The New Civics Pushes Progressive Advocacy Through Service Learning

David Randall

David Randall's article originally appeared in Caffeinated Thoughts.

All around the country you can find a New Civics movement that teaches progressive politics to students using the language of civics. The National Association of Scholars published a report on this in January called Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. The basic pedagogy of the New Civics is service-learning—spending time with outside groups doing “community service”.

The New Civics begins by organizing students to pursue fairly innocent objectives, such as volunteering for an animal rescue—but this accustoms students to being organized, and trains them to organize others. Different New Civics groups label what they’re doing with names like service-learningcivic engagement, and global civics. These words are supposed to sound innocuous, but what New Civics organizations do practically is recruit students to be political activists. The INVST Community Leadership Program at University of Colorado, Boulder, for example, “offers transformative service learning for social and environmental justice.”

Social justice is almost always a fig-leaf for a radical left agenda—for progressive politics. Service-learning advocates define social justice “in the classroom” as working for the “explicit recognition of oppression in its multiple forms,” where the “Fabric of Oppression” adheres to White PeopleMalesChristiansHeterosexualsWealthy and Middle Class PeopleTemporarily Able People, and People from Western European Cultures. This is what the New Civics movement wants when it says it wants social justice. At heart, New Civics works to redirect university resources and student time to subsidize progressive organizations, propagandize students into progressive beliefs, and create a cadre of radical activists.

Indiana isn’t so badly affected as most states. Indiana University East’s service-learning community partners include worthy organizations such as Arbor Trace Senior Living, The Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County, Hayes Arboretum, and Richmond Art Museum. But Indiana isn’t immune to the radicalization of the national New Civics movement. The University of Notre Dame’s (UND) Center for Social Concerns provides money for the Neighborhood Resources Corporation of South Bend , to “cultivate an ethic of civic engagement.” Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ (IUPUI) Center for Service & Learning guides students to work on a list of social issues that includes Environmental Racism, Felony Disenfranchisement, Gender Identity, LGBTQ Rights (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer), Sex Worker’s Rights, and Transgender Rights. UND faculty “will bring Critical Race Theory and Critical Youth Empowerment as theoretical lenses to the issues.” Indiana Campus Compact is sponsoring a fall retreat this September, highlighted by a “day-long workshop from renown[ed] service-learning pioneer and social justice activist Nadinne Cruz on renewing the risk-taking vision and values of best principles of service-learning and community engagement and embedding them into actionable work.” Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ (IUPUI) Center for Service and Learning assessed its SHJ First-Year Service Scholars with this conclusion:

The focus group discussion revealed that their service activities (i.e., tutoring at GWCS) solidified their understanding of the topics covered throughout the year (e.g., diversity across difference, social justice). The major theme that emerged from this discussion was that all of the Scholars agreed that they did not realize how relatively “close-minded” they were when they first began and how their experiences in the community and training/activities throughout the year served to increase their understanding of 1) community issues that need to be addressed, 2) social issues prevalent at George Washington Community High School and 3) the importance of participating in activities that advocate for equity of others.

This is remarkably frank as an after-action report on a brainwashing session.

Marilynne Boyle-Baise, a professor at Indiana University—Bloomington, illustrates nicely how the New Civics works in her article, co-written with James Langford, “There are Children Here: Service Learning for Social Justice.” She describes a “justice-oriented, service learning course,” with a spring break project affiliated with Alternative Breaks, a national organization dedicated to providing “transformative” service-learning for students during their vacations. And what is Boyle-Baise’s service learning for social justice?

First, students focus on local concerns that are related to course content. Second, students talk with relevant stakeholders to define the problem and frame the potential action. Third, students engage in problem-posing and consciousness-raising around the social, political, and economic issues involved in the case. The process of raising one’s consciousness and entertaining alternatives is seen as a prelude to activism. These meanings, principles, and pedagogies underpin the case study reported here.

During the course, students were supposed to “reflect upon what individuals and groups can do to bring about social justice”; assigned readings included ““. . . And Justice for All: Community Service Learning for Social Justice’’; and write a capstone paper in which they “identified several sources of power to effect change and considered what they, as individuals and in coalitions, could do to bring about more just conditions.” The instructor explicitly pushed political activism in class:

The final seminar focused on social change. The instructor asked, “What will make change on a large scale? We can talk about ‘they’ and ‘them.’Let’s ask: What can I do to bring about solutions?’’ Students considered forms of advocacy for their careers. For example, Sheila, a nursing student, wanted to advocate for better healthcare for low-income families. Students thought about voting power. Most students acknowledged that they did not vote, but thought they should. Kai Lun wanted to elect politicians who cared about issues of poverty. Finally, students planned to spread the word about what they had learned, talking to friends and family. Also, as their final project students wrote a social action paper. They chose a range of topics: poverty, access to quality healthcare, poverty and racism, impact of churches on youth, mobility rates in schools, and effective juvenile justice.

And of course, the course itself served as the material for a peer-reviewed academic paper—a write-up of how well her propagandistic course had worked, with tips to her peers on how to improve their own propaganda—to provide Boyle-Baise the published research necessary for tenure and academic prestige.

How much does all this cost? It’s difficult to tell, given that the costs are larded throughout Indiana’s university system. IUPUI’s Center for Service & Learning includes a staff chart that lists 23 employees, which would indicate, by a cautious estimate, that the Center costs $1 million in salary annually a year; total money flowing to or through the center probably would be at least $5 million a year. Every college and university in Indiana probably has an administrative component devoted to the New Civics; it would be plausible to think that it costs $100 million a year—some significant portion of which is paid by the Indiana taxpayer.

It is wonderful when anyone chooses to volunteer—but as wonderful as volunteering is, it isn’t education. Service-learning, civic engagement—these are dodges to disguise progressive political advocacy. We should support volunteering, and we should support real education in the classroom, but we should get rid of the New Civics subterfuge that smuggles progressive advocacy into our colleges and universities. The New Civics ruins real education and real volunteering—at the expense of students, parents, and taxpayers.

Image: IUPUI University Library - panoramio by Bohao Zhao // CC BY 3.0

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