Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Call to National Servitude

In January 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and National Engagement of the Association of American Universities and Colleges released its report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. The report called for a program of civic learning and of training in civic engagement that would pervade every aspect of higher education.  This program would be linked to similar efforts at all other levels of schooling. In the words of the report, "[t]he central work of advancing civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education must, of course, be done by faculty members across disciplines, by student affairs professionals across divisions, and by administrators in every school and at every level. The fourth prominent group of actors are the students themselves [bold in the original]. The collective work of these groups should be guided by a shared sense that civic knowledge and democratic engagement, in concert with others and in the face of contestation, are absolutely vital to the quality of intellectual inquiry itself, to this nation’s future, and to preparation for life in a diverse world" (p. 2).  It called for fostering "a civic ethos across all parts of campus and educational culture" (p. 31)
The report cites a breathtaking array of “pressing issues,” including “growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more.” The answer to all of these problems lies in “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers.” The report does not go into detail about how the professors and teachers, who do not necessarily possess such great social problem solving skills, will produce this generation of superbeings, but it does recommend that institutions foster what is variously called a “democratic ethos” and a “civic ethos” on every campus through “service learning” and “community engagement.”
The AAC&U is a highly politicized organization with its own distinctive view of how American society should be reconstructed and a fondness for expressing this view in the millenarian rhetoric of “struggles” and “calls to action.” Immediately after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the AAC&U issued a statement applauding the president’s election as a “…historic moment made possible by many years of struggle.” Not surprisingly, the AAC&U has had close ties to the Obama administration and its task forces operate as federal policy planning committees. This most recent task force issued its “call to national action” at an official White House event with the melodramatic title, “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission,” sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the U.S. Department of Education.  

A Crucible Moment not only demands the participation of every person involved in education, but it insists that every course in every subject incorporate its message. Issued as “a call to national action,” the social and political agenda it intends to implement in every classroom comes with the imprimatur of the U.S. Department of Education. As I read the report, I find its demands for inculcating a “democratic ethos” perplexing. Beyond the fact that in the traditional American democracy neither the government nor committees sponsored and subsidized by the government decide what type of ethos the people should have, the ideal of integrating all levels of schooling into a unified social program, and inserting this program into every subject appears to be promoting a kind of new bureaucratic corporatism, aimed at absorbing everything into the state and leaving nothing outside the state. 

1 comment:

  1. As I noted on my own blog, these "calls to action" are ringing quite hollow in my home state of California, where the folks on board with this kind of rhetoric are oddly celebrating the overturning of the democratically voted Proposition 8 (the gay marriage ban), which, whether we agree with it or not, was the perfect image of democratic involvement. "Democratic engagement" . . . the way we want it, of course.