Ed Chambers) knows that it does not work without underlying problem recognition and power analysis, both of which do not register with the Dumbest Generation now going to college. You can see why entrepreneurial schoolmasters are trying something like “new civics.” The need is obvious.

    As for “collectivist progressivism,” all political and civic engagement is collectivist to the extent that it is associational and social. Here’s where some Durkheimian sociology would help with the analysis, especially an appreciation for the dynamics of social solidarity. Social movements of all kinds, whether left or right, it makes no difference, succeed or fail based on the levels of commitment they are able to produce. Political rallies (and religious revivals, for that matter) are designed to enhance the emotional energy of the participants, at least initially, and, equally important, to transition that commitment to the practical work of campaigning or soul-winning. It is a two-step process for the production and maintenance of social solidarity.

    It should not surprise us that class-rooms housing the Dumbest Generation are becoming more and more like (dare I say it?) indoctrination centers — but as a way to cut through the apathy and indifference. Whether left or right, it makes no difference. And we know this from our own classroom teaching experience, the creation of emotional excitement is what can make all the difference.

    Rallys, mass meetings, celebration parades, the dynamic is the same. The problem for the right is that it is losing this competition to engage the Dumbest Generation. (All except for Twitter-based political campaigns, of course.)

    • Michael Shaughnessy

      Sadly, the ” new civics” is just a watering down or a ” dumbing down” of the old civics and reflects a deterioration of higher education in America ( due to various and sundry reasons). To make matters worse, there has been a trend away from serious discussion, a trend away from an emphasis on knowledge, information, facts, and history, toward a very left, liberal, soft headed, soft thinking, curriculum ( if anyone could ever find a good curriculum of civics nowadays). And if there is ever any new civics, hopefully, it will steer clear of any indoctrination and move toward a logical, rational reasonable investigation of the issues and concerns and history of American government and the political process.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Logical? Rational? American history without passion is just as bad as misdirected passion, maybe even worse. Logic and reason are the remnants of yester-years’ social movements, the burned out embers of once white-hot passion and emotion (i.e., “liberty madness”). I am sorry that you did not get this from my post.

        In terms of the difficulties of arriving at an acceptable national narrative, see especially the writings of James E. Block, A Nation of Agents and more recently The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society (2012). Block’s dissertation is the only one to get a write-up in Time, mentioned in UoC’s Martin Marty’s retirement op-ed.

  • Nick Curran

    It goes beyond just the civics curriculum at my son’s school in Loudoun County, Virginia. Last year his art teacher, in what seemed to me to be “re-educationist” indoctrination, had each of her students complete an art project in support of one of her pet political causes and write a paper describing concrete actions that each of the students could take to promote that cause. I cannot describe sufficiently how upset I was. I felt like my son and his classmates had been used against their and their parents’ wills. I could not believe that the teacher actually thought this was acceptable in the United States; Cuba or North Korea, okay, but Virginia? It was appalling.

    • George Leef

      Thanks, Nick. Unfortunately, many teachers and professors believe that the most important part of their job is to turn students into zealous Social Justice Warriors. Instead of teaching knowledge and skills, they like to instill “progressive” attitudes.

      • John_In_Michigan

        Agreed, and I would like to point out that the process is self defeating. Higher education depends to a large degree, on public support. If public support is being used for partisan political purposes it breaks the social compact that has existed (that higher education is good that should be financially supported). If the public perceives its support as being diverted for political purposes that support will disappear.

      • DrOfnothing

        No, almost no teachers and professors believe that this is the “most important part of their job” or even _any_ part of their job. If you spent any time on university campuses actually talking to them instead of writing snide and grossly inaccurate caricatures of them, you might realize that.

    • DrOfnothing

      What was this pet project? And did this piece of art successfully “indoctrinate” your child? If so, they must be one heck of an effective teacher! No doubt Cuban and North Korean intelligence agencies are knocking on her door right now. They specifically target k-12 teachers because of the unspeakable power they wield over their students, and how they can counter 95% of the information children receive on a daily basis from television, their parents, their peers, and social media with the power of their complex ideological program. I hear North Korea is working on a devastatingly effective “Art Bomb” right now–something with macaroni and crayons, believe.

