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The Dangerous Rise of ‘The New Civics’

The following are excerpts from a report released January 10 by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) on MAKING CITIZENS: HOW AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES TEACH CIVICS. The full report includes case studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder), Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado and the University of Wyoming.                                                                                   

National Findings: Traditional civic literacy is in deep decay in America. The New Civics, a movement devoted to progressive activism, has taken over civics education. “Service-learning” and “civic engagement” are the most common labels this movement uses, but it also calls itself global civics, deliberative democracy, and intercultural learning. The New Civics movement is national, and it extends far beyond the universities. The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as “progressive activism.” The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as channeling government funds toward progressive nonprofits. The New Civics has worked to divert government funds to progressive causes since its founding in the 1960s.

The New Civics redefines “volunteerism” as labor for progressive organizations and administration of the welfare state. The new measures to require “civic engagement” will make this volunteerism compulsory.  The New Civics replaces traditional liberal arts education with vocational training for community activists. The New Civics shifts authority within the university from the faculty to administrators, especially in offices of civic engagement, diversity, and sustainability, as well as among student affairs professionals. The New Civics also shifts the emphasis of a university education from curricula, drafted by faculty, to “co-curricular activities,” run by non-academic administrators. The New Civics movement aims to take over the entire university. The New Civics advocates want to make “civic engagement” part of every class, every tenure decision, and every extracurricular activity.

By Peter Wood, NAS President

What is most new about the New Civics is that while it claims the name of civics, it is really a form of anti-civics. Civics in the traditional American sense meant learning about how our republic governs itself.

The New Civics has very little to say about most of these matters. It focuses overwhelmingly on turning students into “activists.” Its largest preoccupation is getting students to engage in coordinated social action. Sometimes this involves political protest, but most commonly it involves volunteering for projects that promote progressive causes. Whatever one might think of these activities in their own right, they are a considerable distance away from what Americans used to mean by the word “civics.”

In issuing this report, the National Association of Scholars joins the growing number of critics who believe that some version of traditional civics needs to be restored to American education. This is a non-partisan concern. For America to function as a self-governing republic, Americans must possess a basic understanding of their government. That was one of the original purposes of public education and it has been the lodestar of higher education in our nation from the beginning.

The New Civics has diverted us from this basic obligation.

While many observers have expressed alarm about the disappearance of traditional civics education, very few have noticed that a primary cause of this disappearance has been the rise of the New Civics. This new mode of “civic” training is actively hostile to traditional civics, which it regards as a system of instruction that fosters loyalty to ideas and practices that are fundamentally unjust. The New Civics, claiming the mantle of the “social justice” movement, aims to sweep aside those old ideas and practices and replace them with something better.

Complications: New Civics has appropriated the name of an older subject, but not the content of that subject or its basic orientation to the world. Instead of trying to prepare students for adult participation in the self-governance of the nation, the New Civics tries to prepare students to become social and political activists who are grounded in broad antagonism towards America’s founding principles and its republican ethos.

But a casual observer of New Civics programs might well miss both the activist orientation and the antagonism. That’s for two reasons. First, the New Civics includes a great deal that is superficially wholesome. Second, the advocates of New Civics have adopted a camouflage vocabulary consisting of pleasant-sounding and often traditional terms. Taking these in turn:

Superficial wholesomeness. When New Civics advocates urge college students to volunteer to assist the elderly, to help the poor, to clean up litter, or to assist at pet shelters, the activities themselves really are wholesome. Why call this superficial? The elderly, the poor, the environment, and abandoned pets—to mention only a few of the good objects of student volunteering—truly do benefit from these efforts. The volunteering itself is not necessarily superficial or misguided. But, again, context matters. In the context of New Civics, student volunteering is not just calling on students to exercise their altruistic muscles. It is, rather, a way of drawing students into a system that combines some questionable beliefs with long-term commitments.

