Civic Literacy

Mark Bauerlein

There are so many generous and high-sounding phrases and ambitions in A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, the report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), that to criticize them almost seems bilious and misanthropic. Few would dispute this goal, one of several listed under the “Knowledge” segment of “A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement,” figure 1 of the report:

Knowledge of the diverse cultures, histories, values and contestations that have shaped U.S. and other world societies.

And who would question the “Values” of “Empathy,” “Justice,” and “Responsibility to a larger good,” not to mention the “Skills” of “Deliberation and bridge building across differences” and “Collaborative decision making”?1

A Crucible Moment, too, grounds its recommendations in measures of civic ignorance such as National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exams, the Civic Literacy Test (Intercollegiate Studies Institute), and surveys by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, results that cross ideological lines. It insists on “foundational knowledge about fundamental principles” (15) and “[f]amiliarity with key democratic texts” (4), goals a conservative and a liberal may both embrace.

Reading further, however, one finds that when the report clarifies those goals, a narrow ideological outlook on civic knowledge and engagement emerges. Here is a typical example. In discussing “nascent models” of civic education on college campuses, A Crucible Moment features this program:

California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), for example, defines civic literacy as the “knowledge, skills and attitudes that students need to work effectively in a diverse society to create more just and equitable workplaces, communities and social institutions.” (p. 11)

When we set this definition against the principles of citizenship outlined in the foundational texts the report considers essential, the CSUMB vision appears at once more prescriptive and far-reaching.

For one thing, the insertion of “diverse” marks a distinction that would puzzle the Founders. The early republic was, in fact, a highly diverse society, but the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other contemporaneous documents make little of it in itself. The freedoms they preserve for individuals favor diversity as well, such as freedom of religion, but the laws and values apply whether the society is diverse or not. In adding “diverse,” CSUMB and the report authors who invoke it raise diversity into a constitutive factor in civic thought and behavior. And when they tie diversity to justice and equity, they go further, leaving the ground of individual rights and entering the realm of identity politics. The instruction is clear. Workplaces and institutions are insufficiently just and equitable, and citizens remedy them by becoming more diversity conscious.

Second, CSUMB aims not only to inculcate knowledge and cultivate skills but to instill an “attitude.” Civic literacy certainly assumes knowledge of the Bill of Rights, etc., and it requires skills such as reading a ballot and protesting in lawful ways. But what attitudes belong to civic literacy? A few “guiding questions” from CSUMB courses that the report cites suggest possibilities. One of them reads, “How can businesses balance the ‘triple bottom lines’ of profit, people, and planet?” (11). The attitude that corresponds to that question is clear: even in business, students should care about the environment and act accordingly.

This one from an information technology (IT) course goes further:

How has digital technology accentuated or alleviated historical inequalities in our community, and what is my responsibility for addressing the digital divide as a future IT professional? (p. 11)

Once again, the preferred attitude is obvious: you should care about and act against “historical inequalities.” If you answer, “If I am an IT professional, it is not my responsibility to address past or present inequalities,” you have challenged the whole framework. Even to pose proper academic questions such as “What do you mean by inequalities?” and “Have all inequalities resulted because of unjust social or political conditions?” is to make the curriculum work against its intent—that is, to prompt reflection upon terms and premises, not to promote a set plan of action.

Of course, nothing in U.S. documents, citizenship, and civic conduct demands that one adopt a particular attitude toward such things. It is entirely fitting for civic education in colleges and universities to raise the relationship of various inequalities to civic health as an object of study, but to prescribe an attitude toward it contravenes the very freedoms upon which U.S. society stands.

Finally, we have the extension of civic literacy toward a political agenda, “to create more just and equitable workplaces, communities and social institutions.” Once again, to ponder that goal as the proper practice of civic literacy is a valid campus practice, but only if the answer remains variable. If the curriculum allows no room for alternatives—say, “to sustain workplaces, communities and social institutions that respect free market principles”—then we end up with indoctrination, not education.