  • DrOfnothing

    The NAS is a reactionary neocon group with absolutely no intellectual credibility. They are nothing more than a Scaife-funded lobbying group, and their foundation lies in a massive, tax-free endowment rather than in any scholarly merit. Their proposed solution is ludicrous. We should sue colleges and universities who offer these courses and state and federal government should ban their teaching (this is the report’s recommendation)?

    “High school civics has mostly been replaced with mushy “social studies” classes that are often geared toward degrading everything about the U.S.” This statement is arguably the most absurd in the piece. It perpetuates the vicious lie, broadcast with increasing vehemence by the hard right, that anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideology and support the establishment will full-throated enthusiasm is “an enemy of the people” and needs to be silenced, be they the judiciary, the free press, or even ordinary citizens. It is shameful to see it perpetuated by an author who claims to hold individual freedom as the highest principle. Analytical does not mean “degrading,” and any honest civics teacher must acknowledge both the triumphs and the tragedies of the American past. There were noble principles and extraordinary accomplishments, courage and sacrifice. But there was also slavery, ethnic cleansing, denial of rights, abuse of power, and the slaughter of the innocent. This is History, not a Disney cartoon.

    On the other hand, the author’s tireless condemnation of all things not-conservative is also ironic, since almost every dynamic that he describes, down to the language he uses (e.g. indoctrination), are themselves a product of the left-wing intellectuals upon which he heaps such lavish contempt here and elsewhere. Our entire toolset for understanding the relationship between cultural institutions and political ideology emerged out of linguistics (e.g. Louis Althusser), cultural anthropology (e.g. Clifford Geertz), literary criticism, and cultural theory (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault) all of whom were on the left of the political spectrum. They were also intellectually honest, and often _criticized_ the left as well. Althusser, for example, was both a longtime member of the French Communist Party and one of its harshest critics. His work established our contemporary understanding of what “ideology” is. Right-wing commentators’ dependence on the frameworks developed by Althusser and others who were on the left reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of their own arguments. If the left is so ideologically rigid, how is it that the same tools they have developed can be employed to analyze and critique their own positions. What means has the right developed to challenge their own propositions? Where is their own auto-criticism?

    And here we come to real intellectual difference between the left and the right, which is starkly revealed (albeit accidentally) in Leef’s writings. There are ideologues on both sides, there are extremists on both sides, and both sides have been guilty of violating their own stated principles. But the left has willingly created the tools by which their own ideas, and their influence on society, can be effectively challenged. They are their own harshest and most effective critics. The right, in contrast, has offered _nothing_ along these lines, and really, very few original thinkers in recent decades beyond Hayeck and Strauss (which is why they are referenced ad nauseum by right-wing writers). Right-wing commentators, as demonstrated here, brook no dissent and demand either submission or the utter demolition of their ideological opponents, all while cloaking their efforts at suppression in the thin guise of protecting “free speech” and “individual rights.” This is because, at heart, they realize that the only way to get students to agree with them is to cut off all other options. It is not freedom they want, but exactly what they accuse the left of demanding–conformity. And they are more than willing to employ the authority of wealth, the power of the state, and the tools of censorship to achieve it.

    This is profoundly hypocritical.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Yes, I have noticed for a long time that “fundamentalists” of every type are unable to laugh at themselves, both the “right” and the “left” cannot ridicule their own foibles. Something is missing when we cannot step outside our bubble, if only for a moment.

      But this discussion raises an important question about how the “right” and the “left” differ — other than self-selected markers and stereotypical labels. There has to be more différance (per Derrida, to differ and to defer) than just one side criticizing the other side, but I do not know what it is.

      “Our entire toolset for understanding the relationship between cultural institutions and political ideology emerged out of linguistics (e.g. Louis Althusser), cultural anthropology (e.g. Clifford Geertz), literary criticism, and cultural theory (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault) all of whom were on the left of the political spectrum.” Marx is much, much earlier, and we also need to add Gramsci as was discussed.

