Monday, September 3, 2012

Civic Engagement in Weimar Germany

While the recent hurricane raged outdoors, I re-read The Coming of the Third Reich, the first volume in the trilogy on the history of Nazi Germany by Richard J. Evans. As a frequent critic of the civic engagement movement in contemporary education (see here, here, here,  and here) I noted the follow passage on page 118:
“People [in the years leading up to the Third Reich] arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections – no less than 80 percent of the electorate in most contests … There seemed to be no area of society or politics that was immune from politicization.”
As Evans describes the situation of the Weimar Republic, this intense culture of political engagement was accompanied by a commitment to action over thought, a commitment that was especially strong among young people. Clearly, those who maintain that “engagement” is a panacea, and that we can best prepare students for the future by recruiting them to be “change agents” should consider the Weimar example as an illustration of the fact that political and social commitment is not necessarily a good thing.  I suggest that one of the most important goals of a liberal arts education is to promote disengagement, to enlarge the sphere of life and thought outside of politicization so that people can step back from their commitments and examine themselves and their world from the widest possible perspective.

1 comment:

  1. I've mentioned this before on here and other blog posts: A fun way to call the bluff of the "civic engagement" brigade is to arrange for a class to do some "community outreach" with the local chapter of the NRA or the local church picketing a Planned Parenthood.

    In my more conservative moods, I have no problem with "civic engagement" requirements per se at colleges and universities . . . so long as the university has zero involvement with where and when the students "engage." However, if my own university in Syracuse is any indication, most professors and deans have carved out a very specific niche for what they consider "engagement."

    To wit. I'm currently being forced to get involved with a civic engagement project for a class in a doctoral program (a doctoral program!). I must decide between "engaging" with tech work for academics involved in the Arab Spring movement, a "working class" movement in Britain, or the Federal Writer's Project. Luckily, there's a fourth, non-ideological option, but there's no guarantee that I'll get to work with it.