These seemingly innocent forms of volunteering, as organized by the patrons of New Civics, are considerably less “voluntary” than they often appear—especially since more and more colleges are turning such “volunteer” work into a graduation requirement. Some students even call them “voluntyranny,” given the heavy hand of the organizers in coercing students to participate. They submerge the individual into a collectivity. They ripen the students for more aggressive forms of community organization. And often they turn the students themselves into fledgling community organizers.

Camouflage vocabulary. The world of New Civics is rife with familiar words used in non-familiar ways. Democracy and civic engagement in New Civic-speak do not mean what they mean in ordinary English.

A Dictionary of Deception. This is exemplified in a catchphrase used by Syracuse University’s civic program: “Citizen isn’t just something you are. Citizen is something you do.” The idea is that students aren’t getting a full education just by reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers, speaking in class, debating with each other, and participating in the social life of the college community. They must also “learn by doing.” Another phrase for this is that students should “apply their academic learning” or “practice” it in the real world. “Active” always means “active in progressive political campaigns.”

The “aware” student is up to date with the progressive party line and knows the current list of oppressions that need to be righted. The “aware” student knows the true meaning of words: “academic freedom,” for example, is really “a hegemonic discourse that perpetuates the structural inequalities of white male power.” “Awareness” requires politically correct purchases and social interactions—reusable water bottles, fair-trade coffee, a diffident approach to pronouns—but it does not require active participation in a campaign of political advocacy.

Civic Learning: “Civic learning” is learning how to be properly civically engaged; civic learning, in other words, teaches students the content of progressives’ political beliefs, how to propagandize for them, and the means by which to enforce them on other people via the administrative state. New Civics advocates are trying to make progressive propaganda required for college students by calling “civic learning” an “essential learning outcome.” Civic learning is supposed to become “pervasive”—inescapable political education.

Loyalty to and Enthusiastic Participation In A Social Justice Cause: “Commitment” is an enthusiastic form of being “active.” It signals a student’s readiness to make a career as a progressive advocate in a “community organization,” university administration, or the government. It also signals to progressives entrusted to hire new personnel that a student is a trustworthy employee.

Tactics to Increase the Power of the Radical Left, Following the Strictures of Saul Alinsky: “Community organization” as a process refers to the Machiavellian tactics used by radical Saul Alinsky to forward radical leftist goals. New Civics advocates use community organization tactics against the university itself, as they try to seize control of its administration and budget; they also train students to act as community organizers in the outside world. “Community organization” as a noun refers to a group founded by Alinskyite progressives, with Alinskyite aims. Community organization signifies the most intelligent and dangerous component of the progressive coalition.

Consensus, a Loudly Shouted Progressive Opinion, Verified by Denying Disbelievers the Chance to Speak: Consensus means that everyone agrees. Progressives achieve the illusion of consensus by shouting their opinions, asserting that anyone who disagrees with them is evil, and preventing opponents from speaking—sometimes by denying them administrative permission to speak on a campus, sometimes literally by shouting them down

Critique, Dismantling Belief in the Traditions of Western Civilization and American Culture: To be critical, or to engage in critique, is to attack an established belief on the grounds that it is self-evidently a hypocritical prejudice established by the powerful to reinforce their rule, and believed by poor dupes clinging to their false consciousness. “Critical thought” sees through the deceptive appearance of freedom, justice, and happiness in American life and reveals the underlying structures of oppression—sexism, racism, class dominance, and so on. “Critique” works to dismantle these oppressive structures. “Critical thought” and “critique” is also meant to reinforce the ruling progressive prejudices of the universities; it is never to take these prejudices as their object.

Deliberative Democracy, Thoughtful, Rational Discussion of Political Issues That Ends Up With Progressive Conclusions: Deliberative democracy is a concept that political theorists have drawn from Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. While formally about the procedures of democratic decision-making, it aligns with the idea of a transcendental, quasi-Marxist Truth, toward which rational decision-making inevitably leads. New Civics advocates in Rhetoric/Communications and Political Science departments frequently use “deliberative democracy” classes and centers as a way to forward progressive goals.

