Embracing the "New Civics"


Two great failings of the American professoriate are timidity and self-righteousness.

Casting about to orient myself in my new calling a decade or so ago, I found David Horowitz defining one extreme view of it and Michael Bérubé standing out on the other. Horowitz was pushing professors further into timidity and inaction (something that also increased their self-righteousness) while Bérubé was fighting back, promoting a necessary public involvement on the part of the faculty. Horowitz had been winning, but Bérubé was at the center of an invigorated resistance, one based on courage and flavored with humility.

At that time, I saw the conflict as essentially intermural, though Horowitz, I imagined, was more the townie trying to play on the college courts, the bitter wannabe who had never been able to make it to the inside. Bérubé, on the other hand, was the real thing, the professor publicly integrating his professional and private lives into a commitment to the broader population, making him (as he continues to be) the archetypal ‘public intellectual’ for our time. Their struggle, I soon discovered, had a long pedigree: Just as there are elements of Walter Lippmann in Horowitz, Bérubé is most certainly a spiritual descendant of Lippmann’s antagonist, John Dewey.

With the election of Barack Obama, I thought the tide had turned and the Bérubés had won. With the subsequent ascendancy of Donald Trump, I see that I was wrong. Horowitz is triumphant—at least, for now. In the broader culture, the struggle is one between people (mainly white) descended from a Calvinist tradition and others whose worldview is defined by the Enlightenment or by traditions outside of Europe. Our narrower concerns over education are simply a subset, I have learned, of that fight.

The greater battle goes back beyond the founding of the nation, much of it originating in the divergent worldviews of the Calvinist Scots-Irish immigrants of the 1700s and the earlier whites, whose leaders were steeped in the blossoming thought of the Enlightenment. Unwelcome in the established colonies, the Scots-Irish headed to the western frontier of the time, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, from whence they would become the advanced guard for the westward expansion of the United States.

Back to education, I see now that I may have been thinking a bit too narrowly, reflecting the ‘town/gown’ distinction so many Americans accept without question. I have since learned, watching the devolution of debate in the American public sphere, that ‘public intellectual’ itself should be something of a redundancy, the concept of its being ‘public’ embedded in ‘intellectual.’ That is, I no longer want to emphasize any distinction between the public sphere and the intellectual sphere. Having done so, we academics have actually hurt  our country.

A scholar, for my current purposes, is something different from an intellectual. The scholar focuses on subject matter and can exclude all else. An intellectual examines subject matter in the light of the broad concerns of the time. Horowitz wants academics to be scholars alone (essentially so that he can shut them out of the debates in the public sphere). Bérubé wants to encourage scholars to broaden their brief, to see that the ‘butterfly effect’ (the interconnectivity of everything) cannot be avoided and to act accordingly.

It is since the 1960s that professors have retreated into timidity, covering their failure with self-righteousness. They stay away from issues of impact and stand firm on those where they can take a moral stance without risk. The cliché, one furthered by Horowitz, is the tenured Marxist who risks nothing but shouts loud about things far afield from current public issues. It’s not quite so simple but, as with all clichés, there’s a kernel of truth to it: The professoriate trends liberal but, today, tends to be relatively inactive, cowed by the attacks of Horowitz and those like him.

We let things happen to us. Smug in our ivory chambers, we even pretended that we were changing the world while actually changing nothing.

We let our attackers set the agenda. Today, when we respond in the outside world, we are either tepid or appear to rant. Little that we do (witness Wisconsin) seems to have any impact.

A recent attack, as egregious as any (though of minor impact), has come from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) through a ‘report’ titled Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. [Two posts on it have already appeared here, one by John K. Wilson, the other by J. Michael Rifenburg.] It makes up a movement it calls “New Civics” which, it claims, “redefines civics as progressive political activism.” It concludes that this “takeover can and must be stopped—but only by the sustained attention of the American people to prevent it from happening. It will take, indeed, democratic civil engagement, by individuals, the institutions of civil society, and the government at all levels, to prevent the New Civics advocates’ exploitation of our universities.”


