Academia’s “New Civics” vs. Traditional American Civics

Political ideology replaces civics education.

The election of Donald J. Trump to the office of the Presidency of the United States came as a body blow to leftists.  Actually, such was their arrogance—their certitude that their candidate couldn’t lose—that President Trump’s victory hit them more like a sucker punch.

Students and their professors at colleges and universities from around the country participated in “cry-ins,” entered “safe spaces,” cancelled classes and examinations, and organized demonstrations. 

While the rest of the country looked incredulously upon this spectacle of presumably educated adults protesting the legitimate election of America’s 45th President, those of us who know a thing or two about the contemporary academic world were not in the least surprised by it. 

And those academics who belong to the National Association of Scholars (NAS) know more than most.

The NAS recently released a report on the latest wave of anti-intellectualism to sweep the world of “higher education.” In “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics,” the NAS explains what it refers to as “the New Civics.” The latter “redefines civics as progressive political activism.”

While the New Civics styles itself “as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works,” the reality is that it stems from “the radical program of the 1960’s New Left [.]”  Its “soft rhetoric” is designed to conceal its architects’ ultimate goals. First, they want to “repurpose higher education.”  Secondly, adherents of the New Left want nothing more than to make students into joint enterprisers in “‘fundamentally transforming’ America.”

This dream of fundamental transformation that the left wants for students to make into a reality is fairly comprehensive. For starters, it involves “de-carbonizing the economy [.]” Yet it also involves “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.”

Although leftist academics disagree amongst themselves as to how to prioritize the items on this agenda, they are of one mind that “America must be transformed by ‘systemic change’ from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.”

The NAS report discloses how the New Civics plans to achieve its goals.  It “hopes to accomplish” all of “this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist….”

The New Civics “puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.”

A current feature of college life is what is called “service-learning.”  The NAS report finds that this all too often proves to be an “effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists.”

One major problem with “service-learning” is that it has “succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics.”  What “this means [is] that instead of teaching college students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government, colleges teach students how  to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations.”

The authors of the NAS report concede that while protests, demonstrations, and occupations may be forms of “‘civic engagement,’” they hardly constitute “a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.”

Case studies of the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder), Colorado State University in Fort Collins (CSU), the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley (UNC), and the University of Wyoming in Laramie (UW) establish that its proponents are determined to implement the New Civics in “every college class regardless of subject.” 

In a preface to this study, Peter Wood, the President of the NAS, puts the point bluntly: “What is most new about the New Civics is that while it claims the name of civics, it is really a form of anti-civics.”  This is no hyperbole. Wood explains:

“Civics in the traditional American sense meant learning about how our republic governs itself.  The topics ranged from mastering simple facts, such as the branches of the federal government and the obligations of citizenship, to reflecting on the nature of Constitutional rights and the system of checks and balances that divide the states from the national government and the divisions of the national government from one another.  A student who learns civics learns about voting, serving on juries, running for office, serving in the military, and all of the other key ways in which citizens take responsibility for their own government.”

Matters are dramatically otherwise with the so-called New Civics, which largely neglects these matters altogether. Here, “the largest preoccupation is getting students to engage in coordinated social action.” It’s true that this occasionally consists of “political protest,” but more frequently it entails enlisting students in the service of promoting “progressive causes.” Wood cites illustrations of this phenomenon from the University of Colorado at Boulder where students have been encouraged do things like opening “dialogue between immigrants and native-born residents of Boulder County,” march “in support of the United Farm Workers,” and undermine “‘gender binary’ spaces in education.”

It isn’t just at the college level that civics has been replaced with activism.  This has been occurring throughout our educational system since the New Left arose in the late 1960’s. Those who belong to the NAS are not alone in recognizing the harm that the politicization of learning, the substitution of training in an ideology for a genuine education, has done to the citizenry. That being said, the National Association of Scholars is particularly deserving of praise for its tireless efforts to draw the public’s attention to corruption within higher education.

This report on the “New Civics,” or “anti-civics,” is just its latest clarion call.

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