Progressive Policies Achieved by Arbitrary Rule And/Or The Threat Of Violence: New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.” They also use “democratic” to mean “disassembling all forms of law and procedure, whether in government, the university administration, or the classroom.” A democratic political decision overrides the law to achieve a progressive political goal; a democratic student rally intimidates a university administration into providing more money for a campus New Civics organization; a democratic class replaces a professor’s informed discussion with a student’s incoherent exposition of his unfounded opinion. A democracy in power issues arbitrary edicts to enforce progressive dogma and calls it freedom.

Lectures by Progressive Activists, Intended to Harangue Dissidents Into Silence: In “dialogue,” or “conversation,” students are supposed to listen carefully to a grievance speaker, usually a professional activist, and if possible echo what the speaker has to say. The dialogue is never between individuals, but between representatives of a race, a religion, a nationality, and so on. The structure of dialogue thus dehumanizes all participants by making them nothing more than mouthpieces for a group “identity.”

Diversity, Propaganda and Hiring Quotas in Favor of the Progressive Grievance Coalition: The Supreme Court used “diversity” as a rationale for sustaining the legality of quotas for racial minorities in higher education admissions, first in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and then in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.”

Disaffection from American Citizenship in Favor of a Notional Membership in a Non-Existent Global State: “Global citizenship” is a way to combine civic engagement, study abroad, and disaffection from primary loyalty to and love of America. A global citizen favors progressive policies at home and abroad and is in favor of constraining the exercise of American power in the interest of American citizens. A global citizen is a contradiction in terms since he is loyal to a hypothetical abstraction, and not to an actual cives—a particular state with a particular history. A global citizen seeks to impose rule by an international bureaucratic elite upon the American government, and the beliefs of an international alliance of progressive nongovernmental organization upon the American people.

Putatively Non-Hierarchical Progressive Community Organizations: The “grassroots” have democratic authenticity—they’re not professional politicians claiming to speak for the people, and they aren’t made to conform to any sort of hierarchical authority. Real grassroots— citizens coming together to lobby legislators—is intrinsic to the American political system, but when progressives claim to speak for the grassroots, and they mean a drive funded by George Soros and organized by paid activists.  These activists declare that “consensus” has been reached by “the people” outside the formal structures of representative democracy. Since “consensus” is achieved by shouting down moderates, compromisers, and gentle souls, genuine progressive grassroots organizations make unaccountable ideological fanaticism the source of decision-making. See Black Lives Matter.

Interdependence: “Interdependence” universalizes the language of needs and rights, and therefore justifies the expansion of the progressive state to extend to every aspect of life.

The Idea That Every Component of the Progressive Left Must Support All Other Components of the Progressive Left: “Intersectionality” is a way to align progressives’ competing narratives of oppression and victimhood by making every purported victim of oppression support every other purported victim of oppression.

Pervasiveness, Making New Civics Inescapable at the University: The New Civics seeks to insert progressive advocacy into every aspect of higher education, inside and outside the college. A Crucible Moment summons higher education institutions to make civic learning “pervasive” rather than “peripheral.” “Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class. It also justifies the insertion of progressive advocacy into every class, as well as making progressive activism a hiring and tenure requirement for faculty and staff.

“Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class.

Service-Learning, Free Student Labor for Progressive Organizations: “Service-learning” was invented in the 1960s by radicals as a way to use university resources to forward radical political goals. It aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists. It draws on educational theories from John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Mao’s China. Since the 1980s, “service-learning” has used the name “civic engagement” to provide a “civic” rationale for progressive political advocacy. Civic engagement, global learning, and so on, all are forms of service-learning.