The real goal, of course, is to wrest even more control of higher education from the faculty, giving it to (primarily) state governments, which are, today, dominated by rightwing ideologies. It cannot be otherwise, for there is no such thing as “New Civics.” This is a made-up crisis. Such crises to not appear accidentally but to further an agenda. The only possible one, in this case, is further limitation of two of the pillars of the AAUP, academic freedom and shared governance.

In response, I submit that we should not bow our heads and scuttle back to the shelter of the like-minded (as we have done so often) but should seize this “New Civics” concept and run with it—in the other direction. We should take it to the wider public, arguing that, in the light of a population of growing ignorance concerning the basic functions of our American system, we need to make a “New Civics” part of all of our educational endeavors. We should start by enumerating just what the responsibilities of a citizen are, starting with knowledge of the system they are participating in. We should start acting on our civic responsibilities, as Bérubé does, not simply complaining about what we are losing.

We should start by educating ourselves and our current students to the responsibilities of a form of government based on the popular will, using the current chaos in government as an example, examining the reasons people vote for particular candidates and exploring the dangers, for example, of such things as ‘creative disruption’ in a large but fragile system. We should teach the fundamentals of research in such a way that students begin to see for themselves how the American population continues to be fooled by organizations like the NAS and others much more pernicious—like Horowitz and Steve Bannon.

We should show pride in the quest for knowledge as an element of American culture and not simply the purview of the scholar and pride in the judgment we develop, judgment allowing us to distinguish between real and useful knowledge and what we may simply want to believe. Pride in our activities within the broader community.

If NAS wants to battle the “New Civics,” let’s give them something to battle. Let’s stop being timid and stop justifying ourselves through futile fist-shaking.

If we do, we will win, and will win for the country. If we don’t, if we simply stand aside or justify ourselves as simply doing what scholars do, we will lose, and lose for the country.

Let’s move; let’s take our battles outside of our sanctuaries.

33 thoughts on “Embracing the "New Civics"

  1. If one reads the studies, the faculty in US universities, particularly the social sciences and humanities are overwhelmingly leaning to the left of center. That % has increased recently. NAS sits squarely on the conservative side and is concerned with that marginalization. Similarly, the recently formed Heterodox Academy HxA is concerned about that marginalization, first amongst the faculty ( should universities seek “truth” or “social justice”. HxA is closely aligned, philosophically, with FIRE.

    While the left seems comfortable with their “numbers” and the right feels marginalized, both intellectually, all seem concerned about the erosion, not of intellectual freedom but their sinecure within what has, ’till recently seemed protected by tenure, now more of an economic than intellectual challenge. The decrease in scholarly tenure, the rise of none tenure, full time, teaching faculty and the lowly adjuncts.

    What can bring these two sides together as both “hunker down”. As Aaron’s essay points out, both sides prefer to voice their concerns via intellectual arguments, safe zones, since these largely are ignored by the external forces at the gates of the Ivory Tower, or they create “projects” and programs in the communities. But in both cases, the challenge to the university, other than intellectually, has remained dormant.

    On the other hand, AAUP has not been able to bridge that gap either on individual campuses or across institutions. Somewhere there is extreme cognitive dissonance that needs resolution

  2. Dear Professor Barlow,

    As I have said in a separate response to Professor Rifenburg, the National Association of Scholars, and I, stand by our conclusion in Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, that the New Civics suffers from gross politicization, and should be removed from the universities.

    I want to emphasize a point that your description of Making Citizens overlooks. Much of the New Civics is really a “co-curricular” exercise. That means that it is run by bureaucrats, who use it to drain authority from the faculty. We want to remove the New Civics not least so as to restore substantial power to the faculty within the university.

    Making Citizens also demonstrates that, contra your characterization of the professoriate as timid, far too much of the professoriate has been engaged in political warfare for some generations now. Your call to battle, alas, reinforces that general tendency. I doubt that such a campaign will have beneficial results for the republic. Doubling down on academic warfare, and doubling down on the New Civics–at best you might create a wilderness and call it peace. The NAS respectfully suggests that professors can best win the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens by teaching their chosen subjects with professional competence–and without political advocacy.

    With all best wishes,
    David Randall
    Director of Communications
    National Association of Scholars

    • But, David Randall, you ignore the central point about your report: You made up the “New Civics.” It does not exist outside of your report. You are creating an enemy, and the question is, “Why?”

