When Activism Replaces Education: The Rise of New Civics
So-called New Civics programs seek to replace traditional civics education with "service learning."
The modern American university has increasingly become a place of walk-outs, demonstrations and protests. Students appear to spend more time waving signs and yelling their opinions across the quad than actually studying in the library. It seems that education has been replaced with activism. Because it has.
A report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) reveals the infiltration of so-called New Civics programs that seek to replace traditional civics education with “service learning.” The report notes, “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.”
New Civics has become the means by which the New Left has repurposed higher education for progressive activism. Part of the goals of “fundamental transformation” include redistributing wealth, compromising the free market, advocating against the fossil fuel industry, expanding the welfare state, intensifying identity politics, elevating global “norms” over American law, minimizing our common history and ideals to a narrative of racism, misogyny and exploitative colonialism, and channelling university funding to progressive causes and “allied” programs.
While civics used to mean teaching students about representative government, the separation of powers and landmark Supreme Court cases, New Civics emphasizes participation in leftist causes. This they call “civic engagement.” While traditional civics prepared students to understand and steward a free society, New Civics teaches students how to deconstruct it. Rather than learning the foundations of the United States and the fundamentals of the Constitution, students learn how to fight the government and to solve grievances through protest rather than debate.
This civics ignorance is an enormous threat to our Constitution.
This trend of problem-solving through protest rather than debate has bled into popular culture as evidenced in the myriad of marches and protests our country has experienced lately: the March for Women, the March for Science, the March for Climate and Black Lives Matter, or marches for #notmypresident, illegal immigration, gun control, fossil fuel divestment, antifa, abortion, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, “LGBTQ” rights, and so on.
While differing views within a free society are inevitable and healthy, the solution to reconciling those differences consists in an honest debate about the merits and faults of those views, not in yelling at each other. This concept would be taught in a traditional civics class, which would, for example, discuss James Madison’s Federalist 10 on factions. A student would also learn that factions result from differing human opinions and only two ways exist to stop it: Either remove the causes or control the effects. Removing the cause means removing differing opinions (i.e. destroying Liberty through mandated groupthink and ideological conformity). Managing its effects takes place through the representative government process as described in the Constitution.
Traditional civics would teach students how to vote, how to write their congressman, how to run for office and how to participate in our republic. New Civics, by contrast, teaches students that rallies, protests and activism are the only way to change things. It teaches, by example, that change can only occur by destroying due process, the Rule of Law and the necessary confinements of government. This is what is meant by “fundamental transformation.”
Yet where did service learning originate? According to the NAS report, the service-learning pioneers composed of teachers, administrators and community organizers all “traced their commitment to service learning to their far-left political commitments.” William Ramsey began the first “service learning” program in 1965 at the Tennessee-based Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies. Robert Sigmon, whose motivations were to use education as “a tool to promote revolutionary change,” meaning leftist ideology, joined Ramsey in 1966.
Service learning combined the teaching theories of socialists John Dewey and Paul Freire, who emphasized learning through doing. The service learning model also incorporated the Open-Door Schooling movement of Mao’s Communist China. Under Mao, schools sent children, as part of their education, into factories and fields to learn socialism from workers and peasants. In addition, the ideas of Saul Alinsky, most notably community organizing (or organizing against the government) entered higher education through the service-learning method.
At first, this concept seems like a noble cause: to transform learning from simply memorizing data into a hands-on experience. Most people remember the “volcano” experiment of vinegar and baking soda for elementary science classes because they experienced the dramatic eruption. Yet a remarkable difference exists between hands-on experiments in science class and hands-on activism masquerading as “education.”
Additionally, the service-learning method not only compromises teaching, and the regular discipline of a university education, but it also compromises volunteerism, which should be voluntary, not required. Much of the joy found in volunteering is rooted in the concept of giving without receiving. When volunteering becomes compulsory, it ceases to be “volunteer.” Americans, by nature, tend to be others-minded and led by a spirit of volunteerism. New Civics takes advantage of that spirit and redirects it toward a progressive political agenda.
NAS notes that “New Civics advocates want to make ‘civic engagement’ part of every class, every tenure decision, and every extracurricular activity.” It thus has begun to change the authority structure from the faculty and professors to the administrators and offices of civic engagement, student affairs, diversity and sustainability.
New Civics sounds non-partisan and inclusive because it encourages students to “engage in the community.” Yet, the “community” narrowly means the community of progressive organizations. Using semantics and language to neutralize their objectives, service-learning progressive activists don’t call it progressive activism training, but rather civic engagement, community-focused projects, social justice activism, global civics, deliberative democracy, intercultural learning and a slew of other neutral terms designed to deflect real meaning.
While we face threats of terrorism and nuclear war, the often-overlooked threat is the university, which not only incubates leftist ideas but teaches students to actively engage against freedom, ironically calling it “civic engagement.” By replacing history with propagandistic “perspectives” and exchanging the teaching of the U.S. legal tradition with progressive deconstructionism, the New Civics movement has compromised the education of students, the merits of true volunteerism and the stewardship of Liberty in this country.