      A handy guide to this varied terrain is/are the 1975 Lectures on Ideology and Utopia that Paul Ricoeur gave at the University of Chicago. Tremendous achievement and overview, with chapters on Marx (Hegel), Althusser, Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, Habermas, Geertz, with some French utopianists like Saint-Simon and Fourier to close out the book. I have sent weeks and months swimming in the streams of thought in Ricoeur that form “Our entire toolset for understanding the relationship between cultural institutions and political ideology …” although Derrida is much later, and Foucault is barely mentioned. Weber opposed Marx, of course, after absorbing Marx’ critique, perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

      • DrOfnothing

        Well put. It’s also worth pointing out that all of these thinkers, without exception, developed their critiques as a way to explain what they thought was the dominant vein of politics and cultural authority at the time. To my mind, that has always been the most fundamental role of intellectual activity with a political bent–to speak truth to power. What I find so comical about the JMC and the entities that fire repeated, hyperbolic broadsides at the left in America is that they all claim they are the outsiders battling against the ideological tyranny of the left. They ignore or deny the obvious truth that America _outside_ of academia is still, by any objective standard, right of center. There is no viable left-leaning party and to call the Democrats leftists is comically parochial. In the UK, they would be Tories, and hard-line Tories at that. This is obviously true in culture (unabashadly consumerist), economics (unreservedly free-market capitalist), and politics (ahem, the White House). The only exception to this general bent is social issues such as gender roles and sexuality, where the US has been slowly dragging itself to the point where most civilized democracies arrived decades ago–i.e. gay people are not evil, minorities deserve equal rights and protections, the UN is not trying to establish an oppressive world govt. or steal your lawn furniture. But, judging by what people write here, even the baseline rationality on these issues remains on the distant horizon. This is very different, I should add, from sensible, sophisticated conservative view on politics and economics (e.g. what I read in the Economist every week).

        I don’t think, judging by the articles and commentaries on this site and every other con/neocon site I’ve visited, that the right really wants any genuine ideological criticism of the establishment. The only thing they are tolerant of is that which is _farther_ to the right of there own position–the populist nationalist alternative, such as embodies in the Tea Party–Trump cohort. That whole segment has no real ideology, and they are rampantly pro status-quo (despite the claim to “outsider” status) with their unwavering support of capitalism and nationalism. It is for this reason that I think labelling the American right as intellectually bankrupt is accurate.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Yes, but my understanding is that this is an open forum — we are free to propose and draft our own articles for publication. I would love to read something topical, that is not just whining of the sour-grapes variety.

          For example, this NAS commentary (never knew there was a conservative foundation involved, thanks). It would be nice to read about conservative victories for a change, and not have to be on the losing side all the time.

          • DrOfnothing

            This is hardly an open forum. They have never published a single article (at least not since I’ve been reading the site) that departs from the Conservative stance on education.

  • DrOfnothing

    NB: the author egregiously misquotes the “inclusion statement” of the CU-Boulder INVST. Nowhere in that statement does it call for “attacking ‘the privileged,'” as the author claims. What the statement actually says is: “we acknowledge the importance of examining not only how groups are oppressed but also how groups are privileged and how these two processes maintain social structures.” Neither the word nor the suggestion that the program advocates attacking anyone appears anywhere in its literature.

    It’s fine to disagree with their goals and approach, but in rational policy discussions, fabrications like this are simply unacceptable.

    The full inclusion statement can be found here: http://www.colorado.edu/invst/about.

    • K. E.

      The problem is pushing that anyone is ‘oppressed’ or ‘privileged’ in a free America. If the college feels they must talk about this, then they are restricting free speech and other Constitutionally-protected freedoms on their campus and should address that at the administration level.

  • K. E.

    Best class I ever took in high school (many many years ago now) was my AP History class. My teacher was fantastic and made history interesting. I walked out of there with a new respect for the founders of this country and the meaning of freedom. My civics class? A blip. It was boring. I was stuck in there with a bunch of really poor students. The teacher was awful. He was the kind of teacher that had been reduced to teaching Civics, Driver’s Ed and remedial math. Don’t remember much at all.