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Civics Lessons

On January 10, the White House staged an event to mark the release of a new report calling for “the nation to reclaim higher education’s civic mission.” The report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, is the fruit of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

That task force was appointed by the Obama Department of Education in 2010. The new report comes with a forward by DOE Under Secretary Martha Kanter and the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, Eduardo Ochoa, who connect the enterprise with the Obama administration’s goal for the United States “to once again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.”

We haven’t heard much about that goal recently, perhaps as economic realities impressed themselves on the administration. To achieve the “lead the world” proportion of college graduates by 2020 would require more than doubling current college enrollments in the next five years. Our colleges and universities have no capacity to do that, nor can the nation afford the cost. But it is nice to see that DOE officials haven’t forgotten the President’s February 2009 grandiose promise.

The connection between the dream of vastly expanded college enrollments and “democracy’s future” isn’t self-evident. We have had democratic institutions, after all, for several hundred years without the assistance of an everybody-goes-to-college national policy. The connection that Kanter and Ochoa offer is that colleges need “to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship.” Stated as an abstract proposition, few would disagree with that goal, although it is a little obscure why engaged citizenship requires a college degree.

A Different Civics

American grade schools were educating students for citizenship from the days of the early republic.  I recently made the acquaintance of a retired professor, Bruce Olson, who is profoundly interested in restoring civics to the K-12 curriculum. Olson, who once led a taxpayers organization in California, is now the executive director of the American Grand Jury Foundation and is the author of Grand Juries in California: A Study in Citizenship. He made a second career as a contractor who taught California grand jurors how to perform their work.

I learned from him that the grand-jury system during the progressive era functioned as a means by which citizens could launch investigations of larger social ills, and weren’t just an instrument by which prosecutors sought indictments.

He is a strong advocate of active citizenship—namely that citizens should understand their government at every level; should be vigilant in holding public officials accountable; and should understand the practicalities of local self-government.

Olson has been at this a long time. Now in his eighties, he hopes to publish a new civics textbook because he is not much satisfied with those currently available. Along the way, he has collected and read some sixty civics schoolbooks published between the late 18th century and 1932, which gives him a fair claim to expertise in the area Kanter and Ochoa profess to be concerned about, and quite a bit of knowledge that bears on the work of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

But in the course of five or six hours of conversation with Dr. Olson, I could see he is not really in step with what we might call the “new civics” enunciated by the Obama administration’s Task Force. The difference between Olson’s views and those presented in A Crucible Moment isn’t one of vocabulary. Olson and Crucible use many of the same words and both clearly favor a muscular view of citizenship.  What then?

The differences have to do with temperament and trajectory. Olson is a moderate who feels at home with the progressive outlook of the Teddy Roosevelt era.  He basically likes the American system of self-government and champions the people who take the initiative to make it work. He approached me initially because he is trying to find someone who might like to take custody of his voluminous files of news stories about citizen activists.  (Contact me if you have a scholarly interest!)

Property Rights 0, Diversity 87

The authors of A Crucible Moment strike a very different tone. Among other things, their goal is not to prepare students for life in the nation as it now exists, but to have them become “globally knowledgeable citizens.” The rhetoric of the report is shrill and it depicts the nation on the verge of such calamity that only some drastically new kind of “engagement” will save it. And the text lays into unnamed political opponents for their “poorly conceived remedies for the challenges facing the United States” (p. 17).

The report is often vague and platitudinous. Many of its 105 pages are filled with declarations that mean next to nothing or unroll in feel-good bureaucratic jargon (e.g. “generative civic partnerships,”  “local and global generative partnerships,” “civic investment plan,” purposeful and progressively sequenced designs for civic learning and democratic engagement”).

But it isn’t that hard to spot the radical hand in the bureaucratic glove. Why is this a “crucible moment in US history” (p. 25)? What is it that makes “transformations necessary for this generation”?

The answers come down to—no surprise—“to eliminate persistent inequalities, especially those in the United States determined by income and race, in order to secure the country’s economic and civic future.” But not just that. We also need to respond to “growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more.”

“More,” I suppose, covers everything not mentioned, but it is useful to think about some of those civics lessons that are left out entirely. The list includes property rights; ballot initiatives; grand juries; external audits; trustees; fiduciary responsibilities; gun ownership and Second Amendment rights; prisons; military service; and even taxes.  The word “elections” occurs twice; “voter registration” once (in an appendix); and the Bill of Rights once.

What vision of civics education is this?  It is one where the concept of “inequality” looms large (14 direct mentions and a subsection of “Dangerous Economic Inequalities”), “transform” 44 times, and cognates of “diversity” occur 87 times.

Word counts are only a rough proxy for content, but I’ll leave a closer textual analysis for another time. I will warrant, however, that the word counts don’t give a misleading impression. The civics lesson on offer in A Crucible Moment are a reiteration of a certain political agenda in which inequalities and diversity are the prime concepts, and “citizenship” evanesces into the air of “global” participation.

Occupy Osawatomie

I don’t suppose it is amiss for a President of the United States to avail himself of all the instruments of the executive branch to pursue his policy goals. So there is certainly nothing wrong with President Obama’s Department of Education setting in motion the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. But let me offer a little civic engagement of my own.

A Crucible Moment reflects a view from inside the academy. Of the eleven members of the Task Force, nine are current or former academics, and all of them, as nearly as I can tell, represent left of center views. It is small wonder that their report is dead silent on the many aspects of civic participation and democratic engagement that concern the roughly 175 million Americans who consider themselves as conservative or moderate.

From that perspective, the Task Force might be thought of as one of the first official expressions of the spirit that was eventually embodied in more aggressive form in the Occupy Wall Street movement.   The notion that overcoming “inequality” in all its forms ought to be at the center of our political and civic life is the core of President Obama’s widely noted December 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kan.  “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” he declared and  he took the themes of “the people who’ve been occupying the streets of New York and other cities” as an expression of “the defining issue of our time,” i.e. income inequality.

This may work on the campaign trail, but higher education ought to hold itself to a higher standard. The civics education that college should provide students should surely be more than an immersion in the values and worldview of one side of the political spectrum, and an attempt to erase all other values and views. A Crucible Moment fails this test.

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