The National Association of Scholars just published a report which condemns civic engagement programs and courses. The report includes case studies of schools in Colorado and Wyoming, among others describing service-learning and civic engagement courses and programs with the phrase "progressive New Civics." The report urges campuses offering these courses to return to old civics education, which the author says focuses on the foundations of American government.
To learn more about the conversation surrounding this report, access the following sources:
Dear Campus Compact Member Presidents and Chancellors:
You may have seen coverage of a recently released document called "Making Citizens" by the National Association of Scholars. While the document claims to be a report on the state of civic education, it is actually a polemic that takes direct aim at the idea that it is valuable to give college students the opportunity to learn how to contribute to their communities and their country. The authors of the document cast aspersions not only on thousands of dedicated faculty and staff, but also on the millions of students who spend countless hours pursuing the common good while advancing their own education. These students deserve to be celebrated--not denigrated--and it would be wrong for those of us who know what is really happening on our campuses and in our communities to remain silent. That is why I am writing to you today.
The NAS document runs to more than 500 pages, and it is packed with invented premises, inaccurate claims, and tendentious interpretations--far too many to document in a brief message. You can find the relevant materials at the NAS website so that you can see for yourself.
The central error in the report is that it envisions a world in which everyone and everything is divided between left and right. Campus Compact and our partners in the movement for the public purposes of higher education reject that premise: Campus Contact is non-partisan. We envision a world of citizens working actively and effectively together to build the communities and the democracy they want. We are a network of diverse institutions--two-year, four-year, graduate, urban, suburban, rural, faith-based, public, private--and diverse individuals committed to the idea of self-government by free citizens. We believe institutions of higher education have a special role to play in cultivating the capacity for that shared work.
While there will be opportunities to pick through the report's details, right now I simply want to state a few facts.
- Campus Compact is and always has been in favor of robust civic education for college students that includes classroom learning about topics such as the history, structure, and functioning of all levels of government. Because we know that student civic learning is deepened by the thoughtful integration of experience, we support approaches that give students the opportunity to learn by testing ideas in books and lectures against realities on the ground, and by thinking critically about existing and proposed policies and practices. This approach does not favor any ideology or political party. It simply represents the highest quality education for our students.
- Campus Compact is a non-partisan organization that encourages participation by all students regardless of political party or ideology. Indeed, in our most recent statement of principles, we identified "a decline in the culture and practice of democracy, as evidenced by the polarization of our political discourse and institutions," as a major problem to be addressed through civic education. From our perspective, a crucial role of college is to teach students to listen carefully and respectfully to all political views and to express their own views without demonizing others. We have learned through decades of experience that giving students practical opportunities to build skills in civil discourse is highly effective. It requires a diversity of opinion, which we celebrate and seek to cultivate.
- Campus Compact member institutions advance their community engagement work by building partnerships with organizations of all kinds. To cite two examples from our annual survey, 81% of our member campuses are engaged in partnerships with faith-based organizations, and 67% of members are engaged in partnerships with for-profit businesses as part of their community-engaged learning programs. Nearly all of our members engage in partnerships with local primary and secondary schools. The work of our member institutions is the work of building communities and strengthening our country.
While the NAS report is misguided, it does provide us all with a useful reminder that it is critical to communicate about the powerful contributions colleges and universities make to our communities and our democracy and the invaluable student learning generated in the process. In the months ahead, Campus Compact will focus on providing ways for our member institutions to share such stories. Many presidents and chancellors have chosen to catalyze that process on their campuses by signing the Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Action Statement and committing to create a Campus Civic Action Plan. If you have not already done so, we urge you to join that national effort. Now is also the time to speak up for the role of higher education in democracy. We need non-partisan institutions to remind us all that there is a world beyond endless partisan battling--and to educate citizens for that world.
We all know that America needs to find ways to come together, to communicate across difference, to find common ground, and to move forward. In higher education, we know that work begins with students. It is unfortunate that some organizations are trying to demonize millions of students, faculty, and staff who spend their evenings and weekends in churches, homeless shelters, and schools finding solutions to shared challenges. I do not know why they made that decision. I do know that now is a great moment for all of us to thank our colleagues, partners, and students--and to share with everyone who cares about America's future the good work that is happening on campuses all across our country.
Andrew J. Seligsohn, Ph.D.