Arizona: A Civics Education Desert

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 5/29

What makes a university a public university? In one sense, the answer is simple: a public university is one that is established and maintained by the government. But the difference between public and private universities goes deeper than that. Public universities have a public mission that must be fulfilled alongside the broader mission to pursue truth and cultivate knowledge. They have a unique responsibility to prepare students to fulfill their civic duties, providing them with an education about America’s history and institutions that they may not receive elsewhere. 

While private American universities ought to promote civic responsibility as well, public universities receive taxpayer funding for the purpose of providing a robust civic education—and they should be held accountable when they fail to do so. The task of holding public universities accountable falls primarily to individual state governments and, in particular, to their respective boards of regents. 

This is no easy task. Even assuming that a state board of regents is actually committed to improving civic education in public universities (and that’s a big assumption), bloated university bureaucracies make it near-impossible to enforce standards and exercise oversight. Nonetheless, there are still some public officials who take their responsibilities seriously and who are working to reorient America’s educational institutions to their proper ends. The National Association of Scholars commends their efforts and is committed to supporting them in pursuit of this noble goal. 

To that end, NAS has produced a series of reports titled Educating for Citizenship, which examines civic education in the public universities of three states: Arizona, Texas, and Utah. We published the first case study, focusing on Arizona, last week, and the others will be released over the next month. 

The Arizona case study serves as a word of caution to reformers who seek to appease both sides in the battle over American education. Even though the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) genuinely desires to strengthen the civic education offered at its three state universities, its efforts have been derailed both by its own nods to diversity and inclusion and through the strategic actions of ideological administrators. The report’s author, NAS Senior Research Fellow John Sailer, explains:

In its new general education policy, ABOR clearly mandated that Arizona’s universities must lead every student in the study of “American institutions,” and it clarified that this must include content typically found in a robust course of instruction in American history and civics. 

Arizona’s universities, however, have responded with evasion and misdirection. At each university, the curricular changes that incorporate these requirements are vague and weak. Each university, moreover, subordinates American history and civics to separate initiatives to impose courses and programming in “diversity and inclusion.” In fact, the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become the guiding principle of these institutions. … Arizona’s universities, through their commitment to DEI, have “redefined” their civic mission through a new “lens,” that of oppression, power, privilege, and narrowly-defined group identity. In other words, they increasingly teach Arizonan college students that American history and government have been and are systematically oppressive, and that they can only fulfill their civic mission by transforming every putatively oppressive aspect of their country’s politics, society, and culture. 

In the report, Sailer analyzes the civic education currently offered at each of Arizona’s three public universities and outlines what went wrong with ABOR’s previous attempt at reform. At the end, he offers tailored recommendations that policymakers (both inside and outside of ABOR) can enact to restore civic education in Arizona—and to make the changes stick. 

Reform isn’t glamorous. It takes heaps of time and energy, and it doesn’t always pay off. But preserving the civic mission of American universities is worth the work. 

Until next week. 

P. S. In March of this year, the California Association of Scholars spearheaded the opposition to a radical proposal by the University of California (UC) Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) to add an “Ethnic Studies” requirement to UC’s admissions standards. Thanks to their efforts, the UC Academic Council decided not to advance the proposal and referred it back to BOARS for further deliberation. While BOARS is still in the process of deliberating, it appears that support for the proposal has diminished in response to the detailed counter-arguments made by the California Association of Scholars and their allies within the UC system. 

BOARS will be meeting in June to discuss the Ethnic Studies proposal further, and the California Association of Scholars is circulating another opposition letter in advance of the June meeting. We urge any NAS members who are affiliated with the UC system to sign the letter online today.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Ganapathy Kumar, Public Domain

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