  3. Dear Professor Barlow,

    I confess I don’t understand your contention. The New Civics refers to a complex that goes by names that include service-learning, civic engagement, Public Achievement, global civics, and action civics. These programs exist, by the thousands, across the country, and the movement as a whole is identified, with a more positive judgment as to what it does, in the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future’s *A Crucible Moment* (https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/crucible/Crucible_508F.pdf) and Bringing Theory to Practice’s *The Civic Series* (http://www.bttop.org/resources/publications). The NAS discovered the existence of the New Civics, and the extent of its organizational ramifications, from the self-description of its practitioners.

    Moreover, “The New Civics” as a collective name for this complex has been used by institutions including the Spencer Foundation [http://www.spencer.org/the-new-civics], the Education Commission of the States [http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/06/96/10696.pdf], and the Mikva Challenge [http://www.mikvachallenge.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/New-Civics-Practitioners-Conference-Overview4.pdf]. We did not invent the term.

    Neither did we invent the conflation of the New Civics with the substantive left-political goals normally denominated by the shorthand “social justice.” The overlap between “social justice” goals and the New Civics is everywhere–with “service-learning” [http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mjcsl/3239521.0017.108/–service-learning-and-social-justice-engaging-students?view=image], civic engagement [http://bcec.osu.edu/about-us/], global civics [http://welovechange.org/en/global-civics-modules/130-module-7-conflict-resolution.html], Public Achievement [http://www.colorado.edu/publicachievement/2016/06/27/invs-4999-teaching-social-justice], civic action [https://medium.com/@szemelman/social-justice-issues-in-student-civic-action-projects-ffb5c08727f9#.msf27mumf], and action civics [http://www.c3teachers.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Levinson.pdf]. This conflation of the New Civics with progressive political goals is the proud boast of its practitioners.

    Just because you had not previously heard of it doesn’t mean NAS invented it. It was there and called “new civics” by some of its enthusiasts long before NAS started writing about it. You are just mistaken on that point.

    We do believe the New Civics should be removed from higher education. Why? Because it is grossly politicized, because it is pedagogically useless or outright harmful, and because it is indeed there.

    Respectfully yours,
    David Randall

    • You mean that the “New Civics” doesn’t reflect your own political stance, don’t you?

      The name is not one that has been used by those you say are involved in this “New Civics.” You adopted the name for your own political reasons and you cherry-pick programs in your report, purposefully (for your own political ends) portraying them in the worst possible light.

      What you have presented is no honest or objective report but is a partisan attack on something you have created (even if you weren’t the first to use the term) so that you can continue your own agenda for wresting control of higher education from current faculty and even administrators.

      That may be blunt, but I have read your report. I see it for what it is.

      • Dear Professor Barlow,

        I am pleased you read the report, though I am puzzled by what you think you saw. If the report reflects “cherry picking,” the cherry orchard must have been enormous. We filled more than 500 pages (including posted appendices with examples from just four universities). That’s a lot of cherries. The examples seem to make you uncomfortable and therefore in a hurry to find a reason to set the report aside as merely an exercise in confirming my own or my colleagues’ biases. If you find the examples are somewhat alarming, you might at least consider the possibility that they represent how things actually are.

        Respectfully yours,
        David Randall

        • I wish I hadn’t read the report. There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. I’ve been in no hurry to condemn it (I have had it for some time, and read it weeks ago) but am a little annoyed to have wasted my time on something so obviously biased and meant for a purpose you only halfheartedly try to keep hidden.

          In your conclusion, you admit that you have an extremely political purpose in writing and promoting the report. Why don’t you also admit that you are a partisan operative? As is NAS. Why do you lash out at faculty for being liberal without clarifying that you are doing so simply because you are acting from a different political base? You aren’t trying to improve education but are simply trying to make it conform to your own view of the world.

    • “The electorate has remained fairly stable.” Really? During that same period, the meanings of “conservative” and “liberal” have changed. It seems to me that the middle has shifted right, as has the right itself. As, in fact, has the left. What you claim as “stable” is simply continued adherence to a word, not a stable ideology.

