BY JOHN K. WILSON
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued a new report, “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics” (pdf) that is absolutely breathtaking in its call for political repression of education. The NAS Report demands, “The New Civics must be excised from every part of the American educational system, from kindergarten to graduate school.”
The “New Civics” is the term the NAS invents to describe civic engagement programs found at colleges across the country. (It’s intended to contrast with the “old civics” approach they advocate of traditional civics education requirements.)
The 302-page NAS Report (525 pages with appendices), written by director of communications David Randall, is mostly dull and repetitive. But some of the ideas in the report are completely shocking, revealing how far the NAS has embraced repression in pursuit of its conservative goals.
Sadly, the NAS is increasingly tending to espouse the values of the alt-right. Rather than a conservative intellectual force, it is a hyper-partisan attack force that wants to exterminate the left on campus by any means necessary. And this report features the “fake news” about civic engagement on college campuses.
The NAS Report imagines a vast conspiracy of “neo-Alinskyite” plotters against America: “they want to take over the entire university. After that, the New Civics advocates want to take over the private sector and the government as well.”
This would be comical if the NAS demands for censorship were not so serious. Does anyone actually imagine that civic engagement programs are a vast communist conspiracy plotting to destroy America? In reality, almost all civic engagement programs are timid, bland, apolitical, and a threat to no one. But to the NAS, merely allowing students to work with some activist groups is a crime against conservatism.
Their alt-right approach involves seeing a conspiracy everywhere. The NAS Report features “A Dictionary of Deception” to educate the public about the “camouflage vocabulary” of civic education. According to the NAS, even the most common and bland terms have a secret meaning: “’Active’ always means ‘active in progressive political campaigns.’” Or this word: “Democracy: Progressive policies achieved by arbitrary rule and/or the threat of violence.”
The NAS longs for the good old days of their imagination when college students would sit in class and passively learn about the glories of the three branches of government.
According to the NAS attack on civic engagement, “such programs are unaccountable” because they are “under the control of central administration” who can act “without worrying about faculty opinion or ‘shared governance.’” It’s heartening to have the NAS declare their devotion to shared governance, but it’s hard to believe that they really want greater faculty involvement in administrative programs. In fact, most civic engagement programs have far more faculty interaction than the typical administrative office.
The NAS Report also attacks civic engagement programs because at 62% of programs, the director makes more than $50,000 a year. When you consider that the average new assistant professor in business makes over $100,000 (as do many administrators), these are not high salaries at all.
In reality, civic engagement is a tiny part of academia, where low-paid administrators work to support students interested in volunteerism while largely avoiding anything controversial. It is used by universities for PR to encourage feel-good stories of students helping the community, and political activism is at best an accidental by-product of a free university refusing to ban students from pursuing their interests.
The NAS Report offers many truly idiotic claims, such as this: “The advocates of the New Civics want to take over the entire university, as shown below, so they wish to make sure that every dollar in higher education forwards the New Civics.” Yes, I’m sure that we’re only moments away from a dystopian nightmare where every single dollar spent in higher education will be part of a leftist plot pushing the neo-Alinskyite agenda.
Consider some of the actual examples the NAS Report uses to condemn these programs: “Ben Kirshner, the director CU-Boulder’s New Civics program CU Engage, thinks these protests ‘are a really important statement of dissent.’ But he’s only in favor of street protest so long as the protestors don’t express ‘racist or sexist ideas.’” Only a cultural relativist would complain that someone is obligated to support racism and sexism if they support political protests. Nothing about Kirshner’s comments indicates that he bans ideas that he disagrees with, only that he’s not in favor of racist and sexist ideas.
In fact, the NAS Report offers no examples of any civic engagement program engaging in repression or violating the rights of students. (And considering how often administrators do that, it suggests that there greater openness at civic engagement programs.”
The NAS promoted its new report with this headline: “Radical Activists Hijack Civics Education, Study Finds: Civics Turned Into Free Labor for Progressive Organizations”
Of course, the NAS has no objection to the much, much larger system of college internships (“useful work experience”) that provide free labor for corporate America (as well as conservative organizations, such as the NAS).
The most alarming part of the NAS Report is its demand for repression of civic education: “The NAS recommends that citizen groups around the nation look closely at what the New Civics programs in universities are doing, and that they sue their host universities for each and every political act they commit. Lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, may actually prod academic administrators to shut down New Civics programs.”
The NAS is calling for people to use the government courts to go after colleges and revoking their tax-exempt status for the thoughtcrime of someone at the college helping students work with an organization or attend an event criticizing the government. Perhaps the NAS needs some more civic education in the meaning of the First Amendment. (The NAS also needs some legal education, because private citizens don’t have legal standing to sue nonprofit groups for the crime of discussing politics.)
It’s particularly hypocritical because the NAS is a 501(c)3 organization and a few days before the election, NAS president Peter Wood wrote an essay (promoted on the NAS website) denouncing Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump because of their views on higher education. Would the NAS support frivolous lawsuits against the NAS for its political activities to abolish the NAS tax exemption? I certainly wouldn’t.
But the NAS call for repression goes further. Just in case lawsuits don’t work, the NAS calls for state and federal governments to engage in direct political repression of these programs by banning them: “State and federal legislatures have to do the hard work of defunding the New Civics. They need to freeze New Civics spending at once, and move swiftly to eliminate New Civics programs entirely.” If President Trump and other Republicans listen to these terrible ideas, education will face the worst repression since McCarthyism.
The NAS Report claims, “academic freedom does not wall off existing courses or non-academic programs from external review, de-funding, and possible elimination. Academic freedom arguments on these issues are red herrings…” No, it’s not a red herring to say that legislators banning colleges from having civic engagement programs is a dire threat to academic freedom.
The NAS argues, however, that academic freedom does not apply to civic education because “neither academics nor academic bureaucrats have special qualifications to judge the attributes of citizenship. Citizens are the best judges of one another’s civic virtues. If they are going to delegate civics education, it can only be to their elected representatives, whose qualification is the only relevant one—a democratic mandate, articulated via an election.”
One could call this theory the civics exception to academic freedom. The NAS Report is claiming that civics, unlike any other academic area, belongs to legislators who get to overrule any colleges because politicians represent the people, who are the true experts at civics.
This is absurd for many reasons: 1) there are, in fact, academic experts at civics; and 2) academic freedom is not limited to academic expertise. Legislators are not entitled to fire professors who have political opinions outside of their expertise, or to ban speakers organized by student groups, even though academic expertise is not involved.
The NAS is so desperate to ban civic education and wipe it off the face of the earth that it’s willing to sacrifice anything—academic freedom, intellectual consistency, and the pursuit of truth—in order to impose its political agenda on all educational institutions. Ironically, the NAS Report does have a lot to teach us about how far civics in America has fallen, when one right-wing group demands political censorship in its name.