Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Civic Engagement Doctrine

“Engagement” is one of the popular buzz words in higher education these days. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement has issued a new report, prompted by the Department of Education as a part of “a push to make democratic engagement a national goal.” I had always thought that in a free society people could choose their own goals. Apparently, this is not the view of the task force or the Department of Education.

I believe the report confuses two very different forms of education. One of these we might call civic studies, which would entail learning about competing political philosophies, the history of government in general and of American government in particular, and current political structure and political process. This type of education pushes no position and involves no proselytizing. It simply provides citizens with the information to make up their own minds and decide whether and how they will be involved in public issues. The other form of education we might call civic engagement learning, which involves preaching the socio-political values approved by the institution and recruiting students for social crusades through mandatory "public service." This second approach is not only inconsistent with the traditional approach to liberal education, it is inconsistent with liberal democracy.

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