Social Justice, Progressive Policies Justified by the Putative Sufferings of Designated Victim Groups: Social justice aims to redress putative wrongs suffered by designated victim groups. Unlike real justice, which seeks to deliver individuals the rights guaranteed to them by written law or established custom, social justice aims to provide arbitrary goods to collectivities of people defined by equally arbitrary identities. Social justice uses the language of law and justice to justify state redistribution of jobs and property to whomever progressives think deserve them

Service-learning aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists.

“Reciprocal” is a sign that progressive organizations have seized control of university funds.

21st Century Skills, Digital Media Skills Used to Forward the Progressive Agenda: The ability to use social media and graphic design for progressive propaganda and organization. The emphasis on “skills” generally argues that universities don’t need to teach any body of knowledge; the particular emphasis on “twenty-first-century skills” further argues that universities don’t need to teach anything discovered before the year 2000. Recent college graduates use “twenty-first-century skills” as an argument that they should be employed despite knowing nothing and having no work experience.

These definitions we have sketched voice our distrust of the New Civics movement. Its declarations about its aims and its avowals about its methods can seldom be taken at face value. This isn’t a minor point. Civics in a well-governed republic has to be grounded on clear speaking and transparency. A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

We began this study in the hope of finding out how far the New Civics had succeeded in becoming part of American colleges and universities. We came to a mixed answer. New Civics is present to some degree at almost all colleges and universities, but it is much more fully developed and institutionalized at some than it is at others. In our study, the University of Colorado at Boulder stands as our example of a university where New Civics has become dominant. But even at universities where New Civics has not attained such prominence, it is a force to be reckoned with.

A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

The word “civics” suggests that students will learn about the structures and functions of government in a classroom. Some do, but a major finding of our study is that there has been a shift of gravity within universities. New Civics finds its most congenial campus home in the offices devoted to student activities, such as the dean or vice president for students, the office of residence life, and the centers for service-learning. Nearly every campus also has some faculty advocates for New Civics, but the movement did not grow out of the interests and wishes of mainstream faculty members. A partial exception to this is schools of education, where many faculty members are fond of New Civics conceits.

The positioning of New Civics in student services has a variety of implications.

First, it means the initiative is directly under the control of central administration, which can appoint staff and allocate budget without worrying about faculty opinion or “shared governance.” Programs like this can become signature initiatives for college presidents, and few within the university, including boards of trustees, have any independent basis to examine whatever claims a college president makes on behalf of New Civics programs. In a word, such programs are unaccountable.

Second, the positioning of New Civics as parallel to the college’s actual curriculum frees advocates to make extravagant claims about its contributions to students’ general education. New Civics is full of hyperbole about what it accomplishes, and even so, it vaunts itself as deserving an even larger role in “transforming” students. Its goal is to be everywhere, in all the classes, and in that sense to subordinate the teaching faculty to the staff who run the student services programs.

Third, the New Civics placement in student services tends to blur the line between academic and extra-curricular. New Civics advocates may hold adjunct appointments on the faculty. Frequently they push for academic credit for various forms of student volunteering. In general, they treat the extra-curricular as “co-curricular,” which is rhetorical inflation.

New Civics is about seizing power in society, and the place nearest at hand is the university itself. New Civics mandarins are ambitious, and what starts in student services doesn’t stay there.

Progressive Policing of Speech Moves Off Campus

“Hate speech is excluded from protection,” CNN anchor Chris Cuomo tweeted last year, echoing a dangerously common misconception. “Hate speech isn’t free speech,” people say, assuming they have a right not to hear whatever they consider hateful language and ideas. Government officials sometimes share this view: The Mayor of West Hollywood confirmed to Eugene Volokh that she would not issue a special events permit for a Donald Trump rally so long as he trafficked in hate, contrary to the “values and ideals” of the West Hollywood community

Related: A Champion of Free Speech Takes on the Muzzled Campus

But you don’t have to indulge in allegedly hateful speech to violate questionable local laws: In Washington D.C., an employer who fails to call a transgender employee by the employee’s preferred pronouns, including “ze,” “zir,” or “they,” may be liable for harassment, as Hans Bader explains. The New York City Commission on Human Rights has issued similar mandates, applying broadly to employers, landlords and businesses, meaning that customers and tenants, as well as employees, have a “human right” to regulate ordinary speech used in ordinary commercial transactions.