      • If your vantage point is on the extreme left end of the spectrum, *any* shift in political ideology short of that extreme will fall short of purity and therefore appear rightward. The same is probably true of the opposite end as well. But musings of those type miss the point of the original piece of data.

        Whether the words shift one way or another, the evidence of a pattern is actually in the comparison of the two groups – the faculty and the population at large. Since your posited shift in language pertains to both groups in each given year of the survey , the fact that the leftward shift of the faculty still vastly outpaces the population at large allows us to conclude that faculty have undergone a far more pronounced politicization in one specific direction.

        • Thanks again, Phil, though now you’re making no sense at all.

          One reason I don’t really respond to your points is that they are based on assumptions you never support. You make up facts, as here, and it is impossible to discuss anything with one whose command is only of “alternative facts.”

      • It’s actually a fundamental research concept that they usually impart in stats 101, Aaron. If you’re measuring the same variable over a fixed period of time across two different groups and one of those groups drastically diverges from a stable trend observed in the other, that’s often a sign that the divergent group is undergoing some sort of a change. It just so happens that the change observed with faculty in the HERI survey contradicts your completely unsubstantiated assertions above that faculty are somehow retreating from political engagement.


        Thanks for illustrating my point below though about humanities profs often often being poorly equipped to do even basic social science. And yes – that often creates situations where English PhDs end up incompetently peddling “alternative facts” to what the empirical data actually say.

  4. Also consistent with the trend documented at the link above, we’ve seen extensive anecdotal evidence of faculty in the humanities venturing far outside of their intellectual competencies to “teach” and produce “research” on overtly political and ideological topics.

    In some areas of the academy, it is not an exaggeration to say that more English professors appear to be interested in writing about social science topics in which they have no demonstrated competencies or advanced training (especially economics & political science) than writing about Shakespeare, Joyce, Dickens, or Morrison. A similar pattern of politicization is evident in the paper topics at almost every major conference in the humanities. Whether one agrees with it or not, it is a pattern that appears to run directly counter to the claims made in the original post.

      • I have no interest in Horowitz’s project, whatever it may be.

        I am interested in whether the evidence backs your claim that academics are in retreat from political pursuits.

        In this case it doesn’t.

        I’m also concerned when academics in the humanities who have no demonstrated competence or training in the social sciences pretend to write about deeply social scientific topics under the guise that they are “intellectuals.”

        In this case, they are’t anything of the sort.

  5. I make no claims about myself. But it isn’t difficult to see why a person whose only academic training is in, say, English should probably avoid using his/her academic position to offer uninformed commentary about complex research questions in economics, political science, statistics, or climatology.

      • Except that some research skills actually *are* discipline specific…unless you’re telling me that English professors also regularly run regression models, do time series forecasts, statistically sample their research questions, and play around in econometric software.

        Furthermore, researchers within a discipline are usually more attuned to the latest work in their research areas, which makes them less prone to peddling erroneous and antiquated claims. That’s why you don’t see the labor theory of value being used in many economics journals – it was debunked ~140ish years ago. English journals on the other hand…

  6. It’s a straightforward question. Is a person with academic training in the humanities qualified to offer “expert” commentary on complex social science matters? Or vice versa?

    If so, I’d expect at least some validation of his/her social science competencies. If not, then it’s veering awfully close to the peddling of personal political opinions – much of it without the benefit of any evidence that an actual scholar of the topic being analyzed would view as even minimally satisfactory.

    • No, it is not straightforward; you answer (for yourself) your own question as you ask it, so certainly won’t listen to anything that may contradict you–so why should I bother to respond? Your mind is so closed, as you have demonstrated so often, that you simply retreat into red herrings like this, an ad hominem attack of no substance.

      Would you deny longshoreman Eric Hoffer the ability to write on true believers? Or Donald Trump, your own candidate (I am sure), the competency to be president? I could go on, but this long ago got silly.

      • Curious. In the same comment where you abuse the term “ad hominem” to erroneously characterize a salient criticism of the empirically contradicted claims you made in your original post, you then immediately turn around and engage in an actual ad hominem by falsely labeling me and then attacking me as Trump voter when I am not.

