Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens?


Parmer Hall, Messiah College

An organization of conservative academics and intellectuals known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a 525-page report titled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”  It is a critique of what the NAS describes as the “New Civics.”  The report focuses on this approach to civic education at four western universities in the United States.

Here is a taste of the abstract:

A new movement in American higher education aims to transform the teaching of civics. This report is a study of what that movement is, where it came from, and why Americans should be concerned.

What we call the “New Civics” redefines civics as progressive political activism. Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.

The New Civics seeks above all to make students into enthusiastic supporters of the New Left’s dream of “fundamentally transforming” America. The transformation includes de-carbonizing the economy, 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. New Civics advocates argue among themselves which of these transformations should take precedence, but they agree that America must be transformed by “systemic change” from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.

The New Civics hopes to accomplish this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.

New Civics builds on “service-learning,” which is an effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists. By rebranding itself as “civic engagement,” service learning succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics. In practice this means 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. These are indeed forms of “civic engagement,” but they are far from being a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.

New Civics has still further ambitions. Its proponents want to build it into every college class regardless of subject. The effort continues without so far drawing much critical attention from the public. This report aims to change that.

Pretty standard conservative stuff.

After reading this report, literary scholar and public intellectual Stanley Fish turned to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and published a piece titled “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job.”  He has mixed feelings about what the NAS has produced.

Here is a taste of Fish’s piece:

...I have felt for some time that the integrity of academic work has been under pressure from forces that would politicize it, either from the outside in the form of external constituencies eager to have colleges and universities reflect their agendas, or from the inside in the form of student protests aimed at getting colleges and universities to toe their preferred ideological line. The NAS report stands squarely against the second form of politicization (as do I), but participates fully in the first. Consider the following key and representative sentence: “We view the liberal arts, properly understood, as fostering intellectual freedom, the search for truth, and the promotion of virtuous citizenship.” Fostering intellectual freedom? Yes! Search for truth? Yes! Promotion of virtuous citizenship? No! Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because, like the programs the report derides, it is a political goal.

A simple question makes my point. What is the content of “virtuous”? The answer will vary with the varying views of what obligations citizenship brings with it. For the authors of the NAS report, virtuous citizenship means love of country and “a commitment to our form of self-government.” For the faculty and students who practice civic engagement, virtuous citizenship means a radical questioning of our forms of government and a resolve to restructure them so that they reflect (insofar as possible) the ideal of social justice. This difference is obviously political and amounts to a quarrel between opposing views of what form of citizenship universities should foster. But because my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect — I find both parties off base because they are in their different ways deforming the educational enterprise by bending it to a partisan purpose.

A director of a service-learning institute quoted in the report declares that “The crux of the debate is whether education should provide students with the skills and knowledge base necessary to fit into the existing social structure or prepare them to engage in social transformation.” The right answer is “neither of the above.” Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience. The report declares that the proponents of civic engagement “cannot distinguish education from progressive activism.” The NAS cannot distinguish education from conservative activism…

I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy. I agree that while volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic good thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so. I agree that students “should possess a basic understanding of their government” and that colleges and universities should play a part in providing that understanding. I don’t agree that the content of that understanding should be dictated by government officials, and I find it odd that an essay claiming to defend traditional liberal education against the incursion of politics ends by inviting the politicians in. One might say that the cure is worse than the disease, but that would not be quite right: The cure is the disease.

Those familiar with Fish know that he has been making this argument for a long time.  It is best formulated in his book Save the World on Your Own Time Earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association he made a similar case.

I largely agree with Fish’s critique of the so-called “New Civics” and the NAS report. As I have written before, my understanding of liberal arts education is probably best captured in this conversation between Robert George and Cornell West.  The purpose of liberal arts education, in other words, is the pursuit of truth and the “examined life.”

My views here have been no doubt shaped by fifteen years of working as a bit of an outsider at a college that privileges a Christian view of the “New Civics” rooted in historic Anabaptism. Anabaptists are very good at service and justice, but they have never been on the front lines of cultivating intellectual life. (There are, of course, exceptions.  I know this because I work with some of those exceptions).

Moreover, the college where I teach has a lot of students who have been raised in evangelicalism.  Many of these students have already learned some basic things about how to be activists.  They have participated in youth group service projects and mission trips and they want to “change the world.”  But because of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” they have not learned how to cultivate an “examined life.”  Few of them see learning for learning’s sake–the worship of God with their minds–as a legitimate part of their life of faith.  It is my job to expose them to this way of encountering God and suggest to them that it is a vital part of their responsibility as a Christian.  The Anabaptist and evangelical ethos of my college does not make this easy.  (I discussed this in a chapter I wrote for this book).

But where I differ with Fish (and I am not even sure we differ) is best captured in a few lines from his Chronicle piece.

Fish says: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect.”  I would rephrase Fish’s sentence this way: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship–at least not as part of a design, but citizenship should result as an intended side-effect.”  (I should add that I think such an approach fits squarely within my understanding of the Christian liberal arts, but that discussion will have to wait for another post).

Fish also says: “I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy.”  I would only add that civic literacy–and this includes historical thinking, not just facts–should result in some form of civic responsibility.

As I argued in my 2013  book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Pastthe study of history (and all of the humanities) teaches us empathy, humility, and even love. It relieves us of our narcissism.  It teaches us hospitality.   It challenges us to pursue truth. These kinds of virtues go beyond mere civic literacy and, when applied in an individual life or community, extend well beyond any particular political or social agenda.