That A Crucible Moment holds up CSUMB’s definition of civic literacy and the curriculum that issues from it as a worthy model indicates that the AAC&U doesn’t see the difference, at least not in the area of civics. The reason lies, I think, in the basic definition of civics in another document the AAC&U issued, a set of rubrics in different areas designed as guidelines for assessing college student learning. Under the “Civic Engagement Value Rubric,” “civic life” is defined as

The public life of the citizen concerned with the affairs of the community and nation as contrasted with private or personal life, which is devoted to the pursuit of private and personal interests.2

To the AAC&U, then, private enterprise and personal activities have no civic meaning. Indeed, as another related definition reveals, to devote oneself entirely to private affairs is to refuse civic identity, in fact, to be irresponsible:

Civic identity: When one sees her or himself as an active participant in society with a strong commitment and responsibility to work with others toward public purposes.3

One even can’t acquire a civic identity alone. One must “work with others.” Think of the historical actions that would not qualify under this distinction: Leaves of Grass, Huckleberry Finn, and other great expressions of American character; the Model T, which brought cars to the middle class; the light bulb, iPhone, and other inventions; the Frick Museum… These creations have significantly met public purposes and advanced “the affairs of community and nation,” but they originated in “the pursuit of private and personal interests,” and so they don’t count as civic. Once AAC&U defines civic life as public and collective—in opposition to private and individual activity—the tendentiousness of A Crucible Moment follows logically.

Unfortunately, it thereby misconstrues the nature of American civics. One of the central principles of American civics is, precisely, the maintenance of the private sphere. Civic life may, in part, address “affairs of the community and nation,” but it also involves keeping the affairs of community and nation from pressing too firmly upon private matters and free markets. In other words, private enterprise does have a civic value, and preventing collective action and public initiatives from impinging upon it is a civic good. Milton Friedman wrote an essay forty years ago that sums it up well: “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.”4 The CSUMB position exemplifies the danger of forgetting it. If we deny civic value to private industry, citizenship turns into a coercive, utopian activity contrary to the ends of higher education and the values of our nation.

A proper, rigorous, and liberal (in the classical sense) course in civic education doesn’t tell students what social justice is and require them to embrace and practice it. It has students read classic and contemporary and conflicting conceptions of social justice and equips students to make up their own minds responsibly and rationally. If a school wanted to inculcate civic knowledge and dispositions in first-year students, it might create a battery of courses in a debate format such as:

  • Small Government vs. Big Government—with readings from the left (New Deal and Great Society writings, for instance) and from the right (Hayek, Friedman, etc.)

  • Self-Made Men/Women vs. Social Forces—with readings from the former (Ben Franklin, Thoreau, Booker T. Washington, Willa Cather) and from the latter (naturalist writers, perhaps, such as Frank Norris and Richard Wright)

  • Originalism vs. an “Evolving Constitution,” etc.

The instruction wouldn’t tip the scales, but instead aim to acquaint students with the best that has been thought and said on both sides. A Crucible Moment, though, favors one side from the start. The authors advocate civic education as the facilitation of predetermined goals and rules out others in its very premises, thereby betraying one of the first principles of citizenship in a healthy republic: heed the other side, and engage its best expressions before you choose where to stand.

The Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement and the AAC&U don’t operate that way—or, perhaps, they don’t recognize that their understanding of civic learning is partisan and tendentious at the root. I can imagine them raising their eyebrows in real or feigned disbelief if one said to them, “Your definition of ‘civic life’ begins with an ideological division of public and private.” They offer it so bluntly that, instead of being a complex relationship that requires examination, the public-private distinction serves as a settled idea from which to derive a whole curriculum of civic learning.

To contest it, then, we need an aggressive stance on the part of critics. When one side casts an open issue as a pat truth, it is futile for the other side to reason against it in standard academic fashion (for instance, in scholarly essays and conference papers). It is doubly futile when the one side controls the academic sphere and its forums. A more vigorous opposition carries the point into the public sphere in newspaper op-eds, magazine stories, media interviews, and attention-getting symposia that warn against the biased pedagogy of A Crucible Moment, “Essential Learning Outcomes,” etc. The stakes have never been higher as public agencies and public debts and obligations press ever more upon private life and wealth. These documents are, ultimately, expressions against private enterprise and personal conscience, and they should be stopped.

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