        I wish I could say it was not a pattern with you, but your past behavior shows otherwise.

  7. While the academics quarrel across the commons of the Ivory Tower, the Huns, not qualified in any disciplines are at the gates. A paradigmatic example is Governor Scott Walker as one destroying tenure at one of the premier public universities, Uof W, Madison. That being followed by others not just on institutional change but also challenging the very expertise that academics fly on their banners from the towers.

    So, to ask the question of whether faculty should be concerned about issues of civic engagement and social justice seems moot, regardless of the balance between political left and right. Since the 18th century, one of the principle goals of a university is to prepare students to participate in civic life. The rise in the idea of “competency” is becoming critical, PreK-gray. As with the sciences, the social sciences should test such competencies by practice. That means going outside of the Ivory Tower and testing rhetoric against reality.

    Civics is study of the past. But the past is not the future where these students are going at graduation. The world is littered with theory, often promulgated by academics, gone awry. Democracy lets those with no qualifications to make decisions that have been successful and have left the dead to be buried from such decisions. Unlike a failed chemistry experiment where the reagents can be buried, society can not bury the past and redo the experiment.

    The psychologist, turned economist, Kahneman, won the Nobel prize in economics which says that academics can walk across disciplinary lines. Disciplines are arbitrary “boxes”, previously tenured sinecures, and often maintained through “requirements” of students, an example of what economists might term “rent seeking”. often causing, what Kahneman causes “theory induced blindness”.

    Times are changing. The university can not be maintained like some “historic village”, not while the very idea with a 1500 year history is being challenged.

  8. Buried in David Randall’s post, above:

    I want to emphasize a point that your description of Making Citizens overlooks. Much of the New Civics is really a “co-curricular” exercise. That means that it is run by bureaucrats, who use it to drain authority from the faculty. We want to remove the New Civics not least so as to restore substantial power to the faculty within the university.

    There are two distinct issues here: the power of the faculty and the academic program, itself. Most comments and links therein related to the latter, the subject matter and its representation within the context of the educational program and those who are adjudicating how such is presented.

    The discussion here avoids the point made about the academic bureaucracy which Randall seems to believe has disempowered the faculty by the faculty emphasizing what he characterized as co-created exercises which allows the bureaucrats to usurp the faculty’s power in the institution. This shift in power, I would sense, is the principle interest of AAUP regardless of whether there was a program of New Civics or Left-handed Monkey Wrenches.

    Since the founding of the original university 1500 years ago and its re-embodiment in the late 18th century, that relationship between the bureaucracy and the faculty has never been addressed. It is more important today. To that end, both NAS and AAUP should be on the same page and Randall’s positioning of the New Civics becomes a misdirection from this core, critical issue.

    That said, the bureaucracy across education, PreK->gray is responding to a shift where student competencies become the central theme. That includes student (and the public’s) empowerment to determine what they wish to learn and demonstrate. This means that there are pressures beyond the institutions across the spectrum to be responsive to those needs/demands.

    Therein is where the supposed wall between the faculty and the bureaucracy is breeched. The internecine wars so eloquently argued here become a diversion from the core issue which Randall has put forth and cited above. This is particularly true for publicly funded educational institutions across the age spectrum.


    As an aside, this is one of the issues regarding the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos to head the US Department of Education and a long time advocate for charter schools and public funds for private institutions, currently “charter schools”.

    Looking broadly, the question is whether the faculty have ever had the power that Radall suggests is being lost by the misdirected efforts by faculty in promoting “New Civics”. It also ignores the shift that occurred in the 60’s with the civil rights and antiwar movements on university campuses which has influenced all sides and can’t be stuffed back in the box.

      • Yes, sir…and I worked at a “famous” college wherein the new president was neither an educator nor was he a specialist in the industry we trained young people for. Once he got his feet on the ground, he proceeded to inundate the entire place with middle management types – all basically less successful (read:wealthy) versions of him self. This was combined with a concerted effort to rid the “community” of the “old school” faculty in any way possible, including illegal methods. Suddenly, we had become a corporation, and decisions were made in a moral vacuum and the cost of defending and paying lawsuits was merely passed on to the students. A sad state of affairs indeed! If you still have your job, watch your back!

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