Thursday, January 26, 2012

They Call it Democracy: Affirming the Civic Engagement Doctrine

The education for civic engagement crusade marches on. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, a group of educators met on Jan. 25 at the annual meetings of the Association of American Colleges and Universities to discuss how to carry out the ideas set forth in a recent report on civic learning by the AACU. Written on the recommendation of the Department of Education, this report proposed to make a program for training people in citizenship "an integral component of every level of education, from grammar school through graduate school, across all fields of study" (mathematics? biology? physics?).

Wednesday's meeting struck close to home for me because it quoted both a former faculty member of my university and the president of my university. The latter, who was the keynote luncheon speaker on Wednesday, declared that "we made a decision in 2006 ... to make sure that civic engagement was on the same pedestal (sic) as research and learning and that they were interconnected." Funny thing about the English word "we": it always includes the speaker, but it isn't clear who else it includes. I know that this usage excluded me. As I recall, no one ever took a vote on whether "we" should work some version of civic propaganda into everything we did. Our commitment to democratic engagement was, in a revealing irony, imposed from above.

Using the educational system to inculcate an officially mandated system of social values is an old aspiration among educators with a fondness for social engineering. In his pamphlet, The Schools Can Teach Democracy, initially delivered as an address before the Progressive Education Association in 1939, the "social reconstructionist" educational theorist George Counts argued that the proper business of schools was to create a democratic society through cultivating “democratic habits, dispositions, and loyalties,” as well as relevant political knowledge in students (p. 22). Through schooling, “the entire nation would be subjected to the most critical examination for the purpose of revealing submerged and exploited regions, occupational groups, and racial, national, and religious minorities” (p. 26).   Counts maintained that educational programs should not simply reflect the social order. Instead, they should re-shape the social order through indoctrination along lines dictated by educational experts. He did not say how those experts would be selected or kept in line.

My own view is that in a free society individuals should choose when, how, and whether they want to be involved in social or political activities.  Just as the president of my university has no business telling me what form my citizenship should take, I have no business telling my students what their "civic engagement" ought to be. The present-day program of the civic educators is more sinister than anything in Counts' day because it is a collaboration between government bureaucracy and educational activists to create a systematic, nation-wide campaign of corporatist thoughts and values permeating every school and university. They call it democracy.

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