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Active Citizenship Should Be Learned Out of School

The following commentary is by David Randall,  Communications Director of the National Association of Scholars and author of their report, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. Here, he responds to Harry Boyte's blog on January 26, "A Different Kind of Politics."

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your gracious response. We agree about "binary thinking." How best to get beyond it? Perhaps first by recognizing that we can encourage "active citizenship" without hitching that concept to politicking.  The university being what it is today, virtually all of that politicking comes from the left side of the political spectrum.  It is well enough to declare you have risen above the binary of left vs. right in American public life, but the programs at public universities documented in Making Citizens didn't get the message.  They are, in their hundreds, programs that forward the goals of progressive activism.

There may be conservatives who lament that there are no comparable programs that forward the goals of conservative activism.  But that's not where I come from or what the National Association of Scholars promotes.  Our aim is to restore a form of civics education that teaches the philosophical basis of our republican form of government and the means by which our self-governing republic goes about its tasks. We promote teaching students how to use all of the equipment in the kitchen.  The new civics, by contrast, teaches students only how to microwave the left's frozen entrees.

We owe students more than that.  You and I surely agree that civic life in Ameri has benefited over the centuries by abundant forms of civic participation not organized by the government.  You mention several of these but rather curiously omit the largest and most effective force that gave rise to them:  organized religion.  The Second Great Awakening set off an explosion of benevolent groups and fed the abolitionist movement and the women's rights movement.  Civic life was by every measure improved.

This kind of active citizenship, however, grew up among citizens who already understood how to govern themselves.  And that's the very thing that the new civics neglects and even suppresses. To recruit students into political activism in place of teaching them the history of the nation and how its institutions work is to lure them into a conceptual cul-de-sac. 

I note your disavowal of Alinsky and Foucault as godfathers of the movement.  But I have read the syllabi, studied the speeches and programmatic statements, and talked to the students.  I've also read your own statements.  You have written, "The theory of community organizing which feeds into Public Achievement was first codified in Saul Alinsky's classic book Reveille for Radicals"; you have noted that "broad-based citizen organizing has a progressive tilt"; and your repeated citation of Alinsky's inspirational thought, and the parallel connection of your thought to Alinsky's by a great many people in your movement, gives some credence to our characterization of Public Achievement as Alinskyite, never mind Foucaultian.  Perhaps you are unaware of it, but the ideas, words, and spirit of both these precursors of the new civics are a powerful presence in the movement coast to coast. 

Don't misunderstand that as a call for censorship.  Students should know something about ideas that have so broadly influenced American society.  But perhaps those ideas shouldn't be granted such uncritical authority.  In weighing the claims of social justice in the teaching of civics, for example, perhaps it would be wise to give equal emphasis to theorists such as Hayek, Scruton, and Fukuyama.

But back to first principles.  Active citizenship, public work, whatever you call it, is a welcome part of public life, but it doesn't belong in our schools. Our schools and our teachers have a responsibility to be politically impartial. They should restrict the exercise of their authority to their areas of professional expertise--which by definition cannot include civic practice, since we are equally qualified to act as citizens by virtue of turning 18.  A teacher who passes on expert knowledge to his students, and instills a love of that subject matter, is already acting in the public good.  There isn't a better model for how to be a good citizen.

Best, David

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