“(P)eople can basically force us — on pain of massive legal liability — to say what they want us to say, whether or not we want to endorse the political message associated with that term, and whether or not we think it’s a lie,” Volokh laments. “We have to use the person’s ‘preferred … pronoun and title,’ whatever those preferences might be. Some people could say they prefer ‘glugga’ just as well as saying ‘ze’.”

Progressive speech policing has moved off campus, in a trend as alarming as it is unsurprising. College and university speech codes conflating allegedly offensive speech and discriminatory conduct date back a quarter century. They partly reflect hostility toward unwelcome speech spawned by popular therapies of the 1980’s that equated verbal and physical abuse and by the feminist anti-porn movement, which equated pornography with rape and declared misogynist speech a civil rights violation.

Related: Title IX Tramples Free Speech and Fairness, So Now What?

By now, generations of students have been taught that unwelcome speech isn’t speech but discriminatory “verbal conduct;” these days, it’s even condemned as violence. (When I quoted the word “nigger” instead of referencing it by an initial during a panel on free speech while discussing Huck Finn, I was accused of committing an act of racial violence.) Who decides when speech is not speech but abusive or violent conduct? The offended listeners — if the listeners belong to disadvantaged groups. Their subjective reactions are the standard by which the right to speak is judged.

Again, this ideology dates back decades. So, the first wave of students to imbibe its lessons is entering middle age. Some have remained in academia, as faculty and administrators, partners in campus censorship. Others have assumed influential positions in the wider world, including the federal bureaucracy.

Under the direction of Catherine Llhamon, Amherst, ‘93, Yale Law, ‘96, the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has continued conflating sexual harassment (including speech) and sexual misconduct, while depriving accused students of due process rights in campus disciplinary proceedings.

Related: Feminist Censored from Censorship Panel

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, led by Vanita Gutpa, Yale, ‘96, NYU Law, 2001, recently issued a remarkable order to the University of New Mexico (a public institution) requiring it to violate the First Amendment by investigating instances of “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including the proverbial, “verbal conduct,” as harassment whether or not they “cause a hostile environment or are quid pro quo.” As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) observes, the university is required to investigate “all speech of a sexual nature that someone subjectively finds unwelcome, even if that speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

Censors Coming from ACLU Staff

It’s worth noting that both Llhamon and Gupta are former ACLU staff attorneys. (Gupta, who has an impressive record on criminal justice reform, was Deputy Legal Director in the national office.) Whatever values they absorbed at the ACLU did not, it seems, include a firm commitment to free speech (or, in Llhamon’s case, due process). Indeed, one measure of censorship’s embrace by progressives outside academia is the national ACLU’s relative silence in the face of the free speech crisis on and off campus.

Some state affiliates remain pockets of free speech advocacy, and (following early missteps) the national office has mounted strong challenges to security state abuses. But as Harvey Silverglate sadly observes, “The national ACLU Board and Staff are nowhere to be seen in the increasingly difficult battle to protect First Amendment freedom of expression rights. This is especially so in areas where the ACLU, more and more, pursues a political or social agenda.”

That agenda, and the equation of allegedly hateful speech — as defined by aggrieved listeners — with discriminatory conduct practically sanctifies the heckler’s veto. And it too is gaining acceptance off campus. In a thoughtful exchange at reason.com, Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay McKesson argues that the heckler’s veto is an exercise in free speech, worthy of protection. In this

view, the loudest voices win, I guess. “They always do,” hecklers might respond.

The Limits of Heckling

I don’t share this vision of free speech, although I understand it. If you believe the dominant discourse in your community systematically ignores your values and concerns, you may consider shouting it down your only option. But free speech can’t merely mean the right to say what people don’t mind hearing. And heckling doesn’t always, or often, stop at shouting, especially when metaphors about the “violence of the word” are taken literally, thus rationalizing violence in response to words.

Right-wing provocateur Milos Yiannopoulos was not just shouted down but assaulted during an appearance at DePaul University. As reason.com observed, students justified their violent actions by declaring that Yiannoloupos “spreads hate and violence.”

In its most extreme and virulent form, the heckler’s veto devolves into an assassin’s veto, and even that has evoked some measure of understanding from grown-up elites, who should surely know better. When PEN bestowed its 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award on the surviving staff at Charlie Hedbo, hundreds of PEN members protested. After issuing relatively perfunctory condemnations of murder, over 200 eminent writers sharply criticized Charlie Hedbo for satirizing disadvantaged, vulnerable groups of people.

“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

Cartoonist Gary Trudeau joined in this excoriation of Charlie Hedbo’s murdered satirists: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.”

These statements accusing Charlie Hedbo of verbal abuse and blaming it for the violent acts of an offended audience, read like excerpts from a college newspaper column justifying shout downs or assaults on a presumptively hateful speaker. They make clear that outside academia, some accomplished adults will join undergraduates in framing free speech as a potential source of oppression — a privilege or weapon used by the powerful to “silence” the relatively powerless.

Not surprisingly, corporate speech rights, on the increase, generate increasing concern. The political speech and associational rights of non-profit as well as business corporations are primary targets of progressive wrath (despite the fact that incorporated advocacy groups give voice to millions of ordinary people.) So are the rights of corporate “climate deniers” and associates. But, as the Charlie Hedbo protests showed, any individual or publication that speaks “offensively” from a perceived position of power is suspect.

Words are weapons, progressive censors argue, and they’re right, however inadvertently. Words are weapons; that’s why we protect them. Speech is the ideal weapon of non-violent political combat, most essential to the relatively powerless. Virtually every movement for social change has relied on politically weaponized speech, including today’s student protest and civil rights movements. Progressives might agree, if only elites would engage in some unilateral disarmament. “Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire,” PEN’s Charlie Hedbo protesters insisted. “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.”

Of course, progressives are not alone in supporting censorship. It is a non-partisan vice, evident today in across the aisle support for security state speech surveillance. The nation has also endured authoritarian assaults on dissent emanating primarily from the right, notably during 20th century red scares, which had particularly chilling effects in academia. Current conservative governors in Wisconsin and North Carolina have mounted controversial political attacks on state university systems, while the emerging Republican platform condemns pornography (whatever that is) as a “public menace” and calls for theocratic alignment of law with “God-given, natural rights” (as defined, I suppose, by Republicans.) I’ve focused on contemporary left wing censorship partly because it’s increasingly influential and partly because censorship is now embedded in the progressive ethos, as an essential weapon against inequality.

PEN’s protesters called for self-censorship, but demonizing speakers who fail to censor themselves effectively excuses and encourages their censorship by the state. (Gary Trudeau, for one, apparently approves of French laws criminalizing whatever authorities deem hate speech.) Students who protest offensive or presumptively traumatizing “verbal conduct” are indeed exercising their own speech rights, as they claim.

But in insisting that those rights require administrators to censor other people’s speech, they’re not exercising rights so much as seeking anti-democratic power. Progressive policymakers pledge allegiance to constitutional values and rights, while defining harassment broadly, according to the unpredictable, subjective reactions of any listeners labeled disadvantaged.

Old-fashioned liberals and civil libertarians do strongly contest this view of censorship as a civil right, but they seem a dwindling, aging minority — unlikely architects of the future. In providing constitutional protection to allegedly hateful speech, the U.S. is an outlier among Western nations. You have to wonder